The Big Idea
For something to be truly beautiful it probably has to be imperfect. So in a world and age where celebrities and products are celebrated for being ever more perfect do we also place a huge and ultimately self-defeating expectation on ourselves and others?
In the United Kingdom it is currently estimated that roughly 1 in 200 people suffer from a condition called body dysmorphia disorder (BDD) where sufferers are racked with anxiety about a physical defect that others don’t seem to see. In the United States this is estimated to be 1 in 50 people. So, even just with these examples, these are millions of people who don’t think that they are normal let alone beautiful and all the pain, separation and rejection that this causes. As parents who have worked in schools for years, we have witnessed the increasing pressures that social media is placing on young people to have the perfect body in particular, which is likely to make this sobering statistic even worse in the future if we are not careful.
Well they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is true. Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition – so what we ‘see’, we perceive. Perception is influenced by what we have been socially conditioned to think is beautiful. This includes biases that evaluates whether someone else is like me or like us.
So, so far, are we sleep walking into a world of paranoia, anxiety and discrimination of our own making? If so, is there anything we can do about it. Like in the film Shallow Hall, can we start to see beauty and value in other ways and even in the imperfect?For millennia there has been the idea that something can be in fact more beautiful if it is slightly flawed or imperfect. This is a concept that we picked up listening to one of our hero’s, Simon Sinek, called Wabi Sabi. This is a traditional Japanese philosophy that something is accepted, if not valued, because of its imperfections and / or transience (short livedness).
In exploring this at 52 HQ it was easy for us to bring to mind celebrities that are actually seen as beautiful but because of certain features – Owen Wilson’s broken nose and Marilyn Monroe’s beauty spot came first to our minds. We also thought about Disney’s Cars character who did not want his body panels repaired because the scars, scrapes and dents reminded him of his adventures with his best friend Lightening McQueen. This got us thinking, maybe here was a #Tip that would help free us to accept ourselves to enjoy and value ourselves and other things more inclusively, By doing so would we also be helping others to do the same. Exploring this further we think that this not only could release you but also empower you though finding strength from your life story. Even reaching and growing into a higher state of being.
So yet again a relatively ‘simple’ #Tip that can pack a mighty punch!
Got it…What’s the Science
Funnily enough there are some facial features that it seems our brains like when looking at other faces. For instance we tend to like and be attracted to other faces that have eyes that are identically far apart as our own. We also tend to typically trust faces and smiles if they are symmetrical. Of course the ‘wobble’ in gene expression means that our bodies, including faces, are rarely truly symmetrical. Typically our limbs, feet, hands etc are slightly different sizes – sometimes of course considerably. The pursuit of perfection or at least attraction is almost as old as animal kind itself. Many complex organisms seek others that are most like themselves – this can be sensing ‘others’ through sight, smell or touch – even taste. Ultimately, certain features are believed to represent greater likelihood of reproductive success and status symbols, like larger antlers or tusks, vibrant colours or more external aesthetics like external well ordered or colourful nests (see Australia’s male Bowerbirds). So these become the things that become the desired or ‘beautiful’ traits. Most organisms seek to be more like these and if they are not naturally endowed there can be a real effort to make up for this. Ultimately makeup, used since at least Ancient Egyptian eras is, is meant to cover up blemishes and highlight features associated with beauty and desire – such as rouged lips and cheeks for blushing in receptiveness to attention and so attraction.
There are some interesting possible counters to this ‘like-for-like’ or symmetrical attraction. This includes pheromones – the ‘invisible’ (perceptually non-smelly) ‘smells’ that we emit and exude in our sweat. Research and researchers proposed from the 1960s onwards to early 2000s that mammals tend to be attracted to others who have pheromones that related to immune systems that are different from their own. The idea put forward was we choose mates who have genes that can give our offspring protection from diseases and conditions that we cannot, or could not if we choose mates that had similar immune system genes. Further research on pheromones at so called ‘Pheromone Parties’ (yes it is a thing and not just a fetish party) in 2010 suggest that this may not hold up and pheromones and ‘visible’ smells are more basic than this. Although we would just put in that smell for neuroscientists is still not a fully understood sense – so this conclusions may all swing back again. Either way these still means to communicate desirability, attraction and so ‘beauty’ and tantalises us that different and asymmetry can actually be better.
