How symmetrical an adult’s face is can reveal a great deal about their childhood, researchers from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland wrote in the journal Economics and Human Biology. The authors used 15 different facial features and discovered that those whose faces were more asymmetrical tended to have more difficult and deprived childhoods.

The authors suggest that the following factors during childhood may affect a person’s facial features – exposure to tobacco smoke, pollution exposure, nutrition, childhood socioeconomic status, and illnesses.

Socioeconomic factors during adulthood do not appear to impact on people’s facial features. Those who become rich, but experienced a deprived childhood will have more asymmetrical facial features as a consequence, compared to people with privileged childhoods who became poor later on.

This may explain why some celebrities who had difficult childhoods have distinctive asymmetrical features, despite having accumulated riches during adulthood, such as Gordon Ramsay.

Senior researcher, Professor Ian Deary, said:

“Symmetry in the face is thought to be a marker of what is called developmental stability – the body’s ability to withstand environmental stressors and not be knocked off its developmental path. We wondered whether facial symmetry would faintly record either the stressors in early life, which we though might be especially important, or the total accumulated effects of stressors through the lifecourse. The results indicated that it is deprivation in early life that leaves some impression on the face. The association is not very strong, meaning that other things also affect facial symmetry too.”

The researchers examined the features of 292 people from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921 – they were all aged 83 when facial symmetry was assessed, while bodily symmetry was examined at 87. The study tracks individuals throughout their lives.

They gathered information on their facial symmetry, data on their childhood socioeconomic status, and attained status at midlife.

The authors examined 15 facial “landmarks”, which included the position of the ears, mouth, nose and eyes. The participants’ socioeconomic status as children included information on how crowded their homes were, whether they had an indoor or only outdoor toilet, parents’ jobs, etc.

They found that facial symmetry among males was closely linked to social class as children – the more symmetrical their faces as adults, the more comfortable their upbringings were.

Even though similar associations were found among females, they were less pronounced.

Professor Tim Bates added:

“A small link from parental status to facial symmetry doesn’t mean people are trapped by their circumstances. Far from it – as shown by the high levels of mobility in society, not just people like Gordon Ramsay, but to lesser degrees by millions of people.”

The authors concluded:

“. . . . However, markers of childhood disturbance remain many decades later, suggesting that early development may account in part for associations between SES and health through the lifecourse. Future research should clarify which elements of the environment cause these perturbations.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist