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Does a living body reveal the story of its life?
April 3, 2011 10:40 PM   Subscribe

Are there ever any reliable inferences to be drawn about a person's work or lifestyle from physical characteristics?

Sometimes this is a trope done the detective genre, and I'm wondering if there's any validity to it. For example, (roughly) "Watson, that man across the street is obviously a blacksmith; his right arm is bigger than his left, his shoes have cinder burns, and his face is ruddy from the forge."

Sometimes it happens in everyday life. Maybe someone says, "Look at that guy. Clothes ... face...teeth..behavior. Must be a crackhead."

I've also had a lingering urge to do some kind of artistic exploration (writing? poetry? sculpture? glass? dunno) of the way that work and life can shape bodies, so this is related to that. So are there "truckdriver" bodies or "farmer" bodies or anything like that.

Stories/observations either confirming/disproving welcome.
posted by yesster to Society & Culture (63 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
Look at someone's hands. If someone does manual labor for a living, it's fairly obvious.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:43 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look at someone's hands. If someone does manual labor for a living, it's fairly obvious.

I sit at a computer all day and yet I have calluses on my hands. Always have.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:44 PM on April 3, 2011


Yeah, but do you have the little cuts, scraps, skinned knuckles, chipped short nails and dirt ground deep into your fingerprints that won't wash out that my co-workers and I have?
posted by mollymayhem at 10:46 PM on April 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


I don't know if it's true or not, but I've been told that ballet dancers can spot other dancers and even tell where they trained based just on how they walk. I found an old New York Times article about it.
posted by craichead at 10:55 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


...callouses are one thing; the cracks, stains, scars and stumpy fingertips of machine and manual labourers are something else entirely...

All the farmers and farm workers over 35 around here have ruddy creased faces and tough skinned hands.

All the car mechanics I know have, at the least, oil stained cuticles. And that's after they've scrubbed up for a date.

Active surfers who don't do many other styles of exercise tend to have broad shoulders, strong arms and (disproportionately to me) slender calves.
posted by Kerasia at 10:58 PM on April 3, 2011


Less dramatically concerning hands: lefthanders will tend to have ink or graphite on the outer edge of their hand, which come from pushing the pen/pencil across the page and smearing it as they go.
posted by scody at 11:01 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Try looking up hand conditioning or hand shaping as it relates to martial arts.

Also, anecdotally, I know a violinist who says he can tell when he's shaking hands with someone who plays a stringed instrument, and sometimes even guess the instrument (at least to the resolution of, say, distinguishing the viol-family from guitars from harps). Apparently, each instrument produces a different pattern of calluses.

Elite bicycle sprinters have absurdly large thighs (I mean, literally, the first time I saw a photograph I thought it was edited).
posted by d. z. wang at 11:05 PM on April 3, 2011


All the competitive male swimmers I knew had hair that looked like straw. If you practiced two-a-days for long enough, dark hair took on an silvery-grey tone.
The girls tended to take better care of theirs, though it was still in pretty rough shape.
posted by milkrate at 11:12 PM on April 3, 2011


On the subject of string players, a not-insignificant portion of professional/serious violin and violas develop persistent "violin hickies" on the left sides of their necks because of constant pressure/irritation/mild infection/? there- (google image search for details if you want, but some of the resulting images are much ickier than any violin hickey I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot).
posted by charmedimsure at 11:15 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


violinISTS and violISTS
posted by charmedimsure at 11:17 PM on April 3, 2011


Photographs of sprinters: Chris Hoy (admittedly considered an extreme case even by fellow sprinters)
posted by d. z. wang at 11:18 PM on April 3, 2011


Non-western cultures where people spend the majority of their lives outdoors with minimal clothing (Amazon, sub-Saharan Africa) typically show very good posture. They also tend to run by landing on the balls of their feet. Those feet typically have very widely splayed toes, too.

