‘Christopher Reeve and I have narrower heads, like deer’
VICTORIA (CUP) — Are my brown eyes set too widely across my face? Are my eyebrows, thick and black, too bushy? Is my nose too big, too crooked?
These questions jostle inside my skull as I sit across from Kelly Ann Andrews one chill January morning. To my left, a bay window overlooks the water from her spacious home, a large blue house surrounded by palm trees that jut from the landscaped lawn.
Andrews is a corporate consultant in Victoria, B.C. who specializes in “reading” people’s faces to reveal their inner temperament. Armed with my notepad and recording equipment, I wait for her to explain what my face means.
Andrews is a thinly built woman who looks younger than she is”?45″?with steel-blue eyes and short, wiry dark hair. She makes tea and we talk. Her words are well-rehearsed”?she appeared on both Good Morning America and The Larry King Show during the mid-80s”?and her voice rings with an enthusiasm that could be mistaken for religious fervor. She is quick to reaffirm anything I say.
The basis of Andrews’ analysis is physiognomy, or the belief that our faces reveal our inner temperament. The idea is at least as old as ancient Greece”?Aristotle hired generals for Alexander the Great’s army by picking men who looked like hawks, with beak-like noses.
I am skeptical. Andrews’ version of history is highly selective”?from antiquity she leaps to the 1920s when the judge Edward Vincent Jones applied the same ideas to identifying criminals. His conviction rate was unsurpassed, I am told.
What she leaves out falls between the mid-eighteenth century and the Victorian period, when physiognomy and its close relative, phrenology”?the study of how bumps on the head reveal our temperament”?were blossoming in popularity across Western Europe. Both fields of study were eventually abandoned by the scientific community, and to this day are considered by most to be discredited pseudoscience.
But Andrews has reclaimed physiognomy, synthesizing it with a warm and fuzzy mixture of career coaching, motivational thought, pop psychology and new-age holism. It seems to be a benign and harmless mixture. More than anything, I am curious. I want to know what she thinks of my face.
She unfolds a binder and shows me photographs of two women. One is beautiful, with smooth skin bathed under bright lighting. She is smiling broadly. The other wears a deep frown, with furrowed brows and creases across her forehead. She is cast in shadow, with her hair falling across her face. Andrews asks which one I’d rather work with.
“I’d pick the happy-looking one, versus the one with the big frown on her face,” I reply.
“Exactly! Yeah, exactly,” she enthuses. “And so this person here is totally in line with her innate disposition. She’s expressing her qualities in a very constructive, loving way, and that’s what you’re actually witnessing.” She points to the frowning woman. “But this one is sort of out of alignment with herself. She’s running into her traits, instead of expressing them as attributes, and so she’s highly critical, pessimistic, detail-concerned, exacting, methodical and critical.”
“You’re sure she’s not just having a bad day?” She’s not, I am assured. Even if it was a momentary grimace, this “physically imprints into the face” over time, like a papier-mÃ¢ché mask. “It stays at that level,” says Andrews. “It’s the continuum of the mood that imprints itself in the physiology of the face.”
“So you’d be someone who agrees that, by age 50, everyone has the face that they deserve?” I ask.
“They design their face by that point,” she replies.
Next, Andrews pulls a sheaf of paper from a folder and lays it on the table. They list various traits, beginning with Innate Self-Confidence, Courage and Thoroughness. These are followed by a numbered scale, coloured pink on one end and blue on the other.
She explains that these traits correspond to different areas of the face. “The face is very logically proportioned,” she says. For instance, someone with a tall forehead innately has intellectual predilections”?hence the egghead stereotype. “Wherever the mass of tissue is, that’s the part of the personality that will be dominant.”
When I ask about my face, Andrews tells me it is lopsided: my nose is crooked, and my left eye is deeper set than the other. “Your whole left side of your face sits higher up than your right,” she says.
“Thanks a lot,” I think. She explains that this shows I am multidimensional.
What else does she see? I am an extrovert, hence my job as a reporter. I am a scuba-diver, not a snorkeler: I prefer depth of thought over surface conversation. I nod my head and agree, even though I don’t believe I’m naturally outgoing. Still, I enjoy the flattery”?until I am told I have the head of a deer.
Our head shape reflects our confidence, she says: Marilyn Monroe had a wide face like a tiger, while both Christopher Reeve and myself have narrower heads, like deer. Broad faces like Monroe are outgoing and lean towards the fight instinct, while Superman and myself tend to be more timid, innately leaning towards flight.
Similarly, wide-set eyes reflect broad-mindedness. “If the eyes are wide-set, it’s like a wide-angle camera, and if it’s close-set, it’s like a zoom lens.” Those of us with wide-angle lenses are equipped for broad overviews, while those with zoom lenses are better off on an assembly line.
I fall in-between the two, I am told. Another revealing characteristic is eyebrows: The higher they are, the more remote someone is. The lower the brows, the more approachable they are. Me? I’m lowbrow.
Andrews markets her analysis to the corporate world. Her clients are mostly small businesspeople and entrepreneurs looking to bring their lives back into balance. Her advice is applied to job interviews, sales, management, partnerships and professional alliances.
With a referral, an individual consultation with her”?consisting of two two-hour sessions”?costs $250. Without one, she charges $275. In comparison, visiting a local astrologist for that long costs $180, although Andrews’ rates are below what a licensed psychologist would charge.
