The Billboard of the Body

What is it about the forehead? Nearly every religion seems to find some significance there. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, which Catholics and some Protestants observe by wearing a cross of ash, drawn on the forehead by a priest. In the Hebrew Bible, God marks his followers invisibly on the brow; in the book of Revelations, it’s a slate for alarming messages. An observant Muslim will often have a prayer callus on the forehead, the result of touching the head to the ground in prostration dozens of times a day. In a Pentecostal church service, congregants might fall faint—or be “slain in the spirit”—after a pastor taps them there. (Sometimes it’s more of a shove.) For some Hindus and Buddhists, it’s the location of the third eye, and many Hindus wear a daub of pigment there as a mark of affiliation and devotion.

Why are so many rituals located on the forehead? It’s nice to be touched there; a gentle stroke on the forehead can send a tingle of pleasure around the head, like a push-button massage. It’s a place of pride, so to touch it to the ground or cover it with ash is a gesture of penitence and humility. Behind it, of course, is brain—the prefrontal cortex, its most mysterious sector. It seems to be the area of the brain that governs self-control, and you could probably find a neuroanatomist who would tell you that it’s the part that makes people want to get religious, but let’s not get carried away. The appeal of the forehead is obvious: it’s prime real estate. It’s flat, broad, conspicuous, nearly always exposed, and just north of eye level. If advertisers were permitted to lay claim to a single feature of the human body, that’s the part they’d pick. It’s the billboard of the body.

Americans are accustomed to seeing foreheads unblemished, so wearing a mark there, whether an ash cross or a fat pimple, can leave a person feeling exposed. To wear ash on your forehead in the sanctuary of the church is one thing, but to step out into the streets of the city is another, especially before you’ve had a chance to look in the mirror to see the shape of the smear the priest has left. Does it even look like a cross, or just a sooty thumbprint? This morning when I saw neighbors, fresh from mass, with black plusses on their brows, I was struck by their vulnerability; unlike Hindus, who might wear a daub of color on the forehead every day of the year, they’re unused to it. They’re offering a silent profession of faith to everyone they pass, like it or not. Acquaintances take notice, strangers stare, and throughout the day they’re aware of being watched.

I learned about that kind of vulnerability when I was a Catholic schoolboy, although it wasn’t on an Ash Wednesday. It was a Monday, and the day before, I’d been playing with a toy gun whose plastic “bullets” were tipped with two-inch suction cups. I thought I’d get a laugh if I stuck one of the suction-cup bullets to my forehead. (I was always doing dumb, cartoon-inspired shit like this; I won’t even tell you about the episode with the plunger.) And after I pulled it off, a perfectly circular bright red bruise, exactly two inches in diameter, revealed itself, smack in the middle of my forehead. When I woke up for school the next day, it was even redder.

My school, a Jesuit institution on the northwest side of Detroit, may have been the least forgiving environment imaginable for sporting a large, geometrically perfect red circle in the center of one’s forehead. It was an all-boys school, at the age when boys are at their worst, and I was its lowest form of life: a seventh grader at a school that ran seven through twelve. Even on days when I wasn’t wearing a giant red circle on my head, I could expect to get punched on the arm, hard, by what seemed like half the boys passing me in the hallway. “Nailed you!” they’d yell, when they landed a good one. Once, I don’t know why, they waited at the top of the school’s grand front entrance as I walked below, and spat, cheering when they planted one in my hair. Girls, this is what boys do to each other when you’re not around.

I knew that the big honking red dot in the middle of my forehead would bring much joy to the sadists I studied among, and I wasn’t disappointed. Word spread quickly, and even boys from the upper grades swung by my locker to check it out and laugh. Mercifully, I wasn’t punched in the arm any more than usual; they were having too much fun marvelling at the preposterousness of my bruise to do much more than jeer and let me feel the burn of humiliation. By the end of the day, I’d become resigned to it, and as I made my way down the hall I didn’t flinch when an upperclassman, a stranger to me, noticed my face and lit up with delight.

“Hey, man!” he howled. “You stuck a suction cup on your forehead!”

I nodded in tribute to his powers of perception and kept walking, but he wasn’t done with me. His voice went quiet. “The reason I know,” he said, “is ‘cause I stuck a suction cup on my forehead once, too. And the same thing happened to me.” He chuckled at the thought of it. “It’ll take about three days to go away,” he said sympathetically. “I feel you, man.”

He smiled kindly and moved on, and I don’t remember ever seeing him again. But the cruelty of school never really bothered me as much after that (even if my arm still got just as sore after a full day of getting nailed there). There certainly was nothing religious about the oddly round bruise in the center of my forehead. But like an ashen cross, it turned out to be a signifier of affiliation—an affiliation of idiots, to be sure, but an affiliation nonetheless. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t grant me some kind of moment of grace.

Rollo Romig writes (mostly) about religion for the website of the New Yorker. Read his work here.