I must have been born with a melancholy nature, because it didn’t take me long to work out that we live in an imperfect world.
Imagine my discomfort, then, when I realized that many of the people who surrounded me in my nation of birth — my fellow Americans — were obsessed with having perfect teeth, perfect bodies and a perfect appearance during their brief time on this earth.
“What’s that about?” I thought to myself at a relatively early age (I was around 6, already on the way to driving my mother, an eternal optimist, crazy). “We’re all going to grow old and die regardless.”
By the time I reached adolescence, I decided that the need to be flawless was my birth nation’s fatal flaw. It was our best feature — hey, no one can deny how good we look flashing those orthodontically-enhanced smiles — but also our worst. The list is long of fabulously talented Americans who have perished in the pursuit of physical perfection.
That lists always begins with Marilyn Monroe — a pretty and bright young thing who ruthlessly remade herself into a sex symbol, and died at age 36. (Among other things, she got work done on her nose and chin to create her classic, timeless look.) And culminates in Michael Jackson, for whom it apparently wasn’t enough to be blessed with good looks and an extraordinary musical talent. No, the King of Pop felt compelled to have lots of plastic surgery — even if it meant destroying his career and himself.
Endearing little imperfections (England)
It’s a pity Marilyn and Michael were never offered the chance to study abroad in England, that’s all I can say. My prolonged stint as a graduate student at a British university soon cured me of any lingering fixations on fixing my looks.
Why bother when the people around you seem so oblivious? None of the Brits I knew seemed to mind that the politicians who were gracing their TV screens had funny eyebrows (cue Michael Heseltine), dowdy outfits (cue Shirley Williams) or speech impediments like rhotacism, pronouncing the sound r as w (cue the now-departed Roy Jenkins).
And not just politicians but also British actresses seemed much less interested than their American counterparts in their looks. On the contrary, such glamorous types appear to thrive on their imperfections — Kate Winslet proudly flaunting her curves, Helen Mirren daring to be sexy despite having wrinkles.
And now we have the English singer Adele (Laurie Blue Adkins), who is fond of saying things like: “Fans are encouraged that I’m not a size 0 — that you don’t have to look a certain way to do well.”
Have I mentioned teeth yet? An American journalist once complimented the comedian Ricky Gervais on being prepared to wear unflattering false teeth for his role as an English dentist in the film Ghost Town — only those were his real chompers! As Gervais told a BBC reporter:
He was horrified that I could have such horrible real teeth. It’s like the biggest difference between the Brits and the Americans, they are obsessed with perfect teeth.
Imperfection is perfection (Japan)
And then I reached my second small island, Japan, which I soon came to see as the Land of Melancholy — and hence as a kind of spiritual home for someone of my proclivities. I instantly appreciated the fact that Japanese revere the cherry blossom not so much for its beauty as for the brevity of that beauty. The blossom lasts just a few days before its petals scatter to the wind.
The Japanese aesthetic that attracts so many of us in the West is based on this notion of flawed beauty. We’re talking wabi-sabi here — the value derived from the Buddhist teaching on life’s impermanence. Wabi-sabi stands in stark contrast to the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection found in many Western countries. (Hey, those Greeks have a lot to answer for, besides their spendthrift ways!)
A good example is the tea ceremony bowl: not quite symmetrical, rough in texture, and often deliberately chipped or nicked at the bottom. You turn it around slowly to appreciate its hidden beauty, a kind of diamond in the rough…
And did I mention teeth yet? Japan is the land of REALLY crooked teeth. Even some young girls who don’t have crooked teeth apparently are asking their dentists to give them a fang-like yaeba (snaggletooth) as they think it’s charming to be imperfect. Japanese celebrities too, are imperfectly perfect.
Don’t overcultivate your garden
On the face of it, the English cottage garden has very little in common with the Japanese garden — the former full of flowers and exuberance, the latter much more subdued and restrained.
But I think they are alike in one important respect: both embrace imperfection. As California horticulturalist and lover of English gardens Mary Lou Heard once said:
The thing about a cottage garden is that it is not perfect. It is not a sterile place; there is always a lot happening and changing.
Not sterile — I like that. It means that something is breathing, growing, alive…and probably imperfect. To my way of thinking, as informed by my long expat life, a row of perfect brilliant white teeth looks a bit like a row of tomb stones, and a facelifted face, like a death mask.
A Japanese garden celebrates imperfection as well — but by using elements that have a natural, rough finish. If the garden features a wooden bridge, for example, it will be made of planks of different sizes, and the wood itself will have crooked edges or knobs.
For the Japanese, the point is not to restructure reality but to embrace its quirks. That’s why they’d rather see pile of rocks in different colors and sizes than a statue surrounded by carefully landscaped bushes.
As I mentioned in my first post in the series, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” repatriating to the United States has been a feat of Olympian proportions. Clearly I left it a little too long! But at least I stayed away for long enough that, upon coming home again, I have conquered the part of me that says I must always be striving for physical perfection. I no longer fear looking imperfect.
Thus, while my countrymen and women engage in excessive exercising, crash dieting, and surgical enhancements, I am free to sit back and enjoy the beautiful — precisely because it is imperfect — world we live in.
This means I’m not keeping up with the Kardashians. And for a long time, I assumed Mitt Romney was from central casting, not an actual presidential candidate. (I understand he has a problem of coming across as real enough, even among mainstream Americans, which is saying a lot. If I were his image consultant, I’d suggest growing his eyebrows to look more like those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Now that would give him some character.)
If you are a fellow American and are reading this, I suggest that you, too, try weaning yourself off our nation’s physical-perfection kick. Here are a few scenarios close to some I’ve experienced, with pointers on appropriate responses:
1 — The dentist says that in his opinion, you’d look a lot better with straight teeth. Keep calm and inform him that you’ve learned to enjoy nature’s little imperfections. If he persists, then say you were actually thinking of getting a snaggletooth, and does he happen to have any expertise in that area? If not, then whip out a photo of Ricky Gervais’s fangs to show him. (Notably, I did not take my own advice on this. Shortly I returned to the Land of the Straight Teeth, I succumbed to my dentist’s suggestion that I get braces again!)
2 — A woman stops you on the subway to point out you have a run in your stockings, or a work colleague comes up to you to tuck in the label hanging out the back of your blouse. Keep calm and tell them you’ve learned to appreciate life’s little imperfections, and they, too, may wish to get some wabi-sabi in their lives.
3 — You’re picking a mini-labradoodle puppy, and your husband wants to get the one that looks “normal,” but you like the one whose markings have asymmetry, because of her parti-colored poodle father. Keep calm and instruct your husband that the one with the strange spots is much more beautiful, and that one day people will make offers to take her away from you. (True story — my imperfect dog is perfection itself! And no, that is not her in the photo…)
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So, tell me: does any of this make sense, or has living abroad for so long rendered me totally bonkers?!
STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, another in our new “Expat Moments” series, by Anthony Windram.
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