Sex differences in faces? Of course, but where?

I often like to check the stats for this blog, and one of the stats that WordPress makes available is which searchers led readers to my blog. I’ve noticed that this is one recent search: “can one tell difference between gender from face”. This is an interesting question. There must be differences between men and women, and girls and boys that can be detected in faces, because other people and myself are making judgements all the time about the gender of people based on faces alone. I’m sure that for many people a fair proportion of male-to-female transexuals can be picked on their faces alone. Now and then I find that I notice androgynous individuals whose appearance catches my eye because their apparent face gender conflicts with other features of their appearance. This is a thing that I wouldn’t notice at all if faces did not have gendered features that I could detect.

But what are the specific facial features that differ between the sexes? It appears that this is not such a simple question. I see an overall difference, but I’m not completely sure what the different details are. I guess this is a clue that face gender is processed in the brain in at a level where lots of details are integrated, but the individual details alone are not normally consciously perceived. A few years ago there was a fair amount of media coverage of research linking facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) to sexual dimorphism in humans, which is just a fancy scientific term for sex differences. Larger ratios have been linked with maleness, higher levels of aggression in men, and success in competitive pursuits, but it appears that there is conflicting evidence, and this is another scientific theory that might be ready for the recycle bin. My intuition is that the more obvious sex differences in the adult human face can be seen in the jawline and in the eyes and in the browline, males having brow-bones that stick out more but with eyebrows that are lower and closer to the eyes. Women exaggerate this gender difference when they pluck their eyebrows to enlarge the space between the eye and the brow. I have no idea if there is any scientific evidence supporting my beliefs, but it’s common sense really.

Some journal papers about facial width-to-height ratio

Ozener, Baris Facial width-to-height ratio in a Turkish population is not sexually dimorphic and is unrelated to aggressive behaviour. Evolution & Human Behavior. In press. Received 10 July 2010; accepted 22 August 2011. published online 07 November 2011.

Carre, Justin M. and McCormick, Cheryl M. In your face: facial metrics predict aggressive behaviour in the laboratory and in varsity and professional hockey players. Proc. R. Soc. B. 22 November 2008 vol. 275 no. 1651 2651-2656. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0873.


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