What Body Parts Do People Kiss With?

Indignity Vol. 4, No. 54

What Body Parts Do People Kiss With?
Detail of the photo going around.


The photo going around.

A PHOTO WAS going around—it goes around every now and then—of the lite-insurrectionist Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley and his culture-warrior activist lawyer wife, Erin Hawley, in profile, poising their faces toward each other in a position that was clearly intended to resemble a kiss. Were the Hawleys kissing? It was hard to tell. A zoom in on the picture revealed little spots of daylight shining between the two of them as they very lightly pressed together some parts of their faces, possibly including their mouths.

I wanted to post the close-up on Bluesky, but this introduced a problem. When I switched over from using Twitter to using Bluesky, I resolved to write a descriptive alt-text caption to go with every image that I posted, an accessibility feature that I had always felt guilty about using only rarely and inconsistently on Twitter. Beyond contributing to a more inclusive norm of online behavior, using the alt text also cut down on how often I posted of screenshots of annoying writing, especially from my phone. 

Now, though, it meant that I had to try to explain what was going on with the Hawleys' lips. And I realized that I didn't have ready vocabulary for the job. English uses "lip" to describe multiple different things in and around the mouth: there's the mobile part of the face, covered in regular skin, that surrounds the mouth (the lip where people "keep a stiff upper lip" or grow a mustache); there's the softer, contrasting-colored part of the mouth that opens and closes (the lips on which people put lipstick); and there's the even softer inside lip (the lip behind which people tuck a pinch of snuff). 

Certain parts of Erin Hawley's face were touching certain parts of Josh Hawley's face. Some of those parts were what people call "lips." Were they identifiably kissing, though?

The Internet may be almost ruined as a means of getting information, but between people posting about cosmetics and people posting about cosmetic surgery, it was still possible to work out a taxonomy of the different lip-zones. The outer region is the cutaneous lip, i.e. the part with skin on it. The innermost region is the mucosal lip, the part covered with the same stuff as the rest of the inside of the mouth. In between—the lipstick lips—is the vermilion, named for the pink-red color (named, in turn, via Latin, for worms). 

(The vermilion border between the cutaneous and vermilion parts is also apparently its own anatomical thing, as is the wet-dry border between the vermilion and the mucosal region, but we're not giving the lips medical treatment here.)

From this, it's possible to name what goes into different levels of kissing. The cutaneous lip is for the most distant kind of social kissing, with the vermilion tucked under and out of the way. This is what makes for a dry peck on the cheek. The vermillion lip comes out for actually affectionate kissing—extended tightly for a quick mouth-to-mouth smooch ("Bye, going to the store"), or relaxed into the other vermilion lip to linger there for a moment, or longer. "Mmm-wah" is the onomatopoeic enactment of the unrolling from cutaneous to vermilion. At some point, if the kiss keeps on relaxing, the mucosal lips get involved, which is when the crowd at the wedding would start fidgeting and letting out whoops or nervous chuckles.

Awkward kisses, then, involve the wrong lip part doing the wrong thing. The wet part of the mucosal lip hits a startled cheek. Tender vermilion meets unyielding cutaneous lip. There is a mismatch of anatomy and intention. 

Where does that leave the osculation of the Hawleys? The photo captured Josh Hawley with his mouth shaped into a tight frown, more or less the opposite of a normal kissing motion. His vermilion lips, not ample to begin with, appeared to be firmly compressed against each other, and were not at all aligned with his wife's; a gap of light appeared between them. Erin Hawley's upper vermilion seemed to be grazing Josh Hawley's cutaneous lower lip, where the soul patch would be if Josh Hawley grew a soul patch. There was, at most, half a kiss going on there. One quarter of a kiss, if kissing takes two people. 

upload in progress, 0


Tom Scocca reads you the newspaper.
upload in progress, 0


New York City, March 26, 2024

★★ The sullen, almost brownish gray sky at dawn eased into whitish and bluish spots by midmorning. Half-dark shadows faded in and out again. The air was damp and the cold had softened. The parka was too much during the semi-sunny spells, but it was too late to do anything but shrug off one sleeve of it. In afternoon, it was time for both sleeves again, under a gray that allowed for neither sun nor rain. 

upload in progress, 0


A scale with a hand doing "thumbs up" gesture opposed by another hand also doing a "thumbs up" on the other side of the scale but weighing more even though they look the sameA scale with a hand doing "thumbs up" gesture opposed by another hand also doing a "thumbs up" on the other side of the scale but weighing more even though they look the same

Ask The Sophist

GOT SOMETHING YOU need to justify to yourself, or to the world at large? Other columnists are here to judge you, but The Sophist is here to tell you why you’re right. Please send your questions to The Sophist, at indignity@indignity.net, and get the answers you want.


WE PRESENT INSTRUCTIONS in aid of the assembly of sandwiches from New Presentation of Cooking with Timed Recipes, by Auguste Gay with the collaboration of Anne Page. Published in 1924, and now in the Public Domain and available at archive.org for the delectation of all.

For each sandwich
2 slices of buttered bread
1 slice of corned beef
1 hard boiled egg
1 tablespoon mayonnaise sauce

Chop the corned beef and the eggg and mix with the mayonnaise sauce. Spread on both slices of bread, put together and press lightly.

For each sandwich
2 slices of buttered bread
2 tablespoons crab meat
1 tablespoon red pepper
1 tablespoon mayonnaise sauce

Chop red pepper. Mix with the crab meat and mayonnaise sauce. Spread on both slices of bread, put together and press lightly..

If you decide to prepare and attempt to enjoy a sandwich inspired by this offering, be sure to send a picture to indignity@indignity.net. 


The second printing of 19 FOLK TALES is now available for gift-giving and personal perusal! Sit in the strengthening sunshine with a breezy collection of stories, each of which is concise enough to read before the damp ground seeps through your blanket.

HMM WEEKLY MINI-ZINE, Subject: GAME SHOW, Joe MacLeod’s account of his Total Experience of a Journey Into Television, expanded from the original published account found here at Hmm DailyThe special MINI ZINE features other viewpoints related to an appearance on, at, and inside the teevee game show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, available for purchase at SHOPULA.

upload in progress, 0