In her column, Corpus, Jordan Kisner examines the stories our bodies tell.
For a while last year, back when such things were possible, I was clocking chins on the subway. Weak chin. Strong chin. Strong chin. In between. This started when an orthodontist explained to me how you can pull a person’s whole mouth back and rewrite their profile. She recommends the procedure for people who have a fulsome, protruding mouth, horse teeth if you want to be unkind about it, which is a consequence of large teeth in a small mouth. With nowhere for all your big, beautiful teeth to fit along your jaw, they fan out, reaching for daylight.
The orthodontist fixes this by pulling four teeth, one each from the left and right side of both the upper and lower jaws, usually the first molar right behind the canines. Then, she uses braces and head gear to pull your remaining front eight teeth back into the holes. The whole mouth backs up, retracts, makes itself scarce. She showed me pictures. Mostly, the people looked better before, with their sweet excessive mouths, but one teenage girl was a stunner after. Her before picture shows a reasonably pretty girl with nice eyes and teeth so full that her lips are turning inside out a little, showing their slick undersides. Her after picture shows a teenager suddenly made exceptional. I was startled, looking at it. The first picture was of a girl who would not grow up to be remarkably ugly, and the second was of a girl who would grow up to be remarkably beautiful. I eyed this orthodontist with new respect and wariness.
I had made this appointment because my bite was bothering me—one tooth was knocking against another uncomfortably—but when I asked whether my discomfort had anything to do with an overbite, the orthodontist was more than happy to show me her slideshow of remade faces. “Yours is not an overbite,” she said, and explained that my teeth were simply mismatched with the rest of my skeleton. It was as if the teeth of some larger human had been dropped into my me-sized bone structure.
“We could correct this,” she said.
It had been some time since I fantasized about having a different face, but the outline of my profile was my first serious dissatisfaction with my appearance. When I was thirteen I accidentally glimpsed myself perfectly from the side by swinging the medicine cabinet open and noticing the secondary refraction in the bathroom mirror. I was horrified at my convexness, which I’d never quite seen fully before. My mouth protruded and my chin fell slightly away underneath it. My nose was an entirely different nose than the one I thought I had. It was sculptural. It had a bump in it. It didn’t look like any other nose in my family; not like my mother or father, not like my grandparents or my many cousins. Where did this statement nose come from? I looked like the wrong half of a moon.
For a brief time, when answering the depressing question (if you were going to get plastic surgery, what would it be?) Southern California girls used to ask each other in high school, I would say that I wanted my nose bump eradicated and a stronger chin. What I was responding to at the time was a dawning awareness, at thirteen, that appearance, and particularly faces, are all tied up with our fortunes in this life. I wish that were not true. People tell children it should not be true, and ideally everyone makes their personal efforts to render it untrue, but ask any thirteen-year-old and she will tell you: the face matters. It’s a kind of destiny, which is ironic because for the most part it’s just a patchwork of the past, of all the faces that came before us.
“You have a Roman nose,” more than one perfect stranger has said to me, more or less without preamble. Something to comment on. Strangers like to guess “where I come from,” and my nose, which I can’t trace to any ancestor, seems especially to indicate something about my ancestry to people, though it never signals with any consistency. The Roman nose, if we want to call it that, is a particular trigger for people’s physiognomic, essentialist tendencies. It has, over time, been called a Roman nose, an aquiline nose (from the Latin word for eagle-like, as in beaky), a royal nose, a hook nose. In Hindu mythology, it was a sign of heroism and nobility; in ancient Egypt, royalty; in the post-Enlightenment West it was “superior and powerful”; in Nazi Germany this nose was understood to be a “tell” for Jewish ancestry, though the physiognomists of the Victorian Era insisted it was a mark of Aryanness; in America, it became inextricable from white settlers’ understanding of Native American features, a “noble warrior” staple; in late-twentieth-century Hollywood it became emblematic of the “untrustworthy Arab.” In fact, this nose is all over the world and always has been. In 1943, at the height of its anti-Semitic, racialist nasal pseudoscience, Germany issued a postage stamp of a Nazi German official, Reynhard Heydrich, in profile. He had the nose, too.
Physiognomy, which dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, codified what seems like a reflexive neurological error: associating peoples’ outward appearance with their inner being. “For there are mystically in our faces certain Characters that carry in them the motto of our Souls, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici. Beauty without signifies beauty within, and so on, but also much more specific alignments: a nineteenth-century Italian doctor who suggested that criminality was inherited and could be identified by “hawk-like noses,” or the supposition that a prominent brow and receding hairline indicated melancholy, or that certain eyes bespeak someone who “seizes everything with facility but investigates nothing profoundly.” Physiognomists claimed the power to predict someone’s future by looking at their bone structure; they professed to read faces like mystics read palms.
There is a version of this that sounds, possibly, like innocent fun. Like magazine horoscopes or the kinds of personality tests you download from the internet. Curious, I ran my own face through an online physiognomy index, which told me that my mouth (protruding, as confirmed by the orthodontist) indicates that I am “vigorous, ambitious, emulative, jealous and impulsive,” seldom deliberate, prone to an “unstable life” as well as “entanglements with the opposite sex.” My short chin predicts my loneliness in old age, my tendencies toward extremity and tactlessness; my nose bump indicates that I should “beware of divorce or emotional problems at the age of 44 or 45.” Some of this is right, though it’s too soon to tell about my midforties.
