When You Are Young, You Have the Face Your Parents Gave You. After You Are Forty, You Have the Face You Deserve

George Orwell? Coco Chanel? Mae West? Ingrid Bergman? Albert Camus? Abraham Lincoln? Edwin M. Stanton? Lucius E. Chittenden? Albert Schweitzer? Maurice Chevalier? William H. Seward? Edward Lee Hawk? William Shakspeare? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person’s true character can be deduced by the careful study of the face according to believers in physiognomy. This notion dates back to the ancient Greeks, but nowadays it is often considered pseudoscientific. Believers contend that the human visage changes over time, and authentic character eventually emerges. Here are three pertinent remarks:

  • At forty you have the face you deserve.
  • A man of 50 years is responsible for his looks
  • After thirty you have the face you have made yourself.

This family of statements includes elaborate multipart assertions. Here are two examples:

  • At 20 you have the face God gave you, at 40 you have the face that life has molded, and at 60 you have the face you deserve.
  • Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.

Remarks of this type have been credited to U.S. statesman Abraham Lincoln, fashion maven Coco Chanel, political writer George Orwell, French existentialist Albert Camus, movie star Ingrid Bergman, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in “Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration” by Lucius E. Chittenden who served as U.S. Register of the Treasury during Lincoln’s presidency. Chittenden told an anecdote about Edwin M. Stanton who served as Secretary of War for Lincoln. Stanton would sometimes judge a person harshly based on facial features. In the following dialog Stanton was conversing with an unnamed military officer about an underling in the War Department. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Did you ever in all your life see the head of a human being which so closely resembled that of a cod fish?”

He is not responsible for his head or his face. But why do you say he is a fraud? The newspapers call him a reformer, and give him credit for great efficiency.”

“I deny your conclusions,” he replied. “A man of fifty is responsible for his face! Yes, I know he is courting the newspapers: that proves him a humbug and presumptively a fraud.”

A few months later the official in question was found guilty by a court-martial of peculation and fraud in the management of his bureau and dishonorably expelled from the service.

Chittenden’s book of recollections was published in 1891. However, the episode above reportedly occurred many years earlier during Lincoln’s presidency which ended with his death in 1865. The accuracy of the quotation attributed to Stanton was dependent on the veracity of Chittenden who may have heard the tale second-hand.

This family of sayings has remained popular for many decades. Coco Chanel employed a multipart version in 1938. George Orwell penned an instance in one of his notebooks in 1949. Albert Camus published a version in 1956. Ingrid Bergman referred to the saying in 1957. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When You Are Young, You Have the Face Your Parents Gave You. After You Are Forty, You Have the Face You Deserve


  1. 1891 Copyright, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration by L. E. Chittenden; Lincoln’s Register of The Treasury (Lucius Eugene Chittenden), Chapter 24, Quote Page 184, Harper & Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link