Hold On!

Hold Up

Please select a minimum of three sectors in the menu above.

Got It
  • There’s beauty to be found in flaws
  • There’s beauty to be found in flaws
    Esprit (2016) ©

What’s so Zen about imperfection?

Whether it's chipped furniture, ‘ugly’ food or unconventional beauty, societal mindsets are shifting to a greater acceptance of imperfection. With Eastern spirituality influencing Western lifestyles, can the spirit of Zen help brands connect with a generation that’s done trying to be perfect?

Location Global

From supermarket chains selling ‘ugly’ produce to activists challenging the fashion industry’s expectations of women, imperfection is steadily being normalised across sectors. [1] It’s a shift being led by younger generations, who have grown up amid various global crises and acknowledge that not everything in life will be ideal. “They want to see their world in the ad world,” says Jamie Gutfreund, CMO of digital agency Wunderman. “They want it to be realistic. They don't expect perfection.” [2]

This attitude may also reflect a stand against the pressures of conformity. With one in ten young Brits having a mental health condition (including self-image disorders such as anorexia), the darker side of perfectionism is well documented, and research links extreme perfectionist tendencies to anxiety, depression, and the increased risk of suicide. [3][4]

These pressures are being fuelled in the West by the negative associations between imperfection and failure or guilt. By contrast, the teachings of Zen spirituality are firmly centred on accepting imperfection. There are no precise interpretations of wabi-sabi, kintsugi, fukinsei and shizen, but these Japanese terms are based on the premise of imperfection, transience and impermanence. [5][6] They also relate to minimalism, slow living, compassion, tolerance and authenticity. In principle, they describe an understanding that there is beauty in the broken, and this is accepted as a natural state of being and not a flaw or failing. So how can brands better understand and welcome the changing role of imperfection in people’s lives?


The pressure of perfection is depressing
The hallmarks of Gen X may have been flashy cars, diet fads and a friendship group straight out of a sitcom, but the buzzword among youth nowadays is ‘authenticity’. If Monica Geller of Friends was the poster girl for Gen X perfection, then Hannah Horvath of HBO’s Girls is Gen Y’s imperfect heroine. “The awkward sex, failed career attempts and overall sense of rejection summed up our reality,” writes Radhika Sanghani for the Telegraph. “It was refreshing (and a relief) to see them blown-up on TV – instead of the airbrushed versions we were used to viewing. Who couldn’t relate to at least one aspect of these girls’ messed up lives?” [7]

But the tag used to describe younger audiences – often accused of being self-absorbed – is that of a ‘narcissist’. And it could be doing more harm than good, suggests Joshua Grubbs, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Case Western University; “Over time, the 'narcissistic' label could impact how millennials feel, their mental health (and) their attitudes about themselves and general generation.” He conducted a series of tests including a fake personality test telling Yers that they were narcissist, to which many took offence, drew ‘sad emojis’ and described the term as a ‘putdown’. [8]

The stress on being perfect can make us less tolerant of people who are different from us, where the difference is interpreted as a source of imperfection

Dr. Lisa Bortolotti, professor of philosophy at Birmingham University

Research from Dalhousie University found that perfectionism harms more than just the individual, with high expectations (of oneself as well as others) and a demanding nature making narcissistic perfectionists hard to please. [9] “The stress on being perfect can make us less tolerant of people who are different from us, where the difference is interpreted as a source of imperfection,” explains Dr. Lisa Bortolotti, professor of philosophy at Birmingham University. [10]

With popular culture feeding a ‘reality’ diet of Kardashians and Made in Chelsea, along with the constant online reminders of idealised lives on Instagram, it’s easy to see how insecurities about self-image and social status could be heightened and lead to hyper-perfection. But while Gen Yers have the highest rates of depression of any generation, Zers are fretting over the future; 79% are anxious about finding a job, and 72% worry about debt. [11] And though this cohort may be dubbed a resilient bunch, it’s estimated that three in ten children suffer from some form of maladaptive perfectionism – a finding mirrored in the news, with stories about teen suicide and self-harm surfacing frequently. [12][13] So it’s little surprise that younger generations are rejecting perfectionism when they’ve witnessed the pain it can cause first-hand.