People from cultures where squatting is a common sitting position can do so without lifting their heels from the ground (others typically find this difficult). People from floor-sitting countries (Japan, Korea) have very particular postures when seated on the floor. There are countless other indicia: presence/absence of body fat, skin coloration (i.e., exposure to sunlight), speed of walking (urbanites tend to be faster), etc.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:20 PM on April 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


And my favorite: it's very common for especially devout Muslim men to develop a callous on their forehead from touching it to the ground during prayer.
posted by holterbarbour at 11:21 PM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


People who work in pineapple canneries get an oozing, red rash on their wrists where the pineapple juice leaks inside their gloves. The juice is highly acidic and contains an enzyme called bromelain, which is commonly used as a meat tenderiser. If the juice gets down to the tips of their fingers, their fingerprints can start to fade. On the positive side, working in a humid environment with lots of steam and boiling fruit makes their hair incredibly soft and shiny.
posted by embrangled at 11:27 PM on April 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Seconding the hands of someone in manual labor. There are calluses, and then there are oven mitts of rough skin. Even the calluses of the guys I know who compete in strongman but work white-collar jobs can't compare to the hands of a roofer I once dated. Only dude who ever made me feel like I had princess hands.

Lefties who hold their pencils awkwardly will get a nubbin on their middle or ring fingers.
posted by schroedinger at 11:30 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


People who spend a lot of time on computers tend to get that hunched-neck turtle look.
posted by Lady Li at 11:53 PM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Legs are a pretty good give away. You can tell people who have lived in San Francisco for a long time because their calves are much bigger than normal. It's also pretty easy to pick out soccer players from the crowd by their legs. People who run all the time take on a very distinct shape. Dancers too, have a certain poise or gait and they move their bodies in a certain way that is easy to tell.

People who spend a lot of time on computers have slumped shoulders and that paunch or belly that's become more common.
posted by at the crossroads at 12:00 AM on April 4, 2011


craichead already mentioned dancers upthread, but yeah. Dancers have a certain way of moving.
posted by at the crossroads at 12:14 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meth users tend to have a very distinctive hollow-cheeked scabby look.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:18 AM on April 4, 2011


Less dramatically concerning hands: lefthanders will tend to have ink or graphite on the outer edge of their hand, which come from pushing the pen/pencil across the page and smearing it as they go.

Right-handers who have just been writing in a LtR language like Hebrew or Arabic have this on their right hands.
posted by atrazine at 12:21 AM on April 4, 2011


Miners get black lung.
posted by orthogonality at 1:02 AM on April 4, 2011


In the book The City of Falling Angels, it mentions that glass blowers get one hand that becomes shaped to the rod they use to turn the glass as it's blown
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:41 AM on April 4, 2011


Back in high school when I and everyone I know wrote a lot by hand, we all had funny lumpy calluses on the finger where the pen pressed against it. Nowadays I use a pen and paper so rarely that I don't have that callus anymore, and I don't even know where it used to be. Weird.
posted by lollusc at 2:10 AM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's possible that school children carrying heavy bags of books may develop permanently modified postures. You could also imagine that it might be possible to tell which type of bag was used and on which side it was carried.
posted by firesine at 2:22 AM on April 4, 2011


Sherlock Holmes springs to mind and though fictional is interesting:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes#Holmesian_deduction
posted by episodic at 2:56 AM on April 4, 2011


And my favorite: it's very common for especially devout Muslim men to develop a callous on their forehead from touching it to the ground during prayer.

I know quite a few devout Muslims...some of them even pray an extra hour or two everyday during Ramadan.

I have never ever seen any kind of mark on a forehead that resulted from their prayers. In fact, the only place I have even heard about this is metafilter. So its NOT "common"...and I think it might just be a "something I once saw" that kinda got exaggerated.

