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Face "Reading" -- Hey I have a face! by DC-in-Detroit

DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB.
She can be reached at [at]

Read Any Good Faces Lately?
 The Ancient Art of Face Reading
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Baldwin Theatre/Stagecrafters

Royal Oak, Michigan

Entertainment is Goal One with me, on MCB as in life. I'm particularly interested in esoteric topics and presentations, so whenever I see an event listing that includes any sort of "reading," it gets my attention without fail.

Wednesday, 16 November, the Detroit chapter of the Association for Women in Communications held an evening event called "Read Any Good Faces Lately? The Ancient Art of Face Reading" at the Baldwin Theatre in Royal Oak. I saw that and thought, "Hey! I'm a woman! In communications! And I have a face!" As a bonus, I'd never been to the Baldwin [and there was a promise of food], so the pull was too strong to resist.

Let me talk about the Baldwin Theatre first for a moment. I have walked by this building about a thousand times and had never paid much attention. Why is that? It's right across the street from a parking structure I've used plenty, and it's only a block from the Royal Oak Music Theatre. There are three different stages in the theater, and it's quite beautifully kept. Now that I've been inside and had a little bit of a wander, I'm definitely going to look into their theatrical programming. (This month's "The Crucible" is high on my list -- gotta get on that!)

The Main Stage at the Baldwin Theatre
I brought a colleague with me to the event, MCB's own Punitor, for whom "reading" people is a valuable skill as an attorney. We arrived at 6p to find a friendly group of (almost exclusively middle-aged, white) women and an informal spread of tasty chow. I got checked in (hey! they had my name!), had a quick sammich wrap and the best mini-eclair ever, and loaded up to the third floor "Second Stage" theater.

Baldwin Theatre
The first part of the program featured Lesley Braden, the theater's Development Director and evening's host, giving us about 15 minutes on improv. What did this have to do with face-reading? Absolutely nothing. Braden's earnest, if rushed, presentation about the usefulness of improv in daily life, particularly in business settings, was as much advertisement as seminar. Granted, there's only so much one can do in 15 minutes… and that said, I do personally recommend Go Comedy! Improv in Ferndale, where Braden does performances as part of a rotating cast. (Myself, almost nothing will make me belly laugh as much as even a half-assed improv night. I think it tickles the sadist in me.)

By 7.20p, our main presenter, Lin Klaassen, took the stage. She clarified for us immediately that when she says "face reading," what she's talking about is physiognomy, not body language. Body language involves the interpretation of gestures, movement, posture, etc., often in an interactive setting. Physiognomy, on the other hand, relies purely on physical traits at an anatomical level -- for example, the shape of your eyes, not the lines around them, nor how you hold your head. (While making the distinctions clear, Klaassen also explained that she does read body language as well.)

It's an interesting concept, and something that, in regard to some traits, is tempting to believe. We are, after all, partially products of our genetics. And so it would make sense to suggest that genetic traits that would point to particular facial features would often travel with corresponding personality traits. What gets more difficult to believe is the assertion that facial features can be altered by changing one's behavior.

Again, we're not talking about getting fewer frown lines by… not frowning. Klaassen suggested that if one were to speak more, become more expressive, her lips would become fuller, as a result. She also suggested that our eyelids do not become heavier due to chronologically aging, but because we become more emotionally closed in older age, and is therefore something over which we have control. Her one specific example of a person's facial structure changing due to conscious changes in his life was Ron Howard.

An animated, and therefore blurry, Lesley Braden
Toward the end of "Happy Days," Klaassen's lecture goes, Howard was no longer interested in acting, but wanted to move into directing. She showed an autographed headshot of Howard from that period, pointing out that he looked "unhappy," even though this was the "best they could get," as it was a professionally-taken headshot. I don't see the connection there, because it's not uncommon for a headshot to showcase different modes or emotions for an actor. She showed another image of Howard from shortly after he quit "Happy Days" to pursue directing.

