Facing Your Face

Photo of Roselle KovitzFacing Your Face by Roselle Kovitz

In our culture where extreme makeovers are more and more commonplace and the concept of designer children is not out of the question, opting for refining or remaking our appearance is an increasingly accepted practice. I admit, I’ve lingered over glossy plastic surgery ads, noting the smooth faces, wide eyes and taut thighs. It’s tempting.

According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS), “From 1997 to 2005, there has been a 444  percent increase in cosmetic procedures.”  Industry predictions now estimate that cosmetic procedures could exceed $30 billion globally, growing 25% per year.

But what if your face told the story of who you are, how you behave and how your life experiences have marked you? According to the ancient Chinese practice of face reading, our faces are a three dimensional reflection of who we are and how life has affected us. But in this culture, more and more of us want the airbrushed face of a young über model—no matter our age.

Feng shui and face reading teacher and author of the upcoming book, The Wisdom of Your Face, Jean Haner, would argue that our faces tell an important story about us; that there is something almost sacred about every unique feature, even seeming imperfections we are born with or the lines and markings that come with age and experience.

Haner reads facial features much as a meteorologist reads weather patterns. Maybe better. After much study and intense practice, Haner uses her face reading skills to help clients more fully realize and unapologetically inhabit their potential. She came to the practice after many years of study and experience as a feng shui practitioner, working with the interaction of people and spaces. “Face reading has informed my work as a feng shui practitioner,” Haner explains. “In fact, a comment I hear frequently is ‘I feel like I’ve been feng shui’d’.”

Chinese face reading developed over thousands of years of careful observation and practice. Forbidden to touch female patients, Chinese medical practitioners, learned to read the health of their patients by examining their faces. Much like feng shui practitioners learned to read patterns in the land, face readers observed how facial features and markings corresponded to a person’s mental, emotional and physical makeup or the maladies they suffered.

And like feng shui, the practice is rooted in what is called the Five Element theory. This intricate theory uses the elements of Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal as archetypes for everything occurring in the natural world. Each element is correlated to seasons, colors, shapes, sounds as well as facial features, body types, the body’s major organs and behavioral tendencies. For instance, in the practice of face reading, a strong chin or rounded high forehead are considered outward expressions of the Water element. Prominent cheekbones, an aquiline nose and porcelain skin belong to people with a strong Metal element.

Reading faces may seem an esoteric practice at first, but any of us who have a modicum of social skills know how to read some key facial expressions. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell profiles the work of Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman who isolated and identified 3,000 combinations of facial movements that display certain emotions and documented them into the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Tomkins, Ekman and Robert Levenson went on to study the relationship between facial expression and physiological manifestation of emotions. According to Gladwell, their work, as well as a subsequent study by a German team of researchers, showed that facial expressions alone can cause the same physiological responses as expressions resulting from directly experiencing those same emotions. Gladwell concludes that “[t]he face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process.”

If facial expressions both reveal and cause emotions, then perhaps it makes sense that the markings we develop from making those expressions over and over would also reveal things about our personality. Like a rut forming in the road, our face shows the effects of moving our facial muscles in repeated, habitual patterns.

So is it revisionist history when we seek to tuck, fill, resurface or reshape our faces? Are we just running from ourselves rather than facing ourselves? And if we are the sum total of the features, lines and markings on our face, then what happens when they vanish or are reconfigured?  Haner believes that a change to the topography of our face also changes the essence of who we are. Conversely, a change in who we are can change our face.

If we were born with a soft fleshy nose (indicating someone who savors the pleasures of life) and pay thousands to have it reshaped to look leaner, longer, more aquiline, will we take on more of the characteristics of a Metallic personality?  Certainly some people give voice to how cosmetic changes have initiated psychological changes as well. While that is anecdotal, it’s hard to ignore how deeply our appearance influences us. On the other hand, if we are to consciously change ourselves from a person quick to anger or behave aggressively person, for instance, to a more peaceful and patient one, we may reduce facial lines by avoiding making an “angry face.”

Haner offers an antidote to our obsession with perfection. She believes that beyond just the outward changes we want to make, many of us actually blame ourselves for who we are, putting us at odds with the very characteristics that define us. “When you can understand that so much of your experience in life is affected by others’ judgment, and your own self-judgment, that alone can be revolutionary,” she explains. “And then to discover a way to see who you truly are, and how to be yourself on purpose, to free yourself of those judgments, it can be a life-changing experience.”  And maybe it’s a way to come to terms not only with our physical appearance but allow us to fully inhabit who we are. Instead of radical surgical changes, perhaps mental and emotional ones will do.

In her workshops, Haner illustrates this concept with intriguing stories from her consultations. One is the story of a client who for years dreamed of being a firefighter. An accountant by trade, with facial features that supported that type of careful, detailed work—not the heavy-lifting or risk-taking required of a firefighter—Haner tried to diplomatically explain that accounting was indeed a fit for her; firefighting was not. Midway through the consultation, her client brightened and exclaimed that she “got it.” She said she didn’t really want to be a firefighter, she wanted to have a firefighter. Soon after the consultation, she did just that.

In a culture that defines beauty narrowly and primarily through physical characteristics, many people succumb to needless self criticism at best, self loathing and a variety of self diminishing and destructive disorders at worst. We live in a culture that instead of celebrating uniqueness encourages a conformist standard of beauty that many are literally prepared to die for. But the skin deep beauty that is promoted in ads that fill magazines, line highways and flicker through our living rooms each evening, sell something other than looks. They sell a dissatisfaction with who we are that can and does erode self confidence, self acceptance.

Face reading provides a way to line up inner and outer aspects of ourselves to create a coherence of sorts. Would it be too far-fetched to believe that embracing our true nature and that of others could actually be quite freeing or lead to more authentic relationships? The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a multiple choice personality assessment, similarly provides information on how we tend to move through the world—what gives us energy or saps it and how we like to receive, process and provide information. For years, many in the work world, among others, have used this tool to help people understand how best to relate to colleagues and family members, by understanding how they navigate their life.

Face reading uses what’s in front of our very noses—so to speak—to reveal some of the complexities of our psyches. From whether we are effervescent, pragmatic, attentive to detail, secretive or stubborn, a skilled face reader can pinpoint people’s proclivities, helping clients to better understand themselves and those who are close to them. Reading faces, in a way, is giving voice to what make us unique, the grand attributes we celebrate as well as those that cause us difficulty. And like much truth-telling, Haner says her clients often express a sense of relief as a result of her reading. It seems to free some from layers of expectations—chipping away the years accumulation of who we are not to reveal the original masterpiece of who we are.