My chances of finding a physiognomist are slim: The art/science of face-reading fell out of favor after the turn of the 20th century, its detractors calling it a pseudoscience akin to palm-reading. Certainly today we wouldn’t take physiognomy seriously, if for no other reason than its outrageous racism: Typically African traits were signs of indolence, diminished intellect, and “sensualism”; American Indian features were compared more to those of animals than of humans; Asian characteristics indicated compliance and asexuality.
So physiognomy is dead, as well it should be. Except, well, it’s not. I kept thinking of physiognomy when reading certain parts of Ashley Mears’s sociological study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty. At the time I thought I was making the connection because I pictured photographers, stylists, and eventually photo retouchers slicing and dicing models’ bodies in order to create the perfect image, much as one might pluck a set of characteristics from a physiognomic guide to imagine the perfectly tempered, intelligent, generous, and wise person (that is, the person with a rounded forehead, eyelids situated perfectly horizontal above irises, arched brows, and angular chins). Modeling and physiognomy alike depend upon elevating certain characteristics above others. But when I delved into the practice’s most influential tome, Physiognomy by Johann Caspar Lavater (published 1826), I realized the connection was deeper than that. Consider these two passages:
“He only is an accurate physiognomist, and has the true spirit of physiognomy, who possesses sense, feeling, and sympathetic proportion of the congeniality and harmony of nature; and who hath a similar sense and feeling for all emendations and additions of art and constraint.” [Lavater, Chapter IV]
“When asked how long it takes her to decide on a model in a casting, one major stylist in London summed it up: ‘An instant! You know, you know, you just know!’ Most clients…claimed to know the moment a model walks through the door…Yet despite their professed certitude, they could not articulate what it was that they saw. They said that they may not be able to explain what it is about a model that makes her ‘really good’ or ‘right’; simply, they are able to feel it.” [Mears, Chapter 4]
That is, physiognomy claimed to be a science but still relied on “sense and feeling”; similarly, players in the modeling industry claim to be prizing what’s inherently stunning, beautiful, or intriguing, but they rely upon a gut sense that’s cultivated through careful calibration of taste. Just as physiognomy was a reflection of social and scientific standards at the time instead of an actual science of character, the “It” girl is as much a reflection of tastemakers’ collective sense as she is an owner of her own talent. As Mears puts it, “The very fact that clients cannot articulate the quality of a ‘really good model’ suggests that it lies in their own roles and actions rather than in the masses of looks they see before them.” Physiognomy, with its mix of absurd detail (23 types of foreheads) and general pronouncements (“a lipless mouth…denotes housewifery”) about what features signify, overarticulates its own standards. Modeling, with its buzz about “It” girls and the sense that a good agent “just knows,” underarticulates them. But both overarticulation and underarticulation serve to cloud what lies behind the determination of those standards: a reinforcement of existing power structures.
The tastemakers Mears interviews have a set of guidelines just as strict as the ersatz science of physiognomy. The overwhelming majority of models are tall, slender, young, white or “high-end ethnic,” and symmetrically featured. But a recurring question in Pricing Beauty is what makes one 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunette a successful model while another 5’9”, size 2, fair-skinned, hard-working brunette—who, to your eye or mine, is just as likely to succeed as her counterpart—exits the industry in debt. The answer lies in a complex web of tastemakers’ reflexive social distinctions; codification and reinforcement of ideas surrounding class, race, and gender; skilled exhibition and concealment of forms of cultural capital; and, above all, the mystification and glamorization of all of the above. Similarly, though proponents of physiognomy purported it to be both an art and science, there’s a near-mystical approach to physiognomy that meant only certain people would be able to divine what various features really meant—the one-on-one tastemakers of the 19th century, those who grasped the “true spirit” of physiognomy. Forget that the “true spirit” of it was largely based on Lavater’s own personal observations: “Eyebones with defined, marking, easily delineated, firm arches, I never saw but in noble and in great men.” In defining the meaning of features so literally and subjectively, Lavater only articulated what tastemakers 200 years later would attribute to vague notions of “It.”
To be clear, as alike as they are, the pseudoscience / pseudoart of physiognomists and modeling tastemakers don’t assess the same thing—and neither of them defines beauty per se.
And, you know, so what? Today we laugh at physiognomy and see it as antiquated, quaint, or even dangerous; its transparency is laughable. And certainly we’ve become skeptical of the modeling industry as well, or at least of what it signifies: We critique its narrowness and exclusion, and more recently we’ve begun to pay attention to its questionable labor practices. But just as we can look at physiognomy today and cringe at its racist, classist constructions, we need to keep looking at what drives the defined aesthetic of modeling if we’re able to understand our own relationship with imagery and beauty. I don’t think most women strive to look like models; I think most who are dissatisfied with their appearance just want to look like better versions of themselves. But it’s hardly a controversial point to say that the specific ways in which we want to look “better” are often influenced by the aesthetics of the modeling industry. What I’d have us do is try to be specific where “the modeling industry”—that is, tastemakers, not the models themselves—is unable to be articulate. That’s not easy to do, given how easily we stumble over “It” girls without ever being able to define “It”; that’s why we came up with the term “It” girl in the first place. But I’d like to see us consciously keep the drum beat of the social construction of beauty behind us as we straighten our hair and totter in heels: That we are not mimicking the looks of Gisele Bundchen or Karlie Kloss if we attempt to appropriate their looks onto our own bodies. Rather, we’re attempting to channel and redirect what tastemakers tell us they signify: luxury, exclusivity, embodied cultural capital. We’re responding to tastemakers, not ourselves.