On the Beauty of Imperfection

A few years ago, I was perusing a photography magazine with a feature on how to take beautiful photographs of not-so-beautiful people. In the course of the article, a university study was quoted as demonstrating that people with completely symmetrical and slightly rounded faces were consistently chosen by participants as being the most attractive. Therefore, the article went on to say, we should photograph the subject in such a way that non-symmetrical elements are understated, and vary the angle and lighting such that the face appears more round.

Now, I’m not handsome by any stretch of the imagination, nor fashionable in the slightest. I seem to follow the Indiana Jones school of fashion sense, but much to the chagrin of my significant other, I bear no ressemblance at all to Harrison Ford. After reading the article, then staring at myself in the mirror, I was suddenly struck by the lack of symmetry and roundness in my face. I had never noticed it before, at least in the context of beauty (or my lack thereof). I then began to pay more attention to the features of the more aesthetically attractive people around me, noting that the article had some basis in truth.

But, I thought, is beauty a thing so shallow that following a few simple rules will allow one to calculate it?

I had always wondered what I found so alluring about bonsai trees. For a while, I was under the impression that here was a tree, in miniature, upon a table within a house, shaped not solely by nature but also by human intervention. Now, however, I think I understand better why bonsais, and most Japanese and Eastern art, appeal to me on a more fundamental level. It’s not about beauty in perfection, as proposed by the ancient Greeks, but rather in imperfection, especially that cultivated by nature. (And that includes ourselves.)

The Western World falls prey to the notion of living up to an impossible standard, wherein we strive to be gods and goddesses in our appearance, mannerisms, work and speech. No wonder we stress so much about how we look and conduct ourselves. Failing to achieve this impossibility serves to dash our egos, shake our esteem, and even colour the way in which we perceive others. It is a self-contained, self-perpetuating system that can drive us to despair, if we let it.

As usual, many people –far wiser than I– in the Eastern World have long ago seen the folly in this. The Japanese term is wabi-sabi (not to be confused with wasabi), and this idea descends from the teachings of early Zen masters. The three most important precepts:

All things are impermanent.
All things are imperfect.
All things are incomplete.

It’s not about spackling on the perfect face in the morning, or properly enunciating each syllable with the voice of an orator and the forethought of a strategist. Nor is it about outlaying each second to its proper task, or standing tall above the crowd, lest its mundane ways sully your air. It is the acceptance of humility, nature, and simple pleasures. It is the joy in a young child’s irregular smile, missing a tooth, or a refreshing sip of ice water on a sultry summer night.

Nothing lasts forever, nothing will ever be perfect, and nothing will ever be finished. I need to remember this.

There is something about spending time in the forest that makes me think of such things. Sitting on a fallen tree and stroking a faithful dog, listening to the swallows and watching the shadows dance across the ferns and moss, I feel like there is no difference between my self and my surroundings. The peace can be inhaled from the pure breeze and one’s stress melted away like snow in the warm sun. At times like that, it’s easy to find beauty in all the life around me… symmetrical or not.

Howe Forest

5 Replies to “On the Beauty of Imperfection”

  1. Lovely. I couldn’t agree more. My wife is fond of pointing out that it is the imperfections that can also make people attractive. We are often attracted to or facinated by individuals who are striking or noticable, and many movie stars that have that appeal don’t measure up well against the “beautiful” scale of symmetry and proportion. They are beautiful people because of the slight crook of their nose, the scar on their chin, the mental ‘hum’ that the mind creates when comparing two unmatched sides of a similar-but-not-symmetrical face. And a visage or body with imperfections often has appeal because of it’s apparent genuineness (as opposed to the perfect body with the perfect face). True symmetry in the human form to the mind can easily equate with synthetic, and often that’s the case.

    When it comes to life, work, etc, the acceptance of the imperfect and incomplete is what gives me drive – not the drive to perfect, or the drive to complete, but the drive to keep going because I know there is always something to do, and the drive to enjoy each moment because I know that’s the real joy…the doing and going, not the done and gone.

    As an aside, as I read this, I couldn’t help thinking about how I’ve always thought Tyler Durden (in Chuck Palahniuk’s _Fight_Club_) was a freaking Zen master. As he’s quoted in collected form in the Dust Brothers song from the film of the same name:

    I say let me never be complete
    I say may I never be content
    I say deliver me from Swedish furniture
    I say deliver me from clever arts
    I say deliver me from clear skin and perfect teeth
    I say you have to give up
    I say evolve, and let the chips fall where they may

    Beautiful. Freaking beautiful.

    Keep up the good work, dude.

    David (long time reader, first time poster)

    P.S. I love my DIY Planner HPDA. Thanks for the templates too, I’ve made my own artist pages! 🙂

  2. Great post. Thanks.

    It’s also true in drawing, painting and computer graphics. Imperfections are what make drawings realistic.

    Speaking of which… You might already have seen those pictures if you read Boing Boing, but this is a good example of how imperfect things may look beautiful: Abandoned Theme Park Pictures

  3. That’s some fine, thoughty writing. We think very much the same on this subject, especially when you take it beyond human physical beauty. I want to respond more fully, but I’d rather compose it offline, get my thoughts in order, etc.

    Alexandre: Thank you for the link to the wonderful Japanese photos. You might enjoy http://www.foundmagazine.com.

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