She says she wants people to discover their hidden potential, to find a job that’s right for them. “There’s a lot of systems that’ll tell you what you are, but not what to do with it.” Her ideas aren’t entirely deterministic: Andrews says our appearances are partly determined by innate ability, and partly by how we apply ourselves. In her words, “You have the genetic, which you see in the bone structure, and you have the environment, which is seen in the musculature.”
I leave her house unconvinced, but nevertheless tingly with enthusiasm. I do not buy her explanation that our faces reflect who we are, but her motivational language had some worth: Fear looks like a brick wall, but it can be walked through like a vapour cloud.
Before going to sleep, I think about what I was told. I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror and try to decide: Am I a deer? A dog? A frog, or a fish?
The next day I visit Jan Bavelas, a University of Victoria psychology professor who specializes in non-verbal communication. A few years ago, Bavelas developed a videotaped lecture called “Debunking Body Language,” challenging the belief that involuntary gestures and ticks cause us to reveal ourselves in unexpected ways.
“One of my favourite mottos is, if you want to explain any widespread irrationality, look at who’s making money off of it,” she says, citing how the federal prison system once considered paying a body language expert $10,000 to teach a one-day course. Bavelas offered to teach, or rather debunk, it for free. She says what Andrews sells is similar: a fad driven by profits, not science.
“If you walk in and look at my face, you see a lot more than my face. You see the way I’m dressed, you see the way I talk, you see how I present myself. So you can’t just say this is being done on faces and measurement.”
To prove her point, Bavelas makes a few predictions herself. “I mean, I could look at you and say you’re not considering a job with a three-piece suit, right?” I tell her how Andrews told me the same thing: that I could be part of the conventional world, but never be of it. Apparently, my casual clothes, spiky, unkempt hair and long sideburns have something to do with it.
Bavelas suggests that Andrews’ methodology belongs in the same category as horoscopes or ESP. “If I have a hunch something’s going to happen and it does, I remember it,” she says. “But the hundred hunches I had that didn’t happen, I just forget.” This doesn’t surprise me, but what she says next does.
“But perhaps the most important point, above anything else, is the notion that there is a personality that I have, that can be detected.”
No such thing as “myself”?
That’s right, according to Bavelas. She disagrees with a key assumption made in our society: that we have coherent personalities that are stable and consistent over time. Bavelas speaks as someone who used to work in the field of personality assessment, but became disillusioned. “They kept on trying to capture essential personality, and we don’t have one. We’re much more flexible than that.”
Bavelas says evidence shows people act differently in different situations. After all, we all know people who’ve done unexpected things.
“It’s not that I’m wildly or erratically random, it’s that human beings are adaptive. It’s a really good quality,” she says, adding that anyone who acts the same in every situation “tends to be deemed pathological.”
Still, the desire to capture some essence of ourselves seems to be a very human desire. “We always want to know about people, right? We’re curious about people. It would be nice to have some special insight into people, whether it’s a potential spouse, or a potential employee, or even about yourself.”
I also ask Bavelas if she agrees that, by age 50, everyone has the face they deserve. She says there’s “a tiny, tiny smidgen” of truth to this: she remembers seeing one woman whose frown was so deeply engrained in her face that she scowled all the time. She adds this is fairly unusual.
“The biggest change, with age and faces, is [caused by] gravity,” she says. “And I don’t know if this woman deserves it or not. Maybe she’s had a terrible, terrible life. Is that the face she deserves? In that case, I don’t think she deserves a life like that.”
Before I leave, Bavelas lends me a large book wrapped in an antiquated dust cover. On the front is a line drawing of a man whose brain has been mapped into 37 distinct territories, each one corresponding with a different temperament. There is Benevolence, Veneration and Firmness running along the top of the skull, with Self-Esteem, Continuity and Inhabitiveness located further back. Parental Love lies on the back of the head, with Destructiveness curled along the top of the ear, and Combativeness and Secretiveness not far away. Somewhere in the middle lie Sublimity, Hope, Spirituality and Conscientiousness.
The book is Fowler’s Phrenology: A Practical Guide to Your Head, and Bavelas assures me it isn’t a gag”?it’s the real thing.
I leave Bavelas’ office feeling relieved that my deer face and my identity aren’t intrinsically connected, although I’m a bit discouraged to hear I don’t exist”?at least not in a coherent, stable way. While physiognomy may not be able to tell us who we are, it does tell us a lot about who the Victorians were. When I spoke with Bavelas, she explained how the symptoms used to identify criminal tendencies are now recognized as signs of malnutrition. Similarly, the book she loaned me is burdened with attitudes towards women and Africans that would be considered offensively sexist and racist today. In retrospect, it’s clear many of these classifications were used to justify racial and class prejudices of the period.
And so we return to the fundamental question asked by the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland: Who are you? I wonder this as I shave in the evening, scraping a blanket of stubble from my face. The eyes that return my stare are brown with yellow flecks, circled with dark rings below. They are lopsided, it’s true.
My eyebrows are still bushy, my lips are full and my cheekbones and chin are not as pronounced as I wish they were. My glasses sit askew on my crooked nose. Does this reflect who I am? I am a student journalist mistrustful of corporate culture and the way we categorize the world, and an English literature geek who appreciates Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan, those radical French theorists from the 1960s who wore too much black and argued against the idea of a coherent, stable identity. I am also a tired 22-year-old who probably doesn’t sleep enough.
Maybe that last item registers on my face, but I would like to think the rest of it stays beneath the surface. And you know what? That suits me just fine.