Judging people on face value

"About Faces" book jacket

In 19th-century England, your face was your letter of recommendation, the way by which you were judged. There was a common belief during the era that a person’s facial traits, such as the shape of his nose or the roundness of her ears, could provide insights into character.

The nose, in particular, was the most talked about feature, says Sharrona Pearl, an assistant professor in the Annenberg School for Communication. “That makes sense,” she says. “It’s the most prominent piece of the face and it’s the piece of the face that can be manipulated perhaps most easily.”

Pearl’s new book, “About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” investigates the practice of physiognomy—the study of facial traits and their relationship to character—in 19th-century England.

Physiognomy dates back to “pseudo-Aristotelian texts in antiquity,” Pearl says. The custom has existed in many different forms over the years in works of art, etiquette manuals and religious documents.

Out of favor for some time, physiognomy regained popularity in 19th-century England, along with a drive to make it an actual science. Pearl says some of its resurgence can be traced to British colonialism and a desire to separate “us” from “them.” More specifically, she says urbanization meant that people had less time to judge those around them.
Additionally, because anyone could partake in the practice—and not just scholars or elites—it was applied on a regular basis across all classes of English society.

The push to make physiognomy a science stemmed from people wanting permission to judge, Pearl says. “Science gave it a particular kind of authority.”

As the practice gained prominence, physiognomy grew in scope to include “clothing, hairstyles and other forms of self-decoration.” With its increased frequency, Pearl says there was also a greater attempt to analyze groups of people rather than individuals.

Some physiognomists were genuine and believed the practice was a legitimate science, but Pearl says that more often than not, personal judgments were being made in advance and then physiognomy was being used to justify them.

Many people, wary of being judged, used physiognomy to give rather than get information. Instead of passively being judged, a person would actively present himself or herself in a particular way in order to communicate certain messages.

“Most people did not want to be looked at, at all,” Pearl says. “There’s a huge drive toward anonymity because standing out could be problematic ... Nobody really wants to be judged, so what people were mostly doing is just trying to blend in, just trying to be the nameless, faceless person in the crowd.”

Pearl says the story of physiognomy is a saga “with no real endpoint.”
“It never got that much respect from the scientific community so it wasn’t like there was this moment of great fall,” she says.

The term itself began to fade at the beginning of the 20th century, when social Darwinism eugenics did a lot of the human-judging work previously done by physiognomy. After World War II and all the scars of Nazism, she says attempts to categorize and classify people became passé and people became wary of the term and its associated practices.

Although not formalized, Pearl says physiognomy is still in practice. In fact, she says there has been a renewal of people attempting to correlate physical features to types of character.

“Even today we talk about masculine features, masculine jaws and beady-eyed villains, so people never stopped looking and judging,” she says.

“I think we always have and we always will [judge others]. The question is not, ‘Do people judge one another?’ it’s, ‘How do they give themselves permission to do it?’ In the 19th century, they attempted to do it through science.”

Originally published on May 6, 2010