Perfectly Imperfect:Redefining (Im)perfection

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Angelina Jolie recently made a very private decision very public. Not only does her story bring up issues around genetic testing, but it also repositions a preemptive mastectomy, transforming the stigma of breast reconstructive surgery into an “empowering” and life-saving act. How does this shift our perception of cosmetic surgery and, more specifically, our notion of “perfection”?

Current trends in “corrective” procedures seem almost counterintuitive: Some women in Japan reportedly pay to have their teeth “disarranged,” allegedly because it creates an image that is less intimidating (and therefore more appealing) to men.  Turns out, it’s good to be perfect, but only up to a point.

What defines imperfection? What categorizes it as a flaw or elevates it to a mark of distinction? Is perfection in the eye of the beholder, or is it socially sanctioned?

Some physical traits are almost always deemed desirable (i.e. clear skin, which is seen as a reflection of health and vitality) whereas other traits are seen as undesirable: stretch marks, blemishes, cellulite.  But there are some physical attributes whose perception varies significantly with context and cultural positioning: moles (a.k.a. “beauty marks”), scars (Joaquin Phoenix’s scar above his lip is seen as a “mark of distinction”), and even a gap-toothed smile (enter the “gap-toothed model trend”). As opposed to ‘flaws,’ these traits can be seen as quirky ‘imperfections’ and read as a charming reflection of the individual’s personality.

Some link the fetishization of these “imperfections” with a continued fascination with youth: in youth, we look charmingly imperfect, and it isn’t until later that we work on a veneer of perfection, in an effort to (quite ironically) return to the “perfection” of our youth.

The quest for perfection can become an obsession.  Individuals with body dysmorphia (around 2.4% of the population) become so obsessed with their physical imperfections (or perceived imperfections) that they experience extreme anxiety and depression.  But how the physical is read and understood is determined not by some absolute rule of the body (i.e. teeth must only look like this) but by our mental and emotional relationships to these body parts. Some body parts start to serve as a personal synecdoche, whereby the status and significance of a single part is understood to represent the whole person, posing the question: If one part makes us unattractive, can just one part also make us beautiful?

We know that beauty pays -- or it can lead to scandal -- and we also know that most women are more self-critical than others are of them.  When we get too hung up on imperfections, even our work suffers: a study indicated that a group of men and women performed math problems comparably --- until they were asked to do those same problems in their bathing suits, which made the women too self-critical to perform well on the test.

Thankfully, most of us don’t go to work in our bathing suits, but that doesn’t mean our self-scrutiny begins and ends at the beach.  As the beauty-marked Marilyn Monroe famously stated, “Imperfection is beauty.”  Here are some tips to help you unlearn -- and rethink -- everything you thought you knew about what it means to be “perfect”:

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 Newsflash: imperfection is trendy!  As of late, ripped clothes, messy hair and even smudged, “morning after” makeup are all en vogue. Viva la vida imperfecta!

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Laugh your way to perfection as you read Laverne Bardy’s hilarious story of her own imperfect life in How the (Bleep) Did I Get This Old?

Watch India Arie’s “I’m Not the Average Girl” video on loop and sing along -- until you feel great.

What’s your favorite physical ‘flaw’? Tell us below why it’s your mark of distinction.