Gens Y and Z know not to expect perfection Gens Y and Z know not to expect perfection
Andrew Stawarz, Creative Commons (2015) ©

A celebration of the flawed
The beauty of Zen principles lies in the lens through which imperfection is viewed, and wabi-sabi has become a catch-all term in the West to describe anything that doesn’t conform to the norm. There are over 150,000 posts on Instagram tagged with #wabisabi, many of which deviate from the original meaning, indicating that the values surrounding Zen imperfection are spilling into mainstream consciousness.

“The post-industrial visual culture tends towards an appreciation of beauty in imperfection,” says Ben Weaver, a creative director in the arts and culture space. “[There is] an obsession with nostalgia, vintage, hand-made, unique, rare and imperfect as a way of insisting on our humanity and modulating the relentless expansion of technology into our lives. In many ways, we are now in a post-perfect era.” [14] Weaver points to a ‘renaissance of hand-made processes’, with traditional arts and crafts inspiring shows such as Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year and the BBC’s Great Pottery Throw Down, the latter of which launched with 1.9 million viewers in 2015. [15]

The post-industrial visual culture tends towards an appreciation of beauty in imperfection. We are now in a post-perfect era

Ben Weaver, creative director

The crafts are also being translated commercially into retail environments, Etsy being the most prominent example. Valued at over $3 billion in 2015, its success reflects a thirst for authenticity – and it’s a market that physical retailers are eager to get a slice of. [16] In early 2016, Macy’s New York struck up a deal to dedicate a floor to Etsy’s hand-made products. In a bid to attract younger, socially-conscious shoppers, the department store has agreed terms which include paying Etsy sellers 50% of the profits, while respecting their intellectual rights. [17]

The steady rise of greenery in urban architecture and retail stores sits with the notion of shizen (‘naturally occurring’), a key aesthetic principle within wabi-sabi. It’s the context in which Airbnb has partnered with Pantone to launch the Outside In House in London – an experience to bring visitors closer to nature in the home environment and celebrate the 2017 Colour of the Year, ‘Greenery’. [18] On a similar note, Japanese online retailer Shopu has made a splash in the Parisian market based on the principles of naturalness, simplicity and sincerity. With a range of wabi-sabi-inspired products embracing ‘imperfect’ craftsmanship over processed design, the minimalist approach offers a refreshing alternative to conformist creations.

Do people still want perfectly mass-produced products? Do people still want perfectly mass-produced products?
Peter Roden Design | Instagram (2017) ©

An appetite for raw realism
Nature’s imperfections are being welcomed in the food industry through the ‘ugly’ movement. Roughly 60 million tonnes of produce are wasted in the US each year, with visual ‘imperfections’ often leading shoppers and retailers to throw away edible food. [19] But several supermarkets, including Whole Foods and Asda, have run initiatives encouraging customers not to discriminate against unsightly foods. [20] Additionally, when Walmart’s potato supplier was left with a ‘wonky’ crop of potatoes due to bad weather, the retailer sold them as ‘Spuglies’. [21] While there is a socially-conscious drive behind this movement, it does raise the issue of how suppliers will meet demand when ugly becomes just another regular consumer expectation.

In 2014, Pizza Hut introduced rough-edged pizzas to convey a freshly-made, ‘artisan’ quality and attract a younger audience. [22] But Gens Y and Z want the real thing rather than brands posing to be authentic. Rawligion – a London-based raw vegan restaurant that claims to serve up healing benefits through food – strikes a better balance. Its menu boasts items like anti-anxiety brain milk laced with hemp, while the speciality cold-brewed coffee is touted as a gut healer. The concept takes the best of commercial and niche thinking, without overplaying the worthiness and superiority that often makes raw feel inaccessible.

They want to see their world in the ad world. They want it to be realistic. They don't expect perfection

Jamie Gutfreund, CMO of digital agency Wunderman

Fashion and beauty brands (which rely heavily on aesthetics) are also becoming