Week 3 Response: Physiognomy

Florence Nightingale v. Bridget McBruiser
1866—Drawing claiming British as genetically superior to Irish

Physiognomy is defined as “the art of determining character or personal characteristics from the form or features of the body, especially of the face” (Dictionary.com). More simply put, it’s basically judging what someone’s personality is like just by looking at them. Many of us are guilty of this on some level, but how did it develop into a science (or pseudoscience) and why is it relevant today?

The History of Physiognomy

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” So we’ve been told, but how long have people been doing just the opposite? Seems like just about forever. In 500 BC, the famous mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras accepted students into his school based on how they looked. In 300 BC, “Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage” (Sarah Waldorf, Getty).

There are some obvious evolutionary reasons for why we associate certain physical appearances with certain character traits—for example, baby-faced people evoke parental instincts. Biological instinct drives humans to seek a healthy mate, and before science and medicine, beauty was the most obvious signifier of health. Therefore, we came to associate beauty with other positive traits as well.

Illustration of Man v. Owl
An illustration in De humana physiognomia (1586)

However, physiognomy as a science didn’t develop until the late 1500s. The Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta is “considered the father of physiognomy” (Waldorf). His ideas were spread throughout Europe in his book De humana physiognomia, in which he compared people to animals and suggested that if a person looks like a certain animal, they are also likely to act like that animal.

Snobbish Heads Illustration
An illustration of snobs—note that they all have turned-up noses.

In the late 1700s, Johann Caspar Lavater would further spread the ideas of physiognomy with his book Essays on Physiognomy, which identified “‘problematic’ profiles and facial structures”. For example, “a person with a nose bending slightly upwards was read as having a contemptuous, superior attitude”, hence the term “stuck-up” (Waldorf). Fat and jolly is another physiognomic stereotype (think of Santa Claus), as is “thick-headed” or “thick-skulled” idiots.

Physiognomy and Eugenics

A Hitler Youth
An example of a Hitler Youth.

As we learned in lecture, eugenics  (selective sterilization) was seen as a normal practice up until the Holocaust, which prompted a critical examination of the extreme consequences of physiognomy. Once physiognomy established the standards of beauty and thus good character, these standards were used to determine who should have the right to breed. Supporters of eugenics justified their views by claiming that an ideal future could only be accomplished without “lesser” people. These supporters were primarily dominant white males, and so Asians and Africans became the most obvious examples of lesser people. Physiognomy is not necessarily racist, but its applications often are.

Physiognomy Today

At its core, physiognomy implies that beautiful people are moral, while ugly people are not. These implications are still present in our culture today. Why are cartoon villains often depicted as unattractive? The answer may lie in physiognomy.

Yzma Mr. Burns https://unshavedmouse.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/jafar.jpg?w=200&h=133
From left to right: Yzma, Mr. Burns, Jafar. What facial features do they share?

John Tonkins is a contemporary artist exploring the ideas of physiognomy and eugenics in Meniscus, a series of web-based interactive pieces (you can participate here). One of the pieces, Elastic Masculinities, prompts the user to adjust an image of a man to fit a certain characteristic. His work “seeks to comment on culturally defined norms about appearance and behavior and their ultimate manifestation in eugenics and genetic engineering”(Wilson 574).

Elastic Masculinities example
What does a sensual body look like?

Perhaps the major conceit of both physiognomists and eugenicists was that the ideal which they promoted was basically themselves: white, male and privileged. —John Tonkins

Although today we might think of Giambattista’s animal comparisons as silly, and of the Nazis as outrageous racists, the truth is, many of us still label people with one look at them. A highly pertinent example today—black youths are often stopped on the streets of New York for looking “suspicious”. Even worse, they are sometimes shot on the spot for this (i.e. Jordan Baker, Trayvon Martin).

Perhaps one day we can live in a world free from the snap judgments of others. Until then, remember: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

-Kathy Huynh


One thought on “Week 3 Response: Physiognomy

  1. This is an extensive overview of a very complex topic. Would love to see the problems extended here if you have time or in your paper/project–ideas about beauty, expression, normalcy, legibility, and most importantly the connection between visibility and truth. Keep it going!


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