Later in the Religio Medici, Browne suggests that there are “Provincial Faces, National Lips and Noses.” This is what people seem to be after when they look at my profile and guess: Iranian, Italian, German, Spanish, Argentinian, Jewish. But this element of physiognomy, its dangerous conflation of the face as a map of inner virtue and the face as a map of racial ancestry, made it, increasingly, a violent practice. Physiognomy offered a veneer of objectivity and rationalism to racism and genocide, particularly in this country, where it was used as “evidence” that African Americans were an inferior race. In the latter half of the twentieth century, it was more or less agreed by all to be a disgraced, dead practice. But after several decades, physiognomy has reappeared with the advent of facial recognition technology.
A few years ago, Chinese researchers declared that they’d written an algorithm that could identify a criminal face type based on “lip curvature, eye inner corner distance, and the so-called nose-mouth angle.” According to the New York Times, a company named HireVue markets technology that screens videos of job applicants and predicts their personalities, and an Israeli start-up called Faception “uses machine learning to score facial images using personality types like ‘academic researcher,’ ‘brand promoter,’ ‘terrorist’ and ‘pedophile.’ ” (What facial images predict a “brand promoter,” one wonders?) Same problem; new dystopia. This is “junk science,” as experts point out, just as it was junk science a hundred years ago—not a science at all, just an ugly human habit: looking at a face and turning it into a divination tool for your own ends; believing there are kinds of faces that correspond to kinds of people.
I didn’t notice this until she pointed it out, but all the pictures the orthodontist showed me were of either Asian or Black patients. “What you have,” she said, gesturing at my face. “Almost never in white people. I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t tell what she was apologizing for—whether she was sorry for the implied racism of the blanket statement, or sorry for noting that my bone structure is a “tell” courtesy of my nonwhite ancestors (did she think this would offend me?), or sorry for having to mention race at all. Flummoxed, I just looked at her. Anyway, I now like my mouth and don’t want it to get smaller—and I like my nose. The truth is that I would have a convex profile no matter what. If you moved my mouth back, my whole face would look like a cantilever.
Still, I asked to see more pictures, and to see both the shots from the front and the ones in profile. I was fascinated by the before-and-afters because they were so dramatic, less like looking at two versions of the same person than like looking at cousins with a resemblance. It’s morbidly fascinating to know that you can change physical architecture so drastically, move the planes of our faces around like walls in a fixer-upper. If we now live in an age when computers purport to tell by our faces who we are, we also live in an age where we can remake our faces to lie to the computers.
For a time I thought of this thing the orthodontist was proposing as somehow less vain than elective plastic surgery, more medical. Pulling teeth isn’t really surgery, after all, and braces aren’t really in the same category of intervention as fillers or tucks, though it now occurs to me that their effect is more permanent. The change I saw between the before-and-after photos seemed less about enhancing beauty than manufacturing a structural difference between old face, new face. But why pursue a new face? What were these slideshow people after? What had I been after, back when I fantasized about a bump-less nose? The reversion to conventional proportion, perhaps, or neutrality, if not beauty? Whose neutral? Which beauty?
In an essay for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino documented the rise of a “single, cyborgian face” among women, made popular by social media and made possible by a new range of minimal-intervention cosmetic surgical procedures: fillers, injections, and so on. The face is hyperfemme, with huge eyes, full lips, and a slim, rounded jaw, “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic,” signaling a “rootless exoticism.” It is a face with no specificity, no history.
The aspiration to trade one’s features for those of a single, photogenic face shared by many takes to an extreme a longstanding human curiosity: to edit one’s face as an attempt to erase, salvage, or inscribe—to manage one’s own unmanageable, inherited, irreversible narrative. We cannot know the precise ways in which our faces become our destinies, only the histories they bring with them. Any intervention represents a blind casting forward: Stave off that midforties divorce! Become the stunner you almost are! Get rid of your dreaded uncle’s cleft chin and so avoid becoming your dreaded uncle!
This isn’t to dismiss blind, hopeful casting forward. People change their faces for all kinds of reasons, some of them fiercely important or medically necessary or even radically political. Most people have vanishingly little control over how the world will meet us—we do what we can to feel safe and right and like authors of ourselves. I am just transfixed, I suppose, by the way that faces and bodies stubbornly remain sites of intimate divination—of authorship and of origin, of all the faces that made yours, of all the beauty and error that made your beauty and error. I’ve never treasured a compliment more than when my mother said to me offhandedly that my feet are the same as her father’s, small with peculiarly square toes. I was thrilled. He died when I was three; I didn’t think I had anything of his.
What would it be like to wake up one morning, as I imagine these young people in the orthodontist’s slideshow did, untethered from the face with which you entered the world, untethered from your brother’s forehead or your mother’s teeth? I imagine them looking in the mirror at their own faces made new, like the other side of the moon.
Jordan Kisner’s writing has appeared in n+1, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, the Guardian, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker, among other publications. Her debut essay collection, Thin Places, was published this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.