When my brother and I were young, my parents took us to museums. Often. As art critics and lovers, they would stand in front of just one painting, sometimes for several hours at a time. We would listen to stories they would tell us about an artist or a story surrounding a particular scene, or we’d roam the rooms of paintings on our own. But, eventually, we always ended up on a museum bench, watching the people.
One of our favorite games was to lower our hats over our eyes so that we could only see a person’s feet. Looking at the shoes they wore, we would try to imagine what the person’s face looked like. It was surprising to us how often we were wrong. People, we learned, don’t select shoes to match their faces, and often they don’t even seem to match their personality.
Years later, when I studied physiognomy, or face reading, those earlier games we played made more sense. Not only did shoes reflect something complicated about a human being’s character, but so did their features. Physiognomy (the word comes from the Greek word physis meaning ‘nature’ and gnomon meaning ‘judge’ or ‘interpreter’) is the art or skill of interpreting someone’s character through their face. There is a lot of research on how to make identifications through fingerprinting or DNA, but to this day your face is still the most important tool in any identification process. Your face conveys most of the information about your identity: age, ancestry, ethnicity.
And, if face readers are right, your personality and health as well.
As far as we know, the concept of face reading first appeared in China about 3,000 years ago. Taoist shamans probably introduced the practice to the early city-dwellers, and by 200 BCE, the art of face reading was an integral part of Chinese culture, as can be read about in classic works such as The Golden Scissors and Bamboo Chronicles. The principle of face reading is based in the cosmic energies of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) and yin and yang. Each element represents your basic qualities, which are reflected in your face. Your physical and psychological nature is depicted in the three divisions of your face (forehead, cheeks and nose, and mouth and jaw) and in your facial zones.
Which dominates your facial features? If it’s your forehead, you’re most concerned with knowledge and learning, you have a good memory, and strong mental acuity. Nose and cheek area: you are persevering, emotional, controlled, disciplined, and are a strong leader. Does your jaw dominate your face? This would indicate that you have integrity, are self-reliant, and independent.
Not only is your face a reflection of your personality, but it is a map of the past, present, and future. The past is what you’ve been given, your inherited constitution, and your early years. The present reflects your health at the time of the face reading. This is something you actually can create and change, which is why face reading is a major part of diagnosing disease in Chinese medicine. Does your face show balance between the “mountains” or bones (yang) and the “rivers” or skin (yin)? Face readers note the basic shape of your face, the position and size of each feature relative to each other, and your type of skin. Your face depicts soul and personality.*
Writing Practice – Reading Faces
Take this week to become conscious of peoples’ features. Pay attention to the skin, the brow, the ears set high or low on someone’s head. You don’t have to be a face reading expert to imagine a strong determination in a person with a prominent jaw, for instance.
Here’s a scene to play with in writing: Two men and one woman are standing beside a taxi, saying goodnight. A female taxi driver waits impatiently. Write about the personality of the two men and two women simply by describing their facial features.
- the owl on the branch outside your window
- breathing deeply
- gentle dentists
- embarking on a long journey to Patagonia
- a love poem left on your pillow
- the scent of lavender and vetiver
*One of the characters in my novel Bright Face of Danger is a brilliant plastic surgeon who has written a book about face reading, excerpts of which can be found as chapter headings in the novel. I’ve used some of these in this WriteSpa.
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