I’m pretty sure I have a squiggle face. Maybe you do, too. You know how beauty magazines always lecture you about how you’re supposed to pick your hairstyle and glasses shape and determine the crucial question of whether or not you can have bangs by following the rules for your “face shape”? Oval or square or inverted triangle and so on. Were you able to do that? Did anyone clearly recognize a heart (or more interestingly, a, say rhombus) when they tried to draw the outline of their reflection in the mirror? If you were a rhombus head, I respect you and hope you’re doing well, but you can never hang out with us squiggle heads.
I could never determine the shape of my own face to my satisfaction during the height of my beauty magazine reading. Isn’t every face an oval? Aren’t they all vaguely circular? Still, I couldn’t stop trying to figure it out even though my mom once yelled at me for covering the bathroom mirror in soap in an ill-fated attempt to trace the outline of my reflection, following Glamor’s advice.
NOW MY EYEBROWS WILL NEVER BE PROPERLY SHAPED, MOM.
I should mention that I regard my mother as the cause of my inability to recognize my facial shape. Not just because she interrupted my abortive face shape determination attempt with cries of “you’re never going to get all that soap off the mirror!” No, for something even more primal than that. If only she hadn’t left the shape of my face up to genetics.
If only she had intervened a bit. If only she had been into what the anthropologists like to call “artificial cranial deformation.”
Remember how your mom told you “be gentle!” with the head of your baby brother, because of the “soft spot”? Your mother is clearly not from New Britain in Papua New Guinea. Babies’ entire skulls are basically like silly-putty, with bones joined together with soft sutures, so that the skull can compress a bit during birth (shudder) and expand to grow. If you leave it alone, the skull will grow fairly uniformly, expanding equally on the left and the right, for example.
BUT there are much more fun things to do.
Turns out that a baby’s skull is so soft that you can make it take on all sorts of fun new shapes by the application of a little pressure.
Say you want a nice, long skull – a Conehead look.
Not a problem! It’s beyond easy to temporarily change the shape of an infant’s head – just giving birth squeezes the newborn’s skull into a conehead (why do you think they’re all wearing cute little caps in their first pictures? So that we don’t think that they’re pointy-headed aliens).
But internal pressure from the brain will pop that modified skull back into its normal shape. Or it will, unless you frequently repeat your attempts to mold it into whatever look you’re going for. The good news is that an infant’s skull has started to fuse, thicken, and harden between 6-12 months, which means that after a couple of months the deformation will be permanent. Hopefully that will be before the time that your baby grows up enough to think “wtf is up with these vines, mom?” and rip them off.
So what’s the process? Well, the Arawe people of New Britain in Papua New Guinea wrap a special vine around an infant’s skull almost immediately after birth, starting just above the eyes. The vines are replaced daily, and when they’re being changed, the child is smeared with a “black paint, applied by the mother’s palm, with considerable pressure on the forehead” to get a little more shaping in.
And of course, vines aren’t the only materials you can use to shape the skull – any tight wraps or bandages will do, or even “repetitive manual pressure by the mother’s hands,” although, frankly, that sounds like a lot of work. Some scholars have pointed out that accidental skull deformations can result if the mother regularly carries an infant tightly, pressing its head against her body. Please keep that in mind, all my new mom friends who practice attachment parenting and can’t put down their baby long enough to have one, little, itty-bitty martini with yours truly. Although don’t worry too much, because doctors who have studied the brains of people with deformed skulls say that there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, effect on the brain (thanks, cerebrospinal fluid!). Still, seriously, put down your baby and have a martini.
Anthropologists don’t have very convincing explanations for why people deform their infants’ skulls One problem was that cranial deformation was a lot more common in the past, so archeologists dig up whole graveyards-full of pointy skulls and think “gotta assign a grad student the task of making crap up about this, stat!” Some of these scholars have found that, statistically speaking, female skulls are usually a bit more deformed that males’ However, other researchers point out that female skulls are a tad more delicate than males’, and so might just be more suitable for shaping. Some scholars say that shaped skulls may have been a sign of social status, and others get all fancy with theories like “[t]hrough cranial vault modification, the body can be made into a symbol of ethnic or community identity, with members of a particular group sharing this physical characteristic that differentiates them from others.”
Hahahahahaha. Theorists! Theorists maybe need a martini, too.
If you get around to asking the people who practiced skull deformation long enough for anthropologists to bug them about it, they almost all say that there’s nothing magical or religious or status about it They say that it just looks good. It’s a beauty treatment, or, at the most, a symbol of intelligence (because, you know, you get a bigger, weirder head).
Weirdly, I’m going to plunk down my vote in the camp of “yeah, I guess this makes sense.” Think about how much we do to change how people perceive the shape of our face/head – hairstyles, strategic blush application, not to mention a whole heaping helping of cosmetic surgery procedures to, say, clean up our jaw lines. Actually, since skull deformation doesn’t require any incisions, anesthesia, or any of the other risky things about cosmetic surgery, it’s actually probably a lot safer (well, as long as you restrain yourself and don’t go trying to topiary your newborn’s head into the shape of Elvis’s pompadour or anything) (although that would totally be a hit on Pinterest).
And you insure your kid doesn’t grow up to be a rhombus face.
As for me, after middle school, I moved to New York, and I stopped reading Glamour and started reading the Wall Street Journal, and TheGloss (a publication proudly read by squiggle faces everywhere).