"See how his chin elongates? The chin is like a tree putting down roots. The older a tree is, the farther down the roots, and the farther out it goes, the more it can withstand any storm. He was standing his ground. 'No, I AM going to direct.'"

She then showed a contemporary picture of Howard.

"Now look what happens when he gets what he wants. See how his chin shrunk back?"

It's not clear to me that Ron Howard's chin has been doing anything other than -- as I am now painfully aware -- being lopsided. The angles of the three photos compared weren't the same, which didn't allow for reliable comparison of his rooty-ness. Given the opportunity, maybe Klaassen would have gone on at length, with measures and circles and arrows, but that isn't the demonstration we got. What I got were three pictures of a man, a few decades apart, under different lighting, with different cameras. Any changes (which, again, I'm not sure I could even see) could be attributed to too many things -- varying camera focal lengths alone can make a huge difference in someone's apparent facial scale.

The Second Stage at the Baldwin Theatre
We moved on from that into specific facial features: "I can do two-and-a-half hours just on eyebrows. Eyebrows and the way a person chooses to wear their eyebrows tells you more about them than any other trait on their face."

After telling us that women can have high, moderate, or low eyebrows, but there isn't a man on the planet who has high eyebrows (high-brows being, naturally, more sensitive), she had us evaluate the lower arch of our own eyebrows. After a long moment of mirror-gazing, I asked what seemed the obvious question: Before or after plucking? "The way they look right now," she told me. "Because you chose it."

Lin Klaassen
It's one thing to suggest that the shape of a facial feature is drawn by genetics, or behavior, or even choice. My eyebrows are drawn by Cyndee. Although I'm generally satisfied with the styling (read: I don't really care), I had no input into the process other than "ow." Now, it could be argued that a good stylist (and Cyndee is, without a doubt, a good stylist) shapes a woman's brows based on her bone structure etc., but I don't think the sensitivity of my nature was taken into account. This is completely aside from the physiognomy claims, particularly since she also told us that temporary/styling considerations -- like hairstyle -- are not a part of the "read."

Author's merch table
I don't see how it's possible that these techniques can be "scientifically validated to 92% accuracy," as Klaassen's bio claims, when something like an eyebrow arch can be so easily changed. If I shave my eyebrows off entirely, does my personality follow, as she suggests the opposite is true?

And if these techniques are so iron-clad, why, then, are they not a primary school staple? If it's this clear, this proven, this inescapable, why are we not all learning this from age 5? Some would argue that these things are part of the 60%-90% (depending on who you ask) of our communication that is not verbal, and therefore we actually are "learning" all these reads from babyhood, whether we realize it or not. And on a general level, I wouldn't argue against that. But when we get down to such specifics, I need a lot more verification than the things that seem "commonsense," like that people with bigger mouths are more communicative. And I need a better explanation as to the why behind it, more than just drawing a line and saying, "See? These match!"

I also can't avoid mentioning how these old-style "reading" techniques veer awfully close to a lot of justifications behind racism.

Some of the work Klaassen gets is of the entertainment variety, with which I have no quarrel. As Punitor mentioned, it's definitely an appeal to people's vanity -- "tell me about me!" -- and I could see these demonstrations on cruise ships alongside the caricaturists. And really, I was having a good enough time there in the little 100-seat theater, satisfied that the 30 women (and one man) in attendance were taking the presentation as I did, as a fun way of looking at ourselves and other people… Until someone asked, "What did you think of the Republican debate the other night?"

Oh no, I flinched. They are going to ask her opinions about potential presidential candidates AS A FACE READER, based on nothing other than the characteristics of their faces. Isn't this symptomatic of the haphazard criteria by which we already choose our representatives? With only a few minutes left of her 60 minute program (about a quarter of which I would estimate was spent on selling her books and services), I tried to change the subject and ask whether she finds that people's voices have similar "readable" qualities. But another audience member brought the topic back to "reading" the politicians.

This is when it got a lot less fun for me. Entertainment value aside, the notion that someone would use this sort of novelty to evaluate a political candidate -- or anything else of any real-world significance -- chills me to the bone.