Vikram Akula, the founder of SKS Microfinance, has full lips. Have you noticed? So do soon-to-be Pakistani astronaut Namira Salim, Mukesh Ambani and Abhishek Bachchan. Manmohan Singh, K.P. Singh and George Bush don’t; their lips are thin, displaying, I suppose, steely resolve. All of which leads to the question: Why are some lips fuller than others and what does this say about the person?
I pay attention to lips. Others may consider eyes to be windows to the soul, but as far as I am concerned, lips are mirrors of the mind. This notion of connecting a person’s appearance with his character is called physiognomy and in the past, it was pretty hot stuff. The Greeks wrote treatises on it; and everyone from Aristotle to Leonardo da Vinci to Dickens was fascinated by it. Plant biologists have their own version of physiognomy. They call it the Doctrine of Signatures. It suggests that a plant’s outer appearance indicates its medicinal value, lending credence to the belief that eating brain-shaped walnuts improves intelligence. This particular theory has done zilch for me: I guzzle walnuts because I want to be a mathematician. So far, I can’t even add properly.
Naomi Campbell: The mouth that says it all (Photo by: Sebastian Willnow/AFP)
Physiognomy and its more recent incarnation, socionics (which is similar to the famous Myers-Briggs module that categorizes people into ENTJ and other types), say that you can gauge a person’s temperament simply by analysing his physical features. I apply it to lips.
The Chinese liked small rosebud-shaped lips. They liked round faces too as will be evident when you see old photographs of Chinese empresses with their elaborately made-up faces and bee-stung red lips. The Japanese didn’t pay much attention to lips. For them, the sexiest part of a woman’s body was the nape of her neck, beautifully framed by a pulled-back kimono. The Swedes and the Danes are famous for their high cheekbones, blonde hair and full, wide lips. Indians have lips that are all over the map. Some of us boast wide, full lips while others have narrow and thin lips. But it is the Africans who take the cake in the lip department. Their lips are beautifully pouty and lusciously full. Today, plastic surgeons are minting money by injecting collagen and other fillers into women’s lips just so they can look like what the Africans have naturally.
One evolutionary biologist told me that the reason Africans had full lips was because they evolved in hot climes and didn’t have to worry about frostbite; which means that Eskimos who do have to worry about frostbite ought to have the thinnest lips of all. And they don’t.
My own (unsubstantiated) theory is that countries which ate a non-vegetarian diet through the ages evolved to have thicker lips. Both northern Europeans and Africans have thick lips and they evolved in entirely different climates. But they both ate a diet that was meat- and fish-heavy. The Scandinavian countries still do, but Africa is ravaged by famine and other man-made ills, so their diet has gone for a toss. But in the past, the ancestors of both the Scandinavians and the Africans ate a meat-heavy diet. Their lips are fuller because of the way meat is eaten. They held it in their hands and tore off meat with their mouths, causing their lips to pout outwards. In contrast, countries with a grain-heavy vegetarian diet ate by slurping (soup or spaghetti) which caused their lips to pull inwards, thus leading to thinner lips.
I’ve looked for research (that is better than my theories) on why some people and some races have thicker lips than others and haven’t been able to find a single genetic correlation, let alone causality. I even looked at photographs of all the Nobel Prize winners to see if they all shared thin or thick lips. They don’t—their lips were all over the map with respect to thickness—but I did find one blindingly obvious common physiognomic element: Most Nobel laureates have receding hairlines.
The annals of literature and poetry are full of metaphors for eyes and hair but they pay scant attention to lips. Tamil and Urdu poetry, for instance, have all these similes about a woman’s hair being like a cloud (megh jaise baal), and about eyes like fish (meenalochani is a common name in the Puranas and it means fish-like eyes, which, by the way was a compliment). But I was hard-pressed to find a single line of verse in praise of lips, which is sort of strange because lips are right up there in the fertility department.
The reason why men find women with lustrous hair sexy is because thick hair represents a high level of estrogen, indicating, evolutionarily speaking, that the woman is a good mate for procreation of the species. The same goes for lips. Fuller lips indicate higher levels of estrogen. As women get older and their estrogen levels fall, their lips shrink just like the rest of them.
I interned with an acupuncturist for a couple of years and she was obsessed with lips. In Chinese medicine, lips refer to the spleen, which is a junior organ in allopathy but a heavyweight in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). If your spleen is healthy, then you are in good shape. Dry lips indicated wind-heat, while too-red lips indicated that the Yin was deficient. And so it went. I think my attention to lips began in that acupuncturist’s office.
Dinosaurs didn’t have lips. Or if they did, they would have required a lot of lip balm. Chimps and gorillas have glorious lips as do most primates. About reptilian lips, the less said the better. Fish have fantastic lips and angelfish have the best of all. In fact, a common veterinary problem with angelfish is that their already-pouty lips swell up. Seriously.
The most common entreaty with respect to lips is not the dignified “breathe” that the nose commands; the pithy “pay attention” that we address the ear with; or even the plaintive “close your eyes” that we tell our sight organs. For the lips, it is the rude “shut up”. So I will, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for your time.
Shoba Narayan has lips like an even-toed ungulate dromedary. Or so her brother says. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org