The other day, as I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting, I saw a young man walking the other way that I thought was a person that works in my office. He works on another floor so I don’t often see him. I was about to say hello when I was struck with uncertainty as to whether it was him, and held my tongue. I ruminated for the next minute or so, and finally decided that it wasn’t.
Why did I find it so hard to work that out?
Part of the reason was that I’m not so good at remembering the faces of people I don’t see regularly. But that didn’t seem enough to explain my confusion. There are plenty of people that I don’t meet often, but whom I can still recognise fairly easily.
In the end I decided it was because the person in question has very regular features – what you might call ‘clean cut’. You know: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, non-knobbly nose, average size of all main features and dimensions (nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, chin), not fat, but not very thin either. The sort of face that might appear in an ad for razors or toothpaste.
People whose faces have lots of symmetry, conformance to averages, and lack of blemishes and knobbles have fewer distinguishing features. Take it to the extreme and a face becomes a featureless sphere. Adding two eyes, a mouth and a nose reduces the symmetry somewhat but, since nearly all humans have those, it doesn’t narrow down the field much. It’s only when the characteristics or location of those features differ materially from the average that we find something worthy of telling the police artist – thin lips, broad nose, close-set eyes, high forehead. What would the Identikit officer do with information that the burglar had average lips, average nose and average eyes?
It is sometimes said that human beauty has much to do with symmetry. Does that mean the reason I didn’t recognise my colleague is because he’s good-looking? Perhaps. Supermodels seem to score highly in the bodily symmetry stakes. I don’t think I could name one for whom I could identify an asymmetry. Although, to be fair, that may be because I would have trouble naming any supermodels at all. On my scale of rating the hundred things that interest me most, they don’t.
But are supermodels beautiful? Or are they just pretty, and if so, is that because they are too symmetrical, too featureless?
The American actor Ryan Gosling seems to be a popular heart-throb at the moment. His features are mostly pretty regular, but there’s something unusual about his eyes. I’m not sure what. I think they’re either unusually close-set or a little asymmetrical – perhaps a combination of both. But is that slight irregularity part of the reason that he is considered so desirable? Would he be less alluring if his eyes were evened up and spread out a bit – more average?
When I think of women that were considered very desirable amongst my peers over the last few decades, I see images of people who all had something slightly unusual about their features: Nastassja Kinski (big mouth), Emma Stone (large eyes), Sophia Loren (long nose). In my recent attempts to get better at speaking French I have been watching many French movies, and have noticed that many of their female stars in romantic roles have unusual features, a disproportionate this or that, or asymmetric something elses.
Could it be that featurelessness is the key factor in mere ‘prettiness’, so that pretty people (perhaps including my poor, blameless work colleague) all look fairly similar, whereas beauty is a complex melange of (just enough) symmetry with provocative asymmetries, irregularities and other distinguishing features?
People seem to love looking at pictures and videos of cute fluffy cats and dogs on the internet. Generally these animals are symmetric and healthy. One rarely sees people cooing over a scrappy, moth-eaten old dog or cat. Yet if one has had a scrappy, moth-eaten dog or cat as a pet for a long time, it will have a much stronger pull on our heartstrings than a pretty puppy in a tissue commercial. The irregularities (some might say flaws) become markers of recognition and triggers for affection, rather than items of deficiency or regret.
I wonder whether this phenomenon also displays itself in the field of moral beauty. There’s am unfortunate culture trope about the girl who only goes out with boys that treat her badly, and has only contempt for the ‘nice guys’. Perhaps there are some such girls around, but I haven’t observed the phenomenon to be widespread. It seems to me that nearly everybody likes to be treated with at least a modicum of respect and affection.
But there’s another trope out there – especially in movies and literature – about the person who feels repelled from their partner because they (the partner) are too good. The argument often runs along the lines that the partner is impossible to measure up to, and often makes the protagonist feel morally inadequate – bad. The kinder and more tolerant the way in which the ‘good’ partner reacts to this, the worse the divide becomes. I saw another example of this just last night – the character played by Gillian Anderson in the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’. Her husband, working as an MSF-type doctor in a grossly under-resourced rural Ugandan hospital, was such a kind man that she felt tempted towards infidelity simply because she felt she couldn’t live up to the level of virtue exemplified by her husband. Be not distressed though, dear reader. So far as I know, Ms Anderson managed to resist her impulses, and her relationship survived the danger. But I can’t be sure, because I was unable to watch the second half of the movie for fear of the cruel violence that I knew would engulf most of the characters once the murderous Idi Amin got into his stride.
I have made no more observations of this in real life than of the other trope. There are very few true saints around, and I think I have met hardly any of them. But it somehow feels more plausible than the other trope. It just seems to me that, while nobody wants to live in the constant presence of cruelty and contempt, perhaps many, without even realising it, value the (hopefully fairly minor) character flaws of their partners and friends, and are even quite attached to them.
Or maybe not. I wrote this while on holiday and it is all just idle speculation.
Bondi Junction, May 2018