The perfection of imperfection

We bemoan nowadays how everyone is expected to conform to a set standard of physical beauty, but it was always thus. In one era, only chubbiness was regarded as attractive; in another, thinness; in others, women were binding their feet, all men had to have a full beard, and so on.

It seems society has forever demanded this aesthetic conformity. But beauty is a funny thing, and “perfection” – whatever is meant by that, depending on the times – often isn’t connected to beauty at all.

Certainly, there exist people who are undeniably beautiful, and also have, say, a perfectly symmetrical face. Often, though, what makes someone truly lovely is the complete opposite of that: it’s the beauty of imperfection.

I don’t necessarily mean imperfect in the literal sense of “not being perfect” – for instance, someone who’s plain of face, but with regular features – or that French term, “jolie-laide”, used to signify a person who is sort of ugly but nonetheless attractive, for whatever reason.

I’m talking about specific imperfections in one person/face, and how those can make someone really beautiful.

For example, I once knew this girl from Dublin whose eyes were ever-so-slightly off-centre or wonky; not cross-eyed, as in turned in, but one eye was aimed out a touch. You’d hardly notice it if it wasn’t pointed out, it was that small.

Anyway, she was really lovely, and I think that little imperfection was what made her lovely. Her face was pretty anyway, it was fine; but the imperfection raised it to some higher level of attractiveness which was hard to define.

This can also apply to people who’d probably be regarded as beautiful anyway, or something close to it. There’s an actress on the TV show Grimm with the same imperfection – slightly off-centre eyes – who is obviously very good-looking, she’s an actress after all. But what really makes her shine is this one “flaw” (which of course isn’t really a flaw at all).

There are others; as many beautiful imperfections as there are faces, depending on the observer’s tastes or viewpoint. Personally, I’ve always had a thing for fangs and overbites (yes, really).

To take an example: Liv Tyler has the most beautiful profile I’ve ever seen, and her overbite makes it; but that same imperfection has seen her described as resembling a cow, a duck, God knows what else.

Or here’s another one, a random memory from the mid-1990s: the band Sneaker Pimps released a great song called Six Underground, and the girl singing had these little fangs, and I still remember seeing her for the first time and thinking, Wow – that is so cute.

Skip forward to a recent viewing of the video on YouTube, and more than one commenter lambasting her teeth, saying she should have got them fixed, and so on. It really is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

A multitude of freckles. A very long nose. Ears that stick out. One ear that sticks out and one that doesn’t. I’ve seen people described as beautiful specifically because their mouth never closes fully, or because their nose is crooked, or they have enormously bushy eyebrows. Not in spite of, you understand, but because of.

Why this is so, I don’t know. Something in our eye-brain-heart connection seems to like these imperfections, and more than that, it rails against a sort of bland precision: we’ve all known people whose faces were utterly forgettable, though there was nothing exactly wrong with them. Which, perhaps, was why there was nothing exactly right with them.

Maybe it’s as simple as this: the quirk makes someone unique, makes them themselves – and thus, makes them beautiful.


  • First published in the Irish Independent

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