V-Day Special: What Lies Beneath (The Mask)

Mr. Newman

“Hey,” I exclaimed. “That’s your face!” I realized I’d never seen the whole thing before, and honestly, I was surprised. 



Woe to one of those deformed characters in a Picasso painting trying to find a date.
 
Sure, Picasso may have found a revolutionary way to capture the human figure and psyche by representing it from every angle at once—nose on the forehead, two mouths, etc.—but few would look at one of his characters and think, “There’s someone I’d like to grab a veggie burger with.”

In a 2019 article in Psychology Today titled “Why Are Symmetrical Faces So Attractive?” Dr. Nathan H. Lents writes, “Across many clever experimental designs, researchers have confirmed that we rate faces that are more symmetrical as more attractive than those with less symmetry.”
 
He goes on to discuss the “choreography of developmental gene expression,” and how we consciously and unconsciously perceive to what degree a face stumbles in that dance. Apparently, it impacts the way we choose our choice mates and friends.
 
The symmetry we’re talking about here is the side-to-side kind, of course. But what about top-to-bottom symmetry? In the age of COVID, when we’re often limited to seeing the top half of people’s faces, what happens when we suddenly get a glimpse of the bottom half…and it just seems a bit off.
 
I count myself fortunate that I met my wife twenty-seven years before this pandemic, and we got to check out each other’s faces, all at once. Since we’ve been married twenty-five years and have two children, we obviously decided the other’s eyes, nostrils, and ears were proportioned well enough to cast our lots in together.
 
A number of months ago, I was waiting for a class to start, and one of my students pulled down their mask to take a drink of water.
 
“Hey,” I exclaimed. “That’s your face!” I realized I’d never seen the whole thing before, and honestly, I was surprised. Don’t misunderstand me. There was nothing wrong with the bottom half of the person’s face. It just wasn’t what I was expecting, which led me to wonder what kind of algorithm our brains naturally engage to fill in the bottom half of the face when we’ve only seen the top.
 
I figured I couldn’t be the only person intrigued by this phenomenon, so I googled “covid bottom half of face seems strange” but that only returned links about Covid-related rashes and the proper ways to wear a face mask.
 
Then I googled “why do the bottom half of people’s faces look weird” and the top hit was a Wikipedia page on Prosopometamorphosia, a visual disorder where a person sees faces in an altered, distorted manner that might include “drooping, swelling, discoloration, and shifts of position.” Apparently, fewer than 30 cases have been documented, though I had to wonder if Picasso was one of them. Regardless, this was clearly not what I was experiencing.
 
And it wasn’t just me. When I asked my advisees whether they were ever thrown off by this Covid face-matching game, many of them nodded. Wesley Caldwell said that it’s generally not an issue with peers since they’ve seen each other before. But it’s different with teachers. “It’s kind of a little surprise,” he said. “Seeing the face behind the voice.”
 
I remember one of my students telling me they didn’t realize I had a beard for a couple of months and was rather shocked (which I took as an affirmation of my truly excellent mask-wearing habits).
 
We have all experienced the advantages of covering the bottom halves of our faces. A bit of spinach in your teeth? No problem. A gnarly pimple on your nose? No worries. Haven’t shaved that five o’clock shadow from three days ago? Who’s noticing?
 
And as for revealing the mystery of what lies beneath the mask, perhaps it’s good practice for the many times in a relationship when you need to adjust your expectations. After all, at some point you’re going to see, for the first time, what your partner looks like in a truly ratty pair of sweatpants, with a gnarly pimple on their nose, and spinach in their teeth.
 
There are the exceptions the other way, of course. The wide-eyed, high-cheekboned gods and goddesses that walk among us. An article on the Irish website Joe listed the top 10 male and female celebrities with the most symmetrical faces, according to Dr. Julian De Silva of the Centre for Advanced Facial Cosmetic and Plastic Surgery in London, who used computer technology to map their immortal visages.
 
Among the top men? George Clooney (1), Will Smith (6), and Ryan Gosling (8). Among the top women? Amber Heard (1), Kendall Jenner (5), and Selena Gomez (8). And you can dig down into the data even further. For example, the distance between and position of Scarlett Johansson’s eyes are 95.95% of Phi, the ideal ratio according to Dr. De Silva (and the ancient Greeks), followed closely by Rihanna’s at 95.85%.
 
Good for them. And good for the careers, apparently.
 
But keep in mind that even George Clooney’s face is only 91.86% symmetrical, Amber Heard’s 91.85%. And while that might make the rest of us mortals wonder just how far off we are from being perfectly imperfect (you can determine your own Phi score here, if you dare) perhaps there’s some comfort to be found in knowing that, by the numbers, nobody’s perfect. 

Ms. Story, who I ran into in the 200 hallway hanging student art, said that perfection is often not very interesting when it comes to painting. At the start of one of her courses, she shares a Picasso piece with her students depicting a violinist who is very out of proportion. She wants them to understand that it’s “the story, the concept that’s more important than the skill level or photographic quality.” She said Picasso could paint people “accurately” from the time he was 12 years old, but he was trying to communicate something deeper to the viewer than the literal representation. She added that it can feel less intimidating to look at a painting when the artist is having a conversation with you rather than dazzling you with their raw skill.
 
Hopefully, we’ll all remember that when we can lower our masks for good, and show our full faces and smiles that go beyond the eyes. We can’t help what we find attractive in others, of course, but we can try to look beyond that surface level dazzle and focus on the conversation, with the hope they’ll do the same with us.
 
For now, we just have to deal with a bit of weirdness on those rare occasions when we see what’s behind the mask. Given what we’re up against with this virus, it’s a fairly small price to pay. After all, that guy lying at the bottom of Picasso’s Guernica was probably too busy dealing with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War to worry about what his upcoming blind date would think about both of his eyes being on the right side of his head.
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