These Kids Are Gorgeous! Seeing Beauty in an Asymetrical, Disproportionate World
by Teri Daily
A Reflection by Teri Daily, Pediatrician and Priest
Smith’s Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation is a classic when it comes to pediatric reference books. Now in its seventh edition, this book had the distinction in my own library of being one of five or so books that resided not in my office, but on a shelf in the hallway of examination rooms. Rarely a week went by that I didn’t thumb through its pages. Physicians are trained to detect unusual physical features. Some of these are simply present or absent—such as an extra digit, a single crease on the surface of a palm, a cleft palate, or the flat, brown skin lesions known as café au lait spots. But other characteristics associated with genetic syndromes are a matter of proportion and symmetry—such as microcephaly or macrocephaly (abnormally small or large head circumference), overgrowth of one side of the body, widely-spaced eyes, low-set ears, or macroglossia (an unusually large tongue).
Photographer Rick Guidotti is right. In an exam room, unusual physical features take on a purely diagnostic function; the consideration of aesthetics can be a distraction, physicians tell ourselves. After all, a diagnosis is important—not just to put a name on a constellation of physical findings, but so that one can look for other syndrome-specific abnormalities that may be hidden but critical to the patient’s health (such as heart disease, kidney malformations, or altered hormone levels).
If I’m honest, though, I have to admit that I almost always took the time to notice and to rave about long eyelashes, dark brown eyes, dimples, sweet smiles, and contagious laughs when it came to both patients with “normal” physical characteristics and those with “dysmorphic” features. But did I ever actually find beauty in the very same physical characteristics that cried out for a genetic work-up? That’s the question Rick Guidotti would ask.
The research on what makes something “beautiful” is pretty vast, with not all results being consistent. Still, here are some general takeaways. Most researchers agree that symmetry and proportionality play a fundamental role in our assessment of beauty. If a face is the same on each side, and if it exhibits the appropriate spatial configurations (i.e., the length of the ear is approximately the same length as the nose, the length of the face is 1.6 times its width, the distance between the eyes is roughly equivalent to the length of one eye, etc.), then that face is generally seen as attractive. But is our own experience of beauty reducible to such formulae?
In reality, the things we find attractive about people are often mild to moderate exceptions to the rules of symmetry and proportion—a lopsided-smile, large eyes, or a small mole placed daintily on one cheek. As the famous quote from Sir Francis Bacon goes, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.”
In fact, aesthetic judgments in general tend to be more favorable as complexity, novelty, surprise, ambiguity, and asymmetry increase—at least up to a point. But too much novelty, asymmetry, complexity, and disproportionality, and the object in question is no longer considered beautiful. Our aesthetic preference, it seems, depends upon an appropriate amount of asymmetry and disproportionality imposed upon an underlying symmetrical structure.
Of course, many genetic syndromes are associated with features very different from our classic definition of beauty. So, has Rick Guidotti learned to recognize beauty in magnitudes of asymmetry and disproportionality that bring discomfort to the rest of us? And if so, can we, too, learn to see asymmetrically? Can we learn to recognize beauty in places not composed of perfect ratios?
What do we find so threatening about asymmetry and alternative proportions anyway? Asymmetry and disproportionality give us a glimpse of the unpredictable, of that which we can’t foresee and wouldn’t expect. In “right” amounts, they pique our interest and draw us in. Hinting at other exceptions to the gold-standard of symmetry and well-regulated proportions, asymmetry and disproportionality point beyond themselves. They remind us of a myriad of otherpossibilities—the many way things could be but aren’t. They hook our imagination with the promise of freedom, newness, and surprise.
But such freedom and unpredictability writ large cannot be controlled, tamed, or foreseen, and that’s precisely the source of our fear and discomfort. At some point, we prefer the safety of predictability and sameness to the risk of surprise and difference. That’s why we either stare at or turn away from more than mild variations on our well-constructed definitions of beauty. What piques our interest and desire in measured amounts can be overwhelming in larger doses.
The truth is that we live in a world of asymmetry and variable proportions, and not just when it comes to aesthetics. Some asymmetry we should seek to overcome, such as the disproportionate power of certain nations or people groups that can so easily lead to the oppression of others. Some asymmetry is basic to healthy relationships, such as the asymmetry of a parent-child relationship or the distribution of talents within a community. So, when appropriate, how do we embrace the beauty of an asymmetric and disproportionate world? Does it involve conversion, trust, the suspension of judgment, or all three?
As a start, maybe it simply takes seeing the world around us as it truly is—embracing reality by stepping out of our illusions that “average” and “normal” exist anywhere except in math and sociology textbooks. “Nothing standard will ever be beautiful; it’s almost boring and uninteresting.” He’s right, because a standard is hypothetical. It’s not real; it’s not alive; it’s not true to how we experience life. There’s really nothing “standard” about the world we live in. Instead, it is a spectrum of colors, intelligence, sexuality, feelings, and, yes, beauty. Real life is composed of a host of “imperfections” we might just as easily call “richness.”
I think Jesus himself was drawn to such rich diversity. Not just through the compassion of agape love, a love based on the beauty that comes simply from being a creature of God. Wasn’t there also an element of eros that drew him toward the beauty found in difference, even striking difference? Didn’t he drink in all the intoxicating possibilities of the world around him? I hope so, because that’s part of what life is all about.
And that’s why I love the videos on this page. They are full of life—heterogeneous, un-self-conscious, all-embracing, bursting-at-the-seams life. After seeing this video, who would ever want to restrict our enjoyment of beauty to a definition met by <1% of the population when we can see it everywhere we turn?
 Based on the work of psychologist Daniel E. Berlyne published (among other places) in his book Aesthetics and Psychobiology.
The Beauty of the AssymetricalTable 1. Summary of the psychological and aesthetic properties of symmetry and asymmetry according to art historians and philosophers.
Formal rigidity Life, play
From “Symmetry and Asymmetry in Aesthetics and the Arts” by I.C. McManus, European Review, Vol. 13, Supp. No. 2, 157–180 (2005).