#92: Is your face symmetrical?
On beauty in the digital age
Last week Substack launched an app that I genuinely like. If you’re interested in catching up on your newsletters in a more streamlined way, I recommend it:
Are you symmetrical?
People on my TikTok feed are obsessed with facial symmetry, which means, per the laws of the algorithm, I am too. And maybe it’s right. I started playing around with symmetry filters in 2020. The first one I ever tried was called “Inverted.” Inverted doesn’t tweak your features like other filters, it simply reverses the image of your face whenever you tap the screen. It quickly became popular as a quasi-litmus test for beauty: If your face looked the same both ways, the thinking went, you were beautiful. If it didn’t, well, that was cause for concern. (Maybe call your plastic surgeon?) Only a rare few passed, and everyone else was melting down. I watched video after video of people flipping their faces back and forth, panic emerging at the inconsistencies. When I tried myself, the results were unsettling. I moved to better lighting. Then I tried putting my hair in a ponytail, then tilting my head down, then back. Nothing worked. Every time the camera flipped, my nose seemed to dance in the opposite direction, my jaw line moving up and down in time.
I first heard the idea that symmetrical faces were more beautiful than non-symmetrical faces when I was very young, maybe 9 or 10, and I believed it without question. But this was the late ’90s, and I was too busy trying to grow boobs by chugging milk to be neurotic about my face. Plus, I didn’t have the proper tools to investigate my features back then. It wasn’t until college that I became convinced I had a “good” side and a “bad” side—and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened at the same time Facebook became ubiquitous. This was the era of the party album. Every time my friends and I went out, we dedicated at least 15 minutes to posing for each others’ digital cameras in dirty kitchens, all lined up with arms on hips. As soon as I realized that I preferred the photos when I was standing on the right side of the line, I studied my face in the mirror to try to understand why. I could never find the reason, which irritated me, since the evidence was right there in my tags. Never mind that my friends claimed they had bad sides, too, but looking at the photos, I could never see their differences either. As with all insecurities, mine were true and theirs were not.
Ten years later, I got the opportunity to try out a True Mirror for a story. The True Mirror is a mirrored contraption housed in a black box that, through some trickery, presents your face to you in reverse—as in, the way other people see you in real life. According to the marketing, looking into one is like meeting yourself for the first time; the tagline is, unsubtly: “See how you really *are*!” More accurately, see how lopsided you really are. When it arrived, everyone at the office looked into it with horror. Eyebrows cocked, cheeks drooped, lips involuntarily smirked. Nobody could bear to look (or look away). We believed that what we were seeing was finally “the truth” about how we looked, and yet everyone was convinced they looked crooked and absurd, a collection of Picasso-like features that no one else could corroborate. So was it the truth, really?
The True Mirror and TikTok symmetry filters both promise a new level of self-awareness and instead deliver anxiety. The “Inverted” filter faded from popularity last year, but new versions arrive all the time: the Mirror filter, the Twins filter, and the apex of them all, the Symmetry filter, which seamlessly shows you what your face would look like if it were left-symmetrical, and when you tap the screen, right-symmetrical. The effect for most people is that one of the faces is more conventionally attractive than the other, which looks a little strange or “off” (but of course, ironically, is also symmetrical). The most popular sound that accompanied this filter, at least on my feed, was a conversation from The Hunchback of Notre Dame between Quasimodo and his adoptive father Frollo. Quasimodo (the “bad” side) says he’s deformed, and Frollo (the “good” side) replies that yes, he is deformed.
You might think I’m overstating the prominence of this preoccupation. TikTok is so vast—and then personalized—that even a micro-trend can seem universal if the algorithm thinks you like it, but this one has genuine reach: There are over 100M videos on TikTok with the tag #symmetricalface, and when I asked my Instagram followers if their TikTok feeds include people discussing facial symmetry, about 70% of 4k+ respondents said yes.