Also, if it were to be true, Muslim women would get it too since they also pray.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:21 AM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


hal_c_on, you're right that it's by no means common. No-one who just does the obligatory five prayers a day (which even many religious Muslims don't always do) will develop this. The only people who get it are those who spend hours and hours a day praying. It is a real thing, but about as common as Catholics wearing horsehair or those flesh clamping things.
posted by atrazine at 3:35 AM on April 4, 2011


With regard to the relationship between physique and activity, there's this photomontage that has been circulating the internet called "The Athlete" which shows prototypical body types for different sports. Ignoring the obvious genetic features like height, you can see a correlation or two between performing certain movements (what is probably) many times and the resulting general human shape.
posted by jgscott at 4:24 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I worked on Special Collections materials in a library I had very dry hands with the whorls on the fingerprints etc seemingly picked out in white - paper is very drying and you're not meant to use hand cream and soaps when you're going to be working with this stuff (clean dry hands are better than those gloves as they don't have seams that will catch on paper).
posted by LyzzyBee at 4:36 AM on April 4, 2011


I know an ex-cop who says he can tell when he meets a current or ex-cop just by posture, demeanor, etc. The one time he guessed when I was there he was right.
posted by availablelight at 4:49 AM on April 4, 2011


Re. foreheads. There were a couple dudes at my last workplace (the workplace was majority Iraqi, Iranian and north African) sporting marks on their foreheads. I was told by some of the other folks that it's a trend, brought about by specifically rubbing for it. Bugged the crap out of some people would go on "in my day you never saw..." and so forth. The egyptians I spoke to said it's gotten kinda big in the past 5-8 years-ish.
posted by Iteki at 4:59 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Iteki,
So they were purposely marking their foreheads?
posted by hal_c_on at 5:07 AM on April 4, 2011


Look at a guy's palm. If his index finger is significantly shorter than his ring finger, he most likely has an older brother (on his mother's side, at least). If those fingers are close to the same length, he likely has no older brothers (on his mother's side). Women tend to have similar length ring and index fingers regardless of number/type of siblings. (I did a short personal survey after I read the study and found it only slightly better than guessing, but it's quite hard to accurately compare finger lengths given that the hand is a funky shape--also be sure to check both hands, they can be quite different.)
posted by anaelith at 5:11 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anthony Bourdain mentions in Kitchen Confidential that he's able to identify other cooks by their hands. Not just the numerous scrapes and burns, but specifically a callous on the knuckle of your middle finger - as you guide food in to the knife, that spot on the hand rubs against the flat of the blade so you don't chop your fingertips off.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:15 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


No one hasmentioned "smoker's face"? There a characteristic set of facial wrinkling from years of heavy smoking, even if the person has quit.
posted by Savannah at 5:42 AM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Meth can produce some really messed up teeth.
posted by amicamentis at 5:51 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the US, where almost nobody's teeth matches their jaw, you can tell who grew up middle class-or-above by their teeth; orthodonture is almost universal for middle-class-and-up children born after WWII.

I had a physical therapist tell me he could tell which side mothers carried their toddlers on habitually because they tended to have a "hitch" in that hip from the muscles working unevenly over time. He said it wasn't pronounced until the kids got big enough to be carried on the hip (so not with babies), and usually went away once they were big enough not to be carried. In fact, when I met him, he said, "Do you have a toddler?" "Yes?" "Do you carry him on your right side?" ".... yes ...?" "Thought so." And he pretty accurately guessed every woman in the room with a toddler and which side she carried her child on!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:51 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know an ex-cop who says he can tell when he meets a current or ex-cop just by posture, demeanor, etc.

This is true. I used to (try to) impress an ex-girlfriend by playing this game at shopping malls, by watching the way a security guard walks and then asking him, "Hey, did you used to be a police officer?" 100% accuracy.
posted by red clover at 6:07 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is sort of an edge case, but you can freak out fast food managers by:

1- walking in through the non primary door (classically the drive thru side)
2- walking to the rest room while scanning the dining room.
3- return from the rest room and get in line.
4- while in line, look into the kitchen, at the various tv monitors.
5- order something slightly unusual- whatever the restaurant sells the least of.
6- make eye contact with the manager.

