People on TikTok are obsessed with facial symmetry, which means, per the laws of the algorithm, I am too.
I started playing with symmetry filters in 2020. The first one I tried, Inverted, doesn’t tweak your features like other filters, it simply reverses the image of your face. It quickly became popular as a quasi-litmus test for beauty: if your face looked the same both ways, the thinking went, you were beautiful. Only a rare few passed, and everyone else was melting down. I watched video after video of people flipping their faces back and forth, panic emerging at the inconsistencies. When I tried myself, the results were unsettling. Every time the camera flipped, my nose seemed to dance in the opposite direction, my jawline moving up and down in time.
I first heard the idea that symmetrical faces were more beautiful than non-symmetrical faces when I was very young, and I believed it without question. But this was the late 90s, and I was too busy trying to grow boobs by chugging milk to be neurotic about my face. Plus, I didn’t have the proper tools to investigate my features back then.
It wasn’t until college that I became convinced I had a “good” side and a “bad” side – and it isn’t a coincidence that this happened when Facebook became ubiquitous. This was the era of the party album. Every time my friends and I went out, we dedicated at least 15 minutes to lining up for each other’s digital cameras. As soon as I realized that I preferred the photos when I was standing on the right side of the line, I studied my face in the mirror to try to understand why. I could never find the reason, which irritated me, since the evidence was right there in my Facebook tags. Never mind that my friends claimed they had bad sides, too, but looking at the photos, I could never see their differences either. As with all insecurities, mine were true and theirs were not.
Ten years later, I got the opportunity to try out a True Mirror for a story. The True Mirror is a mirrored contraption housed in a black box that, through some trickery, presents your face to you in reverse – the way people see you in real life. According to the marketing, looking into a True Mirror is like meeting yourself for the first time; the tagline is, unsubtly: “See how you really are!” More accurately, see how lopsided you really are.
When it arrived, everyone at the office looked into it with horror. Eyebrows cocked, cheeks drooped, lips involuntarily smirked. Nobody could bear to look (or look away). We believed that what we were seeing was finally “the truth” about our faces, and yet everyone was convinced they looked crooked and absurd, a collection of Picasso-like features that no one else could corroborate. So was it the truth, really?
The True Mirror and TikTok symmetry filters both promise a new level of self-awareness and instead deliver anxiety. The Inverted filter faded from popularity last year, but new versions arrive all the time: the Mirror filter, the Twins filter and, the apex of them all, the Symmetry filter, which seamlessly shows you what your face would look like if it were left-symmetrical, and when you tap the screen, right-symmetrical. The effect for most people is that one of the faces is more conventionally attractive than the other, which looks a little strange or “off” (but of course, ironically, is also symmetrical).
You might think I’m overstating the prominence of this preoccupation. TikTok is so vast, yet so personalized, that even a microtrend can seem universal, but this one has genuine reach: there are more than 100m TikToks with the tag #symmetricalface, and when I asked my Instagram followers if their feeds included people discussing facial symmetry, about 70% of 4,000-plus respondents said yes.
No one can deny that TikTok invites a certain fixation with objectifying the self for the self. Filters can show you how old you look, your “true” eye color, which celebrity you most closely resemble, or “what you’d look like if you were a 90s kid”. There is a searching quality to a lot of the content – probably related to the fact that 60% of users are under 24 – as if people are logging on to find themselves. Symmetry as an important beauty metric plays right into this. Of course I believed it, too, but it became clear to me as I watched people freak out over their asymmetry collectively that the fixation was absurd and misguided. Perfectly symmetrical faces look unnerving. Perfection, aesthetically, is boring almost by definition. There may be studies that show humans are drawn to symmetrical faces, but there are also studies that show the opposite.
“If you create a perfectly symmetrical face in the lab, which is what I’ve done, those faces have very low beauty ratings,” Dahlia W Zaidel, a UCLA psychology professor, told Stephanie Shapiro in a 2006 article about the beauty of asymmetry for the Chicago Tribune. “We never look at perfectly symmetrical faces, never from the minute we are born.” When we herald symmetry as somehow divine, we forget the appeal of the real and organic, like someone you can squeeze versus something you can only perceive, like Lil Miquela.
Obviously symmetry is easier on the eyes initially, but have you ever fallen in love with a crooked tooth or the strange way someone’s face moved when they talked? People’s most compelling traits are imperfect and incidental – out of their control. “Nature and design have proven that wonky objects can have even more charm, power, and adaptability than their mirrored neighbors,” Dominic Muren, an industrial designer, told Shapiro. There’s a reason musicians often leave flaws in their songs, and designers typically work with balance, rather than perfect symmetry in mind. Eyes and ears scan perfection, then catch and linger on the unexpected.
I understand why we want clear answers to subjective questions, like whether we’re likable or pleasant to look at. But the pursuit of perfection is wildly unsexy. Worse, it’s boring. Our desperation to codify and commodify beauty has led us down a path of sensual decrepitude, of obsession and anxiety. It has supplied us with some of the least interesting role models of all time. We aren’t meant to understand what makes us appealing to others, nor command it.
Recently, I went to a Gang of Four show in Brooklyn and was blown away – not by the music, but by Jon King’s performance, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Completely lost in the moment, he jerked and jostled all over the stage, eyes shut tight, mouth twisted into an expression that would be humiliating if it weren’t utterly true to him. It was captivating from start to finish. I’ve never watched someone on stage be so engaged with the audience and yet uninterested in how it was perceiving him. It occurred to me afterward that his lack of interest in trying to control his image was exactly what made him singular and life-affirming to watch.
Watching him reminded me what it feels like to love something uncontrived. To be intrigued by something unusual on a personal, almost private level. Maybe we don’t need to pursue such a tight grip over how everyone else sees us. Maybe beauty isn’t something one should “pursue” at all.
This is an edited excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in Maybe Baby, a newsletter about modern life, popular culture, and how we feel about both. Looking for more great work? Here are some suggestions: