Unbalanced

I’m fascinated by people with slightly asymmetrical faces. When I say slightly, I mean, only really noticeable by looking at a photo, where it’s easy to verify your hunch by covering first one side and then the other with a piece of paper. The results of the comparison can be quite startling: we forget how often apparently harmonious and self-consistent images and narratives result from an unconscious blending of disparate parts. Just as it’s possible to become familiar with the Bible and never notice all the disparities between the first and second chapters of Genesis, so is it often the case that you can know somebody for years without noticing that one side of his or her face is significantly sadder-looking than the other. Or more troubled, or more thoughtful. Because that’s what I’m talking about here: faces in which the persistent, infantile positivism of our culture has been stalemated by a gloomier or more realistic cast of mind. At least, I think that’s what’s going on, but perhaps I’m reading too much into it. It may in fact be the case that all faces are at least slightly asymmetrical, in the same manner and to the same degree that their owners are right- or left-handed: one side is simply stronger than the other. The weaker side will tend to wear a more relaxed or cheerful expression, since — as motivational speakers are wont to remind us — it takes more effort (if not necessarily more muscles) to frown than it does to smile. But if that be the case, why would the asymmetry only be detectable for a certain, small percentage of the population? Do the rest of us somehow unconsciously correct for a default tendency toward asymmetry through complex feedback loops between our own facial expressions and those we see on others? If so, then the question becomes: why and how do certain people manage to escape the influence of such pervasive, unconscious social pressures? And why would the results of such nonconformity so often strike us as beautiful?

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

14 Comments


  1. I have a lazy eye. It’s not that noticeable, except in pictures. It’s always just a little lower and slightly closed compared to the other one. It also “winks” at its own accord. I can’t control it. When I was younger I was aware of it more, worrying that men (and women) might think I am hitting on them. It just winks. Maybe it is my inner flirt.

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  2. Cool!

    Sometimes when I’m really sleep-deprived, one of my eyelids will start to twitch uncontrollably, but I’m sure that’s an unrelated phenomenon.

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  3. Mine as well! I was going to mention that, but I skipped it. I think it is unrelated, except that the eye that twitches uncontrollably is the same eye that winks. Creepy.

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  4. My right eye doesn’t open as far as my left eye as a result of a collision with the fist of a really big guy who I tried to stop from dragging his girlfriend down the street by the neck in Pasadena in 1988.

    My right side is stronger and has generally received much more damage from my environment than my left. Most of my scars are over there, for instance.

    I’m also creeped out by Gina Marie’s description of what her eyes do, but it’s really only my right side that’s creeped out, while my left side finds the matter acceptable and normal.

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  5. You really ought to be careful about slamming your head against fists. Unless you have a really hard head. Then you might break some knuckles.

    Your point about the tougher side taking more of a beating is interesting. It sounds like what you’re saying is, in essence, that what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Which sounds about right.

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  6. Since the incident I referred to above, I’ve managed to refrain from attacking fists with my head for the most part, to good effect.

    I just had a look at Gina Marie’s site to check out her eyes for myself, and, pardon me for saying so, and maybe this is just my left side speaking, but she’s really cute.

    Another incident related to asymmetry is as follows. One of my oldest and best friends has a much smaller left hand than his right, as a result of a drug his mother took in pregnancy. (The drug was later banned.) So 15 years ago he and I went to this Sufi/Gurdjieff mystical circle dancing event in our hometown.

    The attendees were divided into an inner and an outer circle of dancers of about 35 people each, and the circles moved in opposite directions, so that the members of each circle danced past the members of the other circle.

    They gave us some very simple steps and a very simple song to sing. And each time the circles moved, we were to join hands with the new person across from us and look deeply into his or her eyes and sing the line “Liiiiive welcoming to alllll.”

    During the break, my friend said something to me along the lines of “Let’s get the f*** out of here.” Everyone he had joined hands with had involuntarily flinched, shocked and then embarrassed, as he and they looked deeply into each other’s eyes.

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  7. Why don’t I proofread my posts before clicking the button? That’s “our” hometown, not “out.”

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  8. Corrected. (It’s also “Gina” rather than “Gena.”)

    That’s a sad, but also very telling, anecdote. It seems to me I’ve known a lot of people like those flinchers. For some reason I think it would’ve been far more preferable if the flinching had occurred in a social space untainted by love-and-oneness ideology — a square dance, say — because then people would’ve been less inhibited about apologizing for what was in many cases, I’m sure, an inadvertent reaction. In the context you described, they must’ve been hurt/angered or confused by their own reactions, and apologies would’ve been awkward if not impossible, I imagine.

    That, or they were all just jerks.

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  9. Conclusion from the study on beauty: “To sum up, our study shows clearly that the most attractive faces do not exist in reality…”

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  10. The Iroquois have a medicine society called the False Faces that dance and cure with “living” “masks” (quotation marks are used advisedly in both cases, for different reasons) that have long black hair and crooked faces, in emulation of a mythic being who was disfigured by being smashed in the face with a mountain.

    There is one hanging in a hall in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, where it spooked and fascinated me when I was a kid.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_Face_Society

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