They will instantly assume you are a corporate employee "shopping" the store.
posted by gjc at 6:33 AM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


[Bunch of comments removed, do not derail someone's question by throwing down.]
posted by cortex at 6:57 AM on April 4, 2011


Lifestyle marks
My friend aesthetician says that the women who has been living the most part of their lives in wealth have much better skin without using any skin care products comparing to those who lived on modest means. She finds out about skin care products use by a client during first appointment.

She is talking here about women who did not have to work very hard to earn their money but instead were born into money or married money. My friend’s guess is that these women have less stress, more sense of mastery over their lives, better nutrition and more time to relax and thus a better skin.
posted by ivanka at 7:04 AM on April 4, 2011


The mark on the forehead thing is indeed real. I lived in Abu Dhabi for a year, and lots of men had this. It took me a while to figure out what it was. It's not by any means unusual in certain parts of the world.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:12 AM on April 4, 2011


hal_c_on: that is how it was presented to me, yes. It was described as a deliberate act rather than something that just happened by itself during regularly devout prayer (have never met an imam with). The people I was talking to disagreed whether it was done by forcefully pressing/banging ones forehead during regular prayer or by other methods in front of the telly. It's possible both or neither of these things are true, just telling you what I was told.
posted by Iteki at 7:21 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


If a person has white streaks/specks on their teeth (dental fluorosis), they likely grew up in a rural area with well water and took fluoride supplements. I did, at least

Or, if their teeth have a yellowish-grayish tint, they likely took tetracycline antibiotics as a child, when their adult teeth were still developing.

A person with untreated scoliosis typically has one shoulder higher than the other and uneven hips.

A person vaccinated for smallpox has a circular scar about the size of a nickel on one arm (the deltoid muscle). If they have this scar, and are from the United States, they are most likely older than 39, since routine smallpox vaccinations ended in the US in 1972.

A person who has worn a wedding ring for a long time will have a band of lighter skin on their ring finger if they take the ring off.
posted by castlebravo at 7:55 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


In construction workers: people using a nail gun all day will have their gun arm much larger than the other.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:12 AM on April 4, 2011


I guess it's easy to see who works outdoors in Australia - the lily white feet and deeply imprinted tan starting above workboot height.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:53 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A person vaccinated for smallpox has a circular scar about the size of a nickel on one arm (the deltoid muscle).

The BCG vaccination against tuberculosis also leaves a small scar on the arm. School children were universally given a BCG vaccination in the UK (until recently) but never in the US, so the scar could in theory help to prove where a child grew up.
posted by firesine at 9:04 AM on April 4, 2011


If a woman has been a religious sister who wore a traditional full habit for years, you can sometimes see a dramatic difference between the exposed and unexposed facial skin.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:40 AM on April 4, 2011


People will walk on the side of a corridor/sidewalk that they would usually drive on.

- Seen quite frequently in overseas visitors or transplants.
posted by azlondon at 10:04 AM on April 4, 2011


Nail clubbing, in which the fingernails and tips get sort of rounded off (see link for photos), usually indicates a chronic lack of oxygen. This can be due to heart, lung, circulatory, or gastrointestinal conditions. I've seen it most often in people with COPD/emphysema or heart failure.
posted by vytae at 10:48 AM on April 4, 2011


Bulimics tend to develop a distinctive pattern of calluses on the hand they use to gag themselves. It's called Russell's sign.
posted by milk white peacock at 11:13 AM on April 4, 2011


Guitarists develop callused fingertips on their fretting hand (typically the left).

Female gymnasts get calluses on the palms of their hands right below where the fingers join the palm, and less frequently, on heels of their palms or on their wrists at the edges of their grips from the bars. I'm not sure if female and male gymnasts get calluses in different places, since women do uneven bars and men do parallel bars, high bar, and rings. I quit gymnastics in my mid-teens and my calluses were so deep that they remained into my early 20's.

I agree with Kerasia regarding mechanics' hands. My dad is a lifelong mechanic, and his hands are extremely strong, rough, and stained black under all his nails, his cuticles, and any cracks or cuts in his skin. It makes no difference how hard or often he scrubs, the stains only begin to fade after weeks of not working. Also, his fingers can no longer be extended straight.

