A few months ago I talked about body shapes, and the gendered differences between them that lead us to conclude “That’s a man,” or “That’s a woman,” when we see someone for the first time. “Sexual dimorphism” is the technical term for these differences.
This time I’m going to talk about sexual dimorphism in faces, and what it means for transgender people. There’s more to talk about here, because the differences are less obvious until you get in close. Bodies are unsubtle in their shapes; faces are all subtlety.
I’m an expert at reading faces. We all are, unless we suffer from prosopagnosia (face blindness). Almost all of us have a powerful ability to distinguish one face from another. It’s probably humanity’s most amazing talent. Look at these two faces:
It’s obvious these are two different faces. Most of you will recognize the individuals in these photos as movie stars Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck—or at least, since Affleck’s more famous, you’ll recognize that they’re Ben Affleck and someone else. The two co-starred in the same super-hero movie blockbuster this year.
There’s very little difference in looks between the two men. Both are Caucasian and have short dark hair. In these shots, both have a little stubble. Neither has a distinguishing scar or mole. They even both have clefts in their chins, although you can’t see Cavill’s very well in these shots. If you walked up to both men with a pair of calipers and a ruler, the dissimilarities you’d be able to document, before they pushed you away and called the police, would be measured in just millimeters, at most.
And yet, even when their characters weren’t in their iconic costumes, I’m certain no moviegoers had any trouble telling one from the other. It’s how we’re wired. Our brains devote significant processing power to the task of telling one face from another. Those tiny distinctions in shape and features add up to an enormous gulf in recognition.
You can test yourself on this ability. Go to imdb.com and look up the cast of a movie you’re familiar with. Even if you cover up the actors’ names on your screen, you’ll be able to identify most of them just going by the tiny thumbnail images of their faces. It’s really an astonishing ability. Those thumbnails are only a handful of pixels wide, and yet we can both tell the actors apart and usually identify them by name. It’s really an astonishing ability we have, when you think about it.
We aren’t only good at spotting one face from another; we see faces everywhere we look, even when there’s no face to see: in coconuts, in light sockets, and in a colon next to an open or close parenthesis symbol. This phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it’s why some idiots think extraterrestrials have been building monuments on Mars.
In addition to identifying individuals, this super-power lets us tell other things about people, too. Age, for example. We can look at side-by-side photos of a person at 20 and the same person at 30 and 40 and usually tell which version is which, even if the person has aged pretty well and we can’t point to any specific differences among the faces. The same goes for spotting familial relationships, and sometimes even a person’s ethnicity.
And it’s especially true for determining the gender of a face. When we see a face for the first time, dozens or hundreds of small indicators flood into our brains through our optic nerves, and they add up into a conclusion that’s usually “male” or “female.” Our brains are resistant to concluding “a little of both,” or “possibly neither,” and despite our best intentions, will try to reject any data that conflict with that initial conclusion.
This is a source of consternation for transgender people, and for well-meaning allies. Most transgender people work hard to make our faces match our gender identity; to look “cisnormative,” for reasons of safety as much as for vanity. But it’s often very difficult, even with surgery. Here are some of the major ways male and female faces look different that most people never realize, or even think about:
A man’s eyebrows are usually lower, closer to his eyes.
In profile, the septum of a woman’s nose usually describes a right or obtuse angle with her upper lip; a man’s septum more often points downward in an acute angle.
Men’s faces are wider, and their heads are larger in proportion to their bodies than women’s.
A woman has a lower forehead, and her hairline is more like the top of an oval. Meanwhile, a man’s hairline (if it hasn’t begun receding) is shaped vaguely like a capital “M.”
Men’s upper lips are flatter; a woman’s lip is likelier to have a “bee-stung” appearance.
Women have more vertical foreheads, while men’s foreheads slightly slope back.
The most obvious difference, the one that most bedevils trans women, is the beard shadow. It’s the single most powerful indicator of gender, and it’s almost always visible—no matter how light in color are the whiskers and no matter how recently and close one has shaved. And when people see a beard shadow, their brains tell them they’re seeing a man. No other indicator of gender is so powerful.
It sort of works the other way for transgender men who haven’t developed facial hair, but it’s usually more understated and therefore unconscious. People don’t realize they’re not seeing a beard shadow, specifically, but it does seem to them there’s something feminine about the face that they can’t put their finger on.
It’s why I was willing to spend thousands of dollars and endure dozens of hours of painful electrolysis having mine removed; it’s why I never even considered presenting as female full time until it was completely gone. Nothing gets a transwoman “clocked” like a beard shadow, and when a transwoman is clocked, her life is in danger.
Think about this post the next time you look in a mirror. What is the face you wear saying about you?
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