By Liz Siegel, 12/13/17
They squint in exasperation, crumple in disgust, and deepen with joy. They’re teeny — less than a centimeter wide — but they can be a source of endless frustration or a point of pride. They’re the result of a muscle twitch that’s as uncontrollable as it is fleeting, but whether they’ve sent us to the dermatologist in a panic or reminded us of our mother’s laugh, they’re part of who we are. They go by unpronounceable names (orbicularis oculi contractions) and cryptic ones (Duchenne markers). But the most common, the most weighted, is crow’s-feet. And they’re more complicated, more nuanced, than we ever thought.
“When people come in wanting to get rid of their crow’s-feet, we really think through whether this is the best choice,” says Rannell Hirsch, a dermatologist in Boston. “More than any other wrinkle, crow’s-feet are expressive. I often say, ‘Trying to emote without facial expressions is like trying to text without emoji’s.’” And OK, technically they’re less a red-dress dancing lady, more of a collagen loss around the muscle (the orbicularis oculi) that encircles your eye. It’s a contraction that happens involuntarily when you smile. “Crow’s-feet are the expression lines associated with joy, whereas some other lines, like between the brows, are associated with frowns,” says Susan Taylor, an associate professor of dermatology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
So doctors who used to use injections to erase crow’s-feet indiscriminately are softening their approach. "I look at old pictures, and I was smiling, but my eyes weren’t. It was creepy. But when I was in [my residency, 20 years ago], we were taught to use Botox to inject crow’s-feet uniformly — X marks the spot— until there was no movement. So that’s what I was doing on everyone, including myself,” says Jessica Wu, a dermatologist in Los Angeles.
“I’ve backed off for a softer look. Now when actresses come to me, they are very clear: They want smile lines around their eyes.” Patients who are psychologists routinely tell Wu that they need their crow’s-feet to show empathy for their patients, and teachers — from grammar schools especially —typically want their eyes left alone to help them bond with young kids.
Picture a smile — and we mean a truly blissed-out smile — with crinkles around the eyes. There’s deep warmth there. It’s not that we’re knocking eye creams here; God knows we use them, we love them, and there’s real pleasure in the feel of a favorite serum. Plus they do a pretty great job of keeping the skin around our eyes soft and supple and protected from the elements. But it can also be liberating to recalibrate the way we consider crow’s-feet. To see them as something to be celebrated and embraced, not wiped away or wished away or filled or frozen or shellacked with a primer.
"When they are soft and in balance, crow’s-feet add sparkle to your eyes,” says Doris Day, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the NYU Lang one Medical Center. "In Europe, crow’s-feet have always been desirable, and we’re just starting to think the same way here." It’s something psychologists have known for a long time. Crow’s-feet are so important in psychology that there’s a name for them: Duchenne markers. "When you see someone smile, you tend to make a distinction between genuine smiles — which we call Duchenne — and sham smiles, because we tend to believe genuine smiles are accompanied by crow’s-feet,” says Alexander Todorova, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. Todorova is a leading researcher on facial expression and the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. “Impressions aren’t always accurate, but they matter in everyday life — and they can determine a lot of what happens to you.”
Amazingly, studies of yearbook pictures, politicians’ headshots, and dating profile photos show that deep crow’s-feet are good predictors of lower divorce rates, election victories, and how wealthy people think you are, respectively. The senior author of the your-wrinkles-make-you-look-rich study, Nicholas Rule, an associate professor of psychology and the Canada Research Chair of the social perception and cognition laboratory at the University of Toronto, explains: "The emotional expressions you’ve been making all your life come to be reflected in your face, and crow’s-feet are very important in expression. They signal you’re happier overall and, in this case, that you’re wealthier because you’ve been contented and smiling much of your life.” In another study, women who reported experiencing a particular emotion frequently throughout their life looked like that emotion by the age of 68; “it’s especially noticeable for happiness, possibly because of crow’s-feet,” says Todorova.
“We try to recast how people think about crow’s-feet. I say, 'Your crow’s-feet are the story of who you are, of all your laughter and joy over the last 40 years,'" says Hirsch. "Crow’s-feet speak of a joyous life laughing, and that is truly beautiful."