All About Proportions, Especially for Those Who Don’t Have Big Heads

In an article in the February 2011 issue of Elle magazine entitled “Small on Top,” Miranda Purves writes: “If balance and proportion are the basis of all beauty, the size of your head . . . can prove to be a big problem.” She describes a lack of self-confidence stemming from what she perceives to be her own too-small head.

Cultural factors come strongly into play in a perception of the ideal head size, and Purves’s article provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of desirable head sizes, including the effect of hairstyles and dress on the visual impressions of head size. Purves writes that actors “are known to have large heads, which are thought to translate better to the screen,” while at the same time, “the actress as determiner of beauty ideals has never been stronger.” Still, she notes historical examples where smaller heads have been in vogue:  “Balanchine’s ballerinas were long-legged with a small head,” and 1980s fashions, such as those of designer Thierry Mugler, visually dwarfed heads with voluminous inverted triangular silhouettes.

Illustration: From Purves’s article in the February 2011 issue of Elle, a photo of former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who has a relatively large head and narrow body, contrasting with a woman modeling an ensemble from Thierry Mugler that visually created the impression of a small head.

Dissecting this issue further, the perceived size of one’s head relates to both the length and width of one’s face. Purves comments that she has a long, rectangular face and that she was advised by her hair stylist to stop wearing her long, straight hair up and instead to trim the length and add volume – i.e., width. Width in a hairstyle counters the strong vertical impression of a long, narrow face. Similarly, bangs can visually shorten a long face. Were her face short  relative to its width (usually associated with what is considered a round face), then piling her hair on top of her head would optically add length and again, give the visual impression of a larger overall head.

Illustration: Kim Kardashian, pictured in the February 21, 2011 issue of People, employs voluminous hair and a wide, open neckline to flatter her relatively narrow face.

Jewelry, too, can assist in creating the impression of more ideal proportions in head size. Cluster or button earrings that rest on the earlobes and that themselves have some width (perhaps one inch in diameter) add to the perceived width of the face and thus the size of the head. Wearing linear or dangling earrings with a strongly vertical focus adds to the impression of length and narrowness of a long, rectangular face and correspond to the impression of a disproportionately small head.

Similarly, if you have a narrow face and wish to give the impression of a larger head, choose short necklaces (the new rigid collar-style necklaces are ideal) rather than long dangling necklaces that increase the visual impression of vertical lines.

Illustration: Actors Chris Noth, Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan, Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland, the ensemble cast of the Broadway revival of Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season,” in a photo published February 3, 2011 in the New York Times online.  Notice the wide variation in relative head size of these attractive men.

Watching the Westminster Dog Show earlier this week, I was reminded of how greatly what is considered appropriate proportions vary from breed to breed. The Dandie Dinmont terrier with its short stature and large head might be considered ideal for television, while the sleek Scottish deerhound that won Best in Show this year has a relatively small head and a large, powerful yet graceful body, perhaps more suited to a dancer. Big head, small head, sturdy or sleek, each dog is beautiful in its own way.

Purves herself writes about adopting a cat with what she saw as a head too small for its body. The cat reminds Purves of her own head size but also “that beauty is much, much more than the sum of its parts.” Indeed it is. Purves’s intriguing article can be found online on  

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