Ask Smithsonian: What Is a Dimple?

Michael Jordan, Vanessa Hudgens and all those celeb dimples to die for? Just a result of a double zygomaticus major muscle

What gives Brad Pitt that special twinkle? And what is it that makes Jennifer Garner so alluring, yet so innocent and youthful? A birth defect that is otherwise known as the dimple.

For eons, mankind has associated dimples with attractiveness. And yet, those facial depressions are essentially an accident of birth, conferred through genetics. 

“Cheek dimples are a genetically transmitted abnormality of a muscle in the cheek,” says Brent Moelleken, a Beverly Hills, California plastic surgeon, and associate clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles.

If both parents have dimples, the child will have them. Cheek dimples are a Mendelian trait, following the laws of inheritance first described by Gregor Mendel in 1865. Chin dimples are also inherited.

The dimples are due to the existence of the bifid, or double, zygomaticus major muscle, which ends up tethered to the cheek. “This fibrous connection causes a dimple to become deeper and more visible when a person smiles, flexing that muscle,” says Anthony Youn, a Troy, Michigan-based plastic surgeon.

Chin dimples result when the chin does not fuse correctly during embryologic development, leaving a cleft, says Moelleken.

Plenty of celebrities–of all races and ethnicities–have cheek or chin dimples. Divot-faced A-listers include Michael B. Jordan, Vanessa Hudgens, Gabrielle Union, Michael McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mario Lopez, and John Legend, among others. Kirk Douglas probably has the most famous chin dimple of all time.

“People debate why this is an appealing feature,” says Moelleken, who adds that the lure may be that dimples “are a feature of youth.” Almost all babies have some cheek dimples, “simply because they have so much fat in their cheeks,” he says. The fat, required for suckling, causes facial depressions. Those uninherited dimples disappear as the baby’s baby fat melts away.  

But for those who inherited dimples, the condition lasts until old age—and concurrent fat loss—lessen their appearance.

In general, dimples are permanent, says Youn.  “I've had a number of patients ask me over the years if I could remove a dimple for them,” he says. “I tell them it's virtually impossible.” Even with a facelift, cheek dimples will not disappear, says Youn.

Some people seek to have dimples created surgically. It’s unclear how often. The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, which collects statistics on cosmetic procedures, does not even have a category for the dimpleplasty, as it is known.

With a dimpleplasty, an incision is made on the inside of the cheek, and the “surgeon dissects through the buccinator muscle and makes a small tunnel all the way to the undersurface of the skin of the cheek,” Youn says.  A permanent stitch is placed between the undersurface of the skin and the underlying muscle, which creates a dimple.

“It’s definitely a fringe operation,” Moelleken says. A saliva gland and nerves that control lip function could be injured during the procedure. And it is not so easy to get two symmetrical indentations. They also could be too big, or too small. “I’ve seen dimples that were just catastrophically bad,” he says, adding that once surgically created, they cannot be undone. 

That doesn’t stop people from longing to look like the Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr, or centuries before her, the Mona Lisa.

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