I think we can all agree that dimples are pretty adorable — or at least, desirable. They’re associated with a particular type of female beauty epitomized by people like Jennifer Garner, Ariana Grande, and Miranda Kerr: a sweet, childlike appeal with an air of innocence. We associate dimples with cuteness and babies — an association that child star Shirley Temple and her cute cheek indentations used to make serious bank in the 1930s. (She even starred as a character called “Dimples” in 1936.) But behind these adorable little dents are actually numerous theories as to why some people have dimples — and the science is surprisingly divided.
First off, there are actually two kinds of facial dimples: chin and cheek dimples. As the proud owner of a chin dimple, I can back up the fact that chin dimples are caused by an underlying cleft in the bone of the chin. (The cleft in my skull is so pronounced you can fit an entire thumb in it. Good party trick.) Slightly less happily, the current popular theory among scientists is that cleft chins are actually a result of a hiccup in fetal development, where the left and right sides of the chin haven’t fused together properly in the womb. So Henry Cavill, Jude Law, and Ben Affleck might make the hot lists, but their sultry chin dimples come down to a development problem. Erm. Sexy?
But cheek dimples are a little more complicated. If you’ve been lusting over dimples, doing that thing where you try to deepen your own with a pencil, or have just been staring at Miranda Kerr wondering what the fuss is all about, here’s the skinny on dimples.
Why Do Some People Have Dimples?
It’s generally agreed that dimples are genetic — but there’s an argument about the details. For a long time, dimples were considered a “dominant” genetic trait: if both your parents had them, you’d always develop some cuteness of your own.
Now, however, some scientists are arguing that they’re actually irregular dominant traits — so having two parents with dimples doesn’t appear to guarantee you’ll have them 100 percent of the time. And one specialist, Professor John McDonald, thinks there isn’t enough research to classify dimples as a dominant trait at all. It’s all a bit of a puzzle.
There are also two different theories about what actually causes dimples in the first place. One is that it’s a product of shorter muscles around the mouth, but the more popular theory is that it’s a defect in the facial muscle going by the frankly brilliant name of zygomaticus major. It’s a large muscle in the side of your face, and the dimples are believed to be caused by a divide in the muscle, which is normally all in one piece. The double or bifid zygomaticus means a small dent forms whenever you smile.
What’s The Evolutionary Advantage Of Having Dimples?
There are a few ideas around: one is that dimples remind us of the faces of babies and young children, which have evolved to be extremely attractive to humans. Every time you coo over a fat little chubster, you’re answering centuries of evolution to make babies as cute as possible (big eyes, chubby cheeks, and yes, dimples) so that we’ll bond to them instead of abandoning them to wolves. Dimples may harken back to that nurturing instinct and make us feel positive about a dimpled face.
Another idea, floated in a study in 2008, suggested that dimples might have evolved as a way of helping humans to communicate via our facial expressions. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, raised the idea that dimples “could be of added value in making an expression noticeable, or in providing information about the intensity of the expression”. So: your dimpled grin might help people to notice your smile or your frown, and cause less confusion around how you really feel about Mad Men ending.
Equally, dimples might be an aid to sexual attractiveness: if people notice your face more, there’s an added chance they might want to make babies with you. (Bonus!) Dimples are also popularly associated with youth and childhood — which, in this youth-obsessed society, is perceived as an extra incentive for potential partners to swipe right on your Tinder picture.
Can You Make Yourself Develop Dimples?
In the children’s classic What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, from 1887, the character of Clover has lovely dimples, “partly natural, and partly, I regret to say, the result of a pointed slate-pencil, with which Clover was in the habit of deepening them every day while she studied her lessons.” But can you actually make yourself develop dimples?
It looks like the answer is, erm, no. Not that it’s stopped people from trying: witness the Dimple Machine, invented in 1936 (also the year that Shirley Temple’s film Dimples came out — not a coincidence) by Isabella Gilbert of New York. It now regularly makes lists of bad beauty inventions, but at the time, the headgear—– which pressed on the sides of the face at the two normal dimple-points — fueled a popular belief that you could “make” dimples yourself with willpower and something pointy.
Of course, you can make temporary indentations by pressing hard on the skin (not recommended) or doing magic with make-up. But permanent dimples, much like fetch, just aren’t going to happen without a bit of surgical intervention or a piercing. Dimple piercings are common cheek piercings to “fake” the appearance of a dimple, with a little bulb or flat piece of metal pinching the dent in place.
Not satisfied with that? In 2012, some plastic surgeons published an article reporting a huge boom in the amount of patients wanting artificial dents, and proposing a new way of “tethering” the skin to the facial muscles using some fancy stitching. The really interesting bit? They reported that the average age of patients, both male and female, was 31. So it’s not quite midlife crisis time, but it’s definitely the prime twenties-are-over-oh-god-I’m-losing-my-youthful-glow period.