Kat Kissick has preferred bearded men for as long as she can remember. “It’s a personality indicator that maybe this man likes to have fun, maybe they’re creative, maybe they’re just trying to express their individuality,” says Kissick, 40, who lives in St. Louis.
So when she saw a Facebook post a few weeks ago about Bristlr, a dating website and app for men with beards and the people attracted to those men, she signed up without hesitation. “I want to meet some interesting people. I want to have some good conversation,” she says. “And if I end up making out with someone with a beard, that’s OK too.”
Kissick is far from alone in her predilection for scruffy gentlemen; she’s one of 60,000 people around the world, from Iceland to Iraq, who have signed up for Bristlr since its launch last October. At Bristlr’s helm is John Kershaw, a bearded, 28-year-old software developer who lives in Manchester, England. One day last fall, Kershaw was thinking about how he could contribute to the growing “on-demand” economy of Uber, Airbnb and online dating.
“I was stroking my beard and thinking there’s got to be something that I can come up with,” he says. The answer, he realized, was right under his nose.
The tagline came first: “Connecting those with beards to those who want to stroke beards.” Kershaw says he was mostly joking when he posted a signup page on Facebook for the service, then yet to be developed. To his surprise, 70 people showed interest within a week. “I felt like my bluff had been called,” he says, and so he got busy launching a website and app. That initial tagline stuck.
Bloggers helped spread the word, and membership has doubled every month, he says. Most users come from the United States and United Kingdom; membership is also strong in Brazil, France, Canada and the Netherlands. Around 4,000 people are active on the service each day, 47 percent of whom register as having beards. Kershaw says he gets some money from merchandise and donations, but that barely covers the cost of his morning coffee.
The site and app are simple; as with Tinder and other popular online-dating services, users “heart” other users, and those who match can interact. Bristlr has some innovations that mainstream services don’t, such as a gender-neutral design (users select whether they want potential matches with or without beards, but not male or female). The site also notes—or, publicly shames—users who send the exact same message to multiple people. Users can also search for people by words in their profiles and set their geographic range for matches to as wide as “global.”
Indeed, many users tell Newsweek they’ve been chatting up people far from home. “For two weeks now I’ve been getting nonstop messages from all over the world,” says Steve Lax, 31, a bearded user in Florida. He says he’s been using Google Translate to exchange messages with a woman in Brazil. He hasn’t gone on any Bristlr dates yet but has plans for a few meet-ups.
A Bristlr user named Lisa says she went on a bowling date in Washington, D.C. It went well, she says, but the pair didn’t click. Another user, Liz in Brooklyn, New York, met a guy for beers and burgers, and says she’s even run into two ex-boyfriends on the service.
Rob Ruminski, 37, who runs a video production company in Melbourne, Australia, says that within seconds of his first Bristlr date, the woman ran her hands through his beard. “Women every day deal with aspects of their appearance being highlighted or fetishized, but to have the shoe on the other foot is educational,” he says.
As articles have pointed out, Bristlr’s popularity coincides with that of the lumbersexual, a term that a blogger for Gear Junkie has said he coined last November. The blogger described the lumbersexual as “bar-hopping, but he looks like he could fell a Norway Pine…. His backpack carries a MacBook Air, but looks like it should carry a lumberjack’s axe.” Cosmopolitan, People, Time and others picked up on the portmanteau, which even made its way overseas.
“The rise of the lumbersexual is definitely a global phenomenon,” Kershaw says. Indeed, the U.K.’s Daily Mail and Telegraph jumped on the trend. Ruminski, the Bristlr user, says the trend is “alive and well in Melbourne…. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m in Australia or I’m in Portland.”
Admiration for bearded men isn’t new, however. “It’s an ongoing, off-and-on-again love affair that we’ve been having with the beard since antiquity,” says Mark Johnston, an associate professor at the University of Windsor and author of Beard Fetish in Early Modern England. Various cultures have embraced beards at different times, such as during the Elizabethan era, when Johnston says beards may have served as “a marker of masculinity” during a period when “the nation was somewhat effeminized” under a female ruler.
Dr. Allan Peterkin, a Toronto-based psychiatrist and author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair, says society has likely reached peak beard. “Men are freer now to make grooming decisions and keep their jobs than at any time in history,” he says.
Though wartime cultural values and Army regulations kept American men clean-shaven during the first half of the 20th century, Peterkin says, the decades since have each had unique facial-hair styles, especially within countercultures. Now, however, beards have moved into the mainstream and are for the first time in more than a century equated with style and grooming, appearing in the pages of fashion magazines. “From the mid-’90s there’s been no turning back,” Peterkin says.
Then there are those who take beard admiration to a whole other level. Pogonophilia means sexual arousal from touching a beard or having a beard touched. Some in academia have said that research on the subject is lacking, but at least one study shows that women perceive men with full beards as healthier and as having greater parenting ability.
Kershaw isn’t the only one carving out Internet space for pogonophiles. A dating website called Beardiful.com launched in June 2011 as a site “for guys with beards, who are looking for prospective dates that are into the scruff.” And in December 2014, Lumbermatch.com went live as “a community and dating site for beard growers and those who love them.” Its other tagline: “Where beardies meet beauties.”
Lumbermatch creator Kevin Gillem, a married, 33-year-old air traffic controller who lives in California, says his site evolved from a Twitter account he made last fall, @TruLumbersexual. On Twitter, he posted photos of men with impressive beards and soon had women contacting him, asking where they could find such men. He decided to become a part-time matchmaker.
Most of Lumbermatch’s 4,000 users are women, Gillem says, and in their early to mid-20s. An app for iOS and Android is forthcoming. Gillem adds that he learned of Bristlr only after launching his own site.
Don’t expect the competition between Bristlr and Lumbermatch to get hairy. “There’s plenty of room for all these services,” Kershaw says. “We’re clearly all correct in our love for beards.”