“There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” --Edgar Allan Poe
Researchers have dubbed the “Golden Ratios” as the determining factors for how attractive a woman's face is to others. The ratios for this standard of beauty are one for length and one for width.
What are the accepted “beautiful” ratios? Female faces are judged more attractive when the vertical distance between theit eyes and the mouth is approximately 36 percent of the face's length, and the horizontal distance between their eyes is approximately 46 percent of the face's width. And, Interestingly, these proportions correspond with those of an average face. Yet, we all know few consider “average” faces beautiful.
(“University of Toronto. "New 'golden ratios' for female facial beauty." ScienceDaily. December 2009.)
But, how about symmetry and beauty? Symmetrical faces both in the fashion industry and in real life have long been thought to be a standard for true beauty. Of course, this is based on a biological assumption that symmetrical faces are intrinsically more beautiful than ones with uneven features.
Then, along came Mr. Beck with his photoshopping abilities ...
New York-based photographer Alex John Beck began his series “Both Sides Of” in order to explore two beliefs. First, that perfectly symmetrical faces are the most beautiful. And second, that one face is representative of one character. He discovered that neither of these beliefs holds true.
“Both Sides Of” juxtaposes side-by-side portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces.
Beck created the photographs of subjects and displayed them as pairs of symmetrical portraits that show what the subject would look like if he simply mirrored their left or right sides,
When Beck viewed his portrait pairs, he discovered two different characters, neither of which was necessarily more beautiful than the normal, non-symmetrical person. Sometimes the two portraits looked similar, other times they resembled siblings who looked very much alike, but were still easily distinguishable. In fact, symmetry often came across as creepy… subtly inhuman.
“Within these new forms we see the two characters that are ever-present, embedded in the single face,” writes Beck. “The less symmetrical they are initially, the more different the characters suggested by each face. The more symmetrical faces betray their owners more subtly, however, one side proves clearer, the other more inward-looking.
Beck thinks the photoshopped creations lack character, and he says “beauty is more based on character than on an arbitrary data point – humanity is 'messy' and should remain so.”
(Laura Stampler. “Here's What Faces Would Look Like If They Were Perfectly Symmetrical.” Time. June 09, 2014.)
Beck's simple experiment seems to reveal how unsymmetrical human faces really are and how different we would look, were we to be completely equal on both sides. The series also forces us to think about the definition of beauty.
Beck declined to include the original portrait of each person because then people would focus on finding the differences between the faces. Instead, he wanted viewers to look critically at each face by itself.
Duality In Humans
Alex John Beck's portraits eerily suggest a duality in the physical nature of humans. Might that dual nature be more than skin deep? It is a theme that has persisted since man acknowledged his own propensity to act both morally and evilly depending upon many variables including different situations.
One can see through Beck's photos a physical duality that not only affects the aesthetic evaluation of a person's beauty but also subtly (and sometimes, dramatically) introduces expressions that expose different character traits when isolated. It seems the soul comes through the face. Do people sometimes really “become a different person” as we hear in descriptions of physical assaults and violence?
Robert Louis Stevenson's work, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, comes to mind. In the novel, Dr. Jekyll asserts that “man is not truly one, but truly two,” and he imagines the human soul as the battleground for an “angel” and a “fiend,” each struggling for mastery.
But Jekyll's potion, which he hoped would separate and purify each element, succeeds only in bringing the dark side into being—Hyde emerges, but he has no angelic counterpart. Once unleashed, Hyde slowly takes over, until Jekyll ceases to exist.
Is Jekyll mistaken? Is the animalistic “Hyde” in humans brought under tentative control by civilization, law, and conscience. Hype even takes delight in crime, something an animal would not do. Does the potion simply strip away the civilized veneer, exposing an unspeakable part of man’s (and woman's) essential nature?
What about beauty then? Does our conception of the beautiful woman's face include a little undeclared “troglodyte” acknowledgment? I am certainly not qualified to posit a theory, but I can suggest that there is a little devilishness in the most angelic. And, I think when a beauty seeks to mask her natural looks and attempts to claim a perfect symmetry, she becomes just that – artificial and less naturally attractive.
So, possibly a certain asymmetry is actually considered the hallmark of beauty in our Western culture, and we just don't know it. The Japanese offer a more refined view of the truly beautiful.
Wabi-sabi represents Japanese aesthetics centered on the acceptance of transcience and imperfection. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill,” "lean," or "withered.”
The wabi-sabi aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature.
In the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, a beautiful thing acknowledges three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
According to Leonard Koren -- American artist, aesthetics expert and writer -- wabi-sabi can be defined as "the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideal of beauty and perfection in the West."
To close, I believe when we acknowledge a beautiful face, we also accept imperfection, asymmetry, and something from deep within – from within both our own aesthetics and from within the subject of our judgment. This is true of our appreciation of any art, isn't it? Music, writing, dance? It puts the “meat” on the “bones” of the subject of our attraction, and it usually involves a barely perceptible roughness of surface.
In an honest view of beauty, we regard an aesthetic pleasure beyond the conventional. Indeed, there is artlessness, not artistry, in the natural, rough texture of a beautiful thing's design. And, so it is with the face of a beautiful lady – it simply denies ostentation in its unique, unsymmetrical balance.
out of the water ...
out of itself
--Nicholas Anthony Virgilio (1928 – 1989)