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What Causes Widow's Peak Hair? Is Genetics Involved?

written by: VinceSummers•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 6/9/2011

The rare "V" shape at the center of the hairline of some people is called "widow's peak." At eye level, it may be the first feature we notice. Some famous people have widow's peaks. Is this phenomenon an indicator of personality, or only superstition? Does genetics play a role, as some suppose?

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    A widow's peak is a downward "V" shape in the middle of the hairline. This term was originally used because this type of hairline was thought to indicate that a woman would outlive her husband. The shape reminded the observer of a style of headdress worn by a woman in mourning. Despite the name, both men and women can have a widow's peak hairline.

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    Widow's Peak and Genetics

    There is debate as to whether a widow's peak hairline is determined by genetics. For this reason, an article in OMIM by Johns Hopkins University says, "A pointed frontal hairline may be inherited as a dominant." (Italics ours) But doubt is expressed by University of Delaware Professor John H. McDonald, of the Department of Biological Sciences. He refers to it as a "myth."

    If it is a genetically dominant trait, one parent possessing the trait should be able to impart the distinctive hairline, 50 to 100 percent of the time. This is because each parent has two genes for each heritable characteristic. So, if one parent has widow's peak and the other one doesn't, it is possible for at least 50 percent of the couple's children to display widow's peak. If the one parent possesses two genes bearing the characteristic, that percentage increases to 100.

    If it is not a genetically dominant trait, what causes it? Since a number of prominent universities and other institutions accept the genetics explanation, a strong alternative theory has not surfaced. It is known, however, that certain genetic conditions incorporate the feature of a widow's peak, such as Aarskog-Scott syndrome.

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    Widow's Peak: Origin and Personality Traits

    What is the etymology of widow's peak? It dates back to at least the 16th century. Women in mourning would wear a peaked hood. It was felt that a woman with a hairline reminiscent of this hood would see her husband predecease her.

    There is no evidence that widow's peak contributes anything to personality. However, Hollywood begs to differ. A widow's peak to them often reveals dark inner qualities, even evil tendencies. Consider, for example, Batman's nemesis, the Joker. Or how about the movie villain—a serial killer—Hannibal Lecter? And who would fail to recognize the widow's peak of Edward "Eddie" Wolfgang Munster of the television sitcom, "The Munsters?" Although he is also cute, Eddie is, after all, a werewolf! Then, too, there is Grandpa Munster—a vampire.

    On the other hand (in real life) a V in the feminine hairline may be tolerated or even considered appealing. Some famous actresses with widow's peak include Marilyn Monroe, Sandra Bullock, and Drew Barrymore.

    The Prince and the Showgirl Marilyn Monroe's Widow's Peak

    Movie: The Prince and the Showgirl

    Credit: PD by Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

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    Celebrities and Other Famous People Sporting a Widow's Peak

    Keanu Reeves

    John Travolta

    Rory Calhoun

    Wentworth Miller

    Boris Karloff

    Leonardo DiCaprio

    Michail Baryshnikov

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    References and Resources

    University of Delaware: Myth of Human Genetics: Widow's Peak - The Myth, by Dr. John H. McDonald.

    Word Origins: widow's peak

    Also from Bright Hub: Tongue Rolling Genetics, by Paul Arnold.