Eric Henney doesn’t like his chin, and he wants to talk about it.
Good chins look like they’ve been sculpted with rulers and compasses. Skin, preferably the unblemished kind, is drawn tautly over the mandible’s pronounced lower front, clinging gracefully to the space between the jowls as it travels before crashing into the top of the neck. Here, the skin firmly but elegantly wraps up its bundle of veins, arteries, muscles, cartilage, and bone before ebbing into the shoulders. Good chins feel at once crafted and organic. They are solid. They are powerful.
My chin, by contrast, has always sort of looked like it’s melting. The skin from my fluffy, puerile cheeks drops down over the sides of my jaw, collecting lazily like a pouch in which I might store food for the lean months. It slouches from the front of my face down toward my neck in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to identify where one ends and the other begins. It is the type of chin that people who are asking to be contradicted and consoled call a turkey wattle or a dewlap. (What?! No, you’re chin looks great!) I cannot stand my chin.
Other parts of my anatomy—the soft cummerbund of flesh around my waste, my badly defined chest—are unsightly, too. But I still find them less irksome than my chin. For starters, they are easier to work on and easier to conceal. More importantly, they are widely and publicly shared among men, which provides a certain kind of comfort.
It is unfortunate, then, that I am so wrapped up in the shortcomings of such a stubborn area. But it is not unwarranted. Chins are important to one’s body image for the sheer fact that they are prominent facial features, and faces are what people see first (mostly). And while good, strong chins aren’t necessarily sexualized, they are certainly sexy and masculine-making features. Superheroes, virile yet noble, have chins so pronounced you could forge iron on them. Real people, too: Brad Pitt, George Clooney, the list goes predictably on.
These men are not sexy because of their chins. Rather, good chins make men sexy in the same way Tina Weymouth made Talking Heads sound good: they don’t immediately strike you as important, but the whole product would seem flat without them.
From an aesthetic standpoint, good chins provide facial definition—they satisfy the human eye’s desire for borders. By contrast, a weak one can make the face look as if its contents were falling out the bottom. And where taste rushes in, science is soon to follow: chins are routinely mentioned in articles and books about the evolution of sexuality. Such studies lend to us a semiotics of male attractiveness whose foundation is unsurprisingly dependent on usefulness, strength, and good genes. So it is with the strong chin. Of course, we should not forget that attraction is a fickle thing—grow your chin too big and you will never hear the end of it.
Nevertheless, the strong chin remains a stand-in for classically masculine traits. To withstand adversity is to take it on the chin. Boxers who can bear hard facial blows have granite chins; boxers who can’t have glass jaws.
We can take from these observations a few things. First, a strong chin is an unsung yet very real part of the archetypal alpha male physique. And because the alpha male is the masochist’s plaything (put on Earth to give us something to fail to achieve), it should also follow that chins are enviable things. In other words, chin envy exists. And I have it.
The problem with chin envy, however, is that it is a ludicrous idea. First of all, chin envy points to nothing but vanity. Second no one would take chin envy seriously because chins aren’t sexualized features, and men only admit to being jealous of sexualized features (penises, muscles, and so on). Third, unlike penises, chins can be helped or hurt by one’s overall health.
Do you remember the scene in Mean Girls (2004) when all the Plastics are standing in front of a mirror, complaining about everything from their nail beds to their hairlines? This scene is hyperbole, but it’s written for the widely accepted notion that women are hyper-picky about their looks. It’s not simply that a woman complains about her chest or butt; she is also expected to have hysteric sensitivities about her knuckles and split ends and elbows.
Concerns about male body image, on the other hand, seem predominantly muscle-y. That doesn’t mean that men don’t actually worry about other, weirder things (like chins), but only that such public talk is not part of our gender milieu. The problem with this is that by refusing to talk about weirder body issues, the shame and embarrassment they already provoke in men is made to seem ridiculous, sissified, and therefore more shameful.
As it stands, most discussions of male body images are simplistic, brutish things. They are therefore not worth having. What we need are frank conversations, shameless conversations, absurd conversations about all the things that we as men fuss over. That may be hard or awkward at times. But do you know what else is hard? Living in fear of your chin.