A few years ago I tagged along with my dad to go car shopping. The salesman saw his hands and asked right away, "You're a mechanic?" He knew not to try any bullshit sales pitches then.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:43 AM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Extreme autism might show with slacked mouths.
I've noticed that folks with lesser forms of autism (apserger's or just lack of social training) have a habit of breathing through their mouths. I think it's a lack of social awareness.

Dancers walk like dancers, no getting around that.

Soccer players and hikers have extreme calves.

lifeguards have an all over tan, other outside workers (construction, landscaping) have "farmer" tans.

Clothes can show things like social status and wealth - though I know many folks buy a bit out of their means.

I've met teachers (and moms) who sometimes slip and use their "teacher voice" on their friends.

There are a lot of cliches about career military personnel revolving around crew cuts, neatness, and no-nonsense attitudes.
posted by jander03 at 1:00 PM on April 4, 2011


There's also the classic "trucker's tan," a tan on one arm only due to the arm on the side of the door (e.g., the left arm in a right-driving country) being more exposed to the sun.

I am not nor have ever been a trucker, but I did get a mild sunburn on my left arm only when driving from Indianapolis to Los Angeles over four days a few years back.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:47 PM on April 4, 2011


When my fiancée was working at The Seas at Disney World, scuba diving multiple times a day, she and all her colleagues lost their fingerprint definition. They became unable to pass through electronic fingerprint scanners at amusement park entries. It was known as The Seas Disease.
posted by lostburner at 4:04 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Slight derail, but I always wanted to read a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story in which he deduces that a man is a blacksmith, formerly a stoker in the navy, who has driven up from the country that morning in the rain, and the guy explains all the clues away as other things, like, he's borrowed a pair of pants so the marks on them are irrelevant, etc.

And just in case this isn't absolutely common knowledge at AskMetaFilter: Holmes was based on a doctor who used that kind of deduction to figure out whether his patients were lying to him, (i.e. they claim they don't smoke but their fingers are yellow). And House, of course, is based on Holmes and takes the whole back to doctoring.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:52 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some occupations have characteristic diseases.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:38 PM on April 4, 2011


ballet dancers can spot other dancers

Actually, it doesn't take a whole lot to pick a ballet dancer out of a crowd. I took ballet lessons as a child and can usually tell when the Joffrey Ballet Camp is going on just by walking through Union Square. It's partially in the clothes and the way they move, but also a particular sort of thinness.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 PM on April 4, 2011


Slight derail, but I always wanted to read a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story in which he deduces that a man is a blacksmith, formerly a stoker in the navy, who has driven up from the country that morning in the rain, and the guy explains all the clues away as other things, like, he's borrowed a pair of pants so the marks on them are irrelevant, etc.

Something like this happens in Flashman and the Tiger, one of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman stories. Holmes deduces that Flashman is a German-American ex navy man working in a lowly capacity on board ship. This is due to his wearing a peacoat with brass buttons (navy), having a "dueling" scar (German), and smelling of bourbon (American). All of these deductions are wrong.
posted by atrazine at 2:15 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ambrose Chapel - that's not a derail at all! That's exactly the kind of counter-argument (counter-fiction?) that I'm also looking for.
posted by yesster at 3:59 AM on April 5, 2011


DevilsAdvocate, that's also Pizza Man Tan. :7)

Long-time rowers in fours or eights will have one shoulder higher than the other. At least, my coach did, though maybe he was just a freak with a clever excuse...

It always annoys me when lazy writers say that a character "walks with a military bearing": is it just good posture, or someone who walks confidently, or who only makes ninety-degree turns, or what? (And the short hair didn't give it away?)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:00 PM on April 5, 2011


Canine dislocation seems like a bright red throbbing signal for domestic abuse.

From porpoise's comment in this post on the blue.
posted by yesster at 5:49 AM on April 6, 2011


In case it's relevant, I just read a post on Futility Closet about a little tiny book written by Conan Doyle for Queen Victoria's doll house, in which he pulls the counter-argument strategy himself.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:39 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


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