And this is where we can start to think of imperfections, as not like us, as adding rather than taking away.
In the accompanying live we were humbled by how our fellow experimenters and viewers shared that far from being ashamed or wanting to be perfect that they and we can actually gain an internal strength and a kind of inside out beauty from the things that have left their mark on us. We talked about both mental and physical scars – Dulcie sharing about her caesarian scar and George mentioning that he has several scars – Digital Jen ‘wins’ with her kneecap in a jar at home and a big scar where it was removed! This is a matter of seeing what these have brought rather than necessarily taken away. Dulcie says that she see what her scar gave her now rather than what it might perceptually take away. There is a a telling scene in the 80s film Shirley Valentine where Shirley’s admirer and would be lover Costas kisses her stretch marks to which she uncomfortably says: “You kissed my stretch marks!” To which Costas says: “Don’t, don’t be too stupid to try to hide these lines. They, they are lovely, because they are part of you, and you are lovely, so don’t, don’t hide, be proud. Sure. These marks show that, that you are alive, that you survive. Don’t try to hide these lines. They are the marks of life.”
This acceptance and even better celebration of difference and imperfections can of course be easier said than done for ourselves but is in principle identical to principles we proposed for #Tip23 Time to Reframe. The more we can allow ourselves to own our apparent or perceived imperfections the more they become part of the story of our life. Rather than being a source of shame and trying to hide them they can provide assurance and inner-strength. For some like Michael Phelps with his unusually large palms and feet (size 14), short legs but long body, make him more beautiful and faster in the water. Success though has come from an acceptance of his appearance and converting them into strengths. Undoubtedly this also came with a reframing in his mind of who he is which would be confirmed by the story he told himself. The voice our brain listens to most often is our own – this is our greatest challenge with this tip.
Spiral Dynamics is a model of the evolutionary development of individuals, organisations, and societies that has been developed over decades initially Don Beck and Christopher Cowan and includes additions from theorists and scientists like Clare Graves and evolutionary geneticist Richard Dawkins. This model suggests that we actually ‘grow-up’ mature when we move from ‘energies’ and activities that focus on survival and competition and instant gratification, so called beige and red energies, to more accepting and transformative states associated with acceptance (green energy) to; perceptiveness, self-awareness (yellow energy) to; calmness and transcendence (becoming more) (turquoise energy) – in an increasing upward, more inclusive, spiral. This goes for individuals as well as societies. These are of course not real energies but for us represents the journey accepting and even celebrating our perceived flaws and imperfections as part of the journey of becoming more and finding inner peace (turquoise energy).
This spiral journey also has the additional impact of allowing us to be freer, cognitive and emotional space and bandwidth wise, to appreciate the short-lived aspects of the moment as we spoke about in #Tip11 Small Moments Matter and #Tip19 Blink. In effect to have more life.
Watch our #Tip46 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With Dulcie and Dr Iain
Disney’s character from Cars called Mater explains his dents and about friendship to Holley and Finn – transcript
The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation
We live in interesting times when we pursue perfection but at what potential cost? How would we feel about celebrities if they showed their cultural flaws and imperfections more? Would we see them as more real and less fake? Are we the ones pushing our own perfection agenda? We certainly do not claim to know what is surmountable or best for you or others. There is plenty of scope for those who do have cosmetic surgery for instance to own that as part of their journey. For some this maybe more about how society will accept you than the other way around and sometimes of course we need to have a balance. We are just challenging the perfection agenda.
We are also really interested in knowing how you find what is fake and how this impacts your levels of trust in others. Does having plastic surgery make people more or less trustworthy for instance?
We are not saying what is right or wrong here – just posing some questions. We are also certainly not saying we all have to accept or settle for our own perceived flaws and imperfections. After all this a big part of why we strive to improve ourselves and get better at habits by practicing and stacking them. Again this is just saying we think there is more to life if we can embrace the asymmetric, quirky and unusual.
Last thought, stamps and coins are more valuable to collectors if there are errors or mistakes. Just saying!
Tales from our Test Partners
Watch this space… Why not tell us some of your imperfection and self-acceptance stories here.
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