The Science of Passing
For years, I’ve been using this image on my blog to represent the perception of sex. I’ve long had an intense interest, both personal and professional, in the branch of psychology that deals with perception. In my professional career that area has been mostly focused (yes, pun intended) on early vision processes. But in my own time, I’ve always loved higher level perceptual processes. I’ll bet you, my reader, do too… as in the so called “optical illusions”.
For transfolk, the issue of perception can be of even more practical interest. To wit; how to “pass”. But before we can answer that question, we need to ask another, “What perceptual characteristics do people use to attribute a given sex to an individual?” The image above is one of my favorite “illusions”. Which face is that of a woman? Which face is that of a man? In fact, the two faces are identical. The only difference is the contrast adjustment that was applied by post-processing. Take a moment to view this video:
While contrast is important, so is chromatic cues. Women have greener faces overall, while men have redder (ruddy) faces, due to capillaries carrying red blood closer to the skin surface. Which underscores the use of cosmetics. Women use cosmetics to increase the contrast and color cues that our brains will interpret as gender cues, increasing the sexually dimorphoric cues into super-cues, as people find highly sexually dimorphic characteristics more attractive in both sexes.
But as thousands of transwomen who have had Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) can confirm, cosmetics alone aren’t sufficient. Other cues feed our perception and attribution of sex. Certain facial shape / feature distances also contribute. Consider the images here. Which is more feminine? Masculine? The one on the left has lower eyebrows than that on the right. This shows why women tweeze their eyebrows from underneath, to increase the distance between the eyes and the brows. But this small difference is not as powerful as the other cues, all things being equal.
So far, science hasn’t really looked at the three dimensional aspects of the face. But given the obvious effects that FFS have on one’s ability to pass, they obviously have a very powerful effect. I look forward to further studies which will include these facial cues.
Dupuis-Roy, N. et al., “Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting”
Journal of Vision (2009) doi:10.1167/9.2.10