I’ve written before about the way TikTok invites a certain fixation with objectifying the self for the self. Filters that show you how old you look, your “true” eye color, which celebrity you most closely resemble, or “what you’d look like if you were a ‘90s kid” (lol). There is a searching quality to a lot of the content—probably related to the fact that 60% of users are under 24—as if people are logging on to find themselves. I shudder to imagine having TikTok when I was younger and more vulnerable to the ideas users regularly pass off for fact. Symmetry as an important beauty metric is a perfect example. Of course I believed this as a kid, too, and continued to believe it well into adulthood, but it became clear to me as I watched people freak out over their asymmetry collectively that the fixation was absurd and misguided. Perfectly symmetrical faces look unnerving. Perfection, aesthetically, is boring almost by definition. There may be studies that show humans are drawn to symmetrical faces, but there are also studies that show the opposite.
“If you create a perfectly symmetrical face in the lab, which is what I've done, those faces have very low beauty ratings," Dahlia W. Zaidel, a UCLA psychology professor, told Stephanie Shapiro in a 2006 piece about the beauty of asymmetry for the Chicago Tribune. "We never look at perfectly symmetrical faces, never from the minute we are born.” When we herald symmetry as somehow divine, we forget the appeal of the real and organic, like someone you can squeeze versus something you can only perceive, like Lil Miquela. Obviously symmetry is easier on the eyes initially, but have you ever fallen in love with a crooked tooth or the strange way someone’s face moved when they talked? I’m not trying to be cute and uplifting, I really do believe people’s most compelling traits are imperfect and incidental—out of their control. "Nature and design have proven that wonky objects can have even more charm, power, and adaptability than their mirrored neighbors,” industrial designer Dominic Muren told Shapiro. There’s a reason musicians often leave flaws in their songs, and designers typically work with balance, rather than perfect symmetry in mind. Eyes and ears scan perfection, then catch and linger on the unexpected.
I know it’s none of my business, but when I see someone on TikTok get their interesting-looking nose shaved down to a shape I’ve seen a million times, I feel a panicky desperation to undo it. To give all of us a little more time to accept that maybe we don’t need to pursue such a tight grip over how everyone else sees us. That maybe beauty isn’t something one should “pursue” at all.
Last week I went to a Gang of Four show in Bushwick. Gang of Four, if you don’t know, is a band from the 70s, said to have defined the post-punk genre and released one of the best records of the decade. I didn’t know a thing about them until my friend dragged me to the show, and then I was blown away. Not even by the music, which isn’t my favorite, but by lead singer Jon King’s performance, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Completely lost in the music, he jerked and jostled all over the stage, eyes shut tight, mouth twisted into an expression that would be humiliating if it weren’t utterly true to him. It was captivating from start to finish. I’ve never watched someone on stage be so engaged with the audience and yet uninterested in how it was perceiving him. His lack of self-consciousness felt so alien and anachronistic to me I almost mistook him for high. It occurred to me afterward that his disinterest in trying to control his image was exactly what made him singular and life-affirming to watch. A perfect performance wouldn’t have touched his.
Watching him reminded me what it feels like to love something uncontrived. To be intrigued by something unusual on a personal, almost private level. I understand why we want clear answers to subjective questions, like whether we’re likable or pleasant to look at. I’ve tried all the filters and cringed at the results. But the pursuit of perfection is wildly unsexy. Worse, it’s boring. These questions are subjective and mysterious for a reason. Our desperation to codify and commodify beauty has led us down a path of sensual decrepitude, of obsession and anxiety. It has supplied us with some of the least interesting role models of all time. I simply don’t think we’re meant to understand what makes us appealing to others, nor command it.
My favorite article I read last week was this interview with Cornel West by Vinson Cunningham for The New Yorker. Last week’s 15 things also included three shoe storage solutions, two great vegetarian recipes, and one wild story about New York nightlife in the 1960s. The rec of the week was novels, specifically literally fiction recs that are smart and thought-provoking and also hard to put down (a rare combo to nail). I’m buried in good suggestions…thank you! 😭
I hope you have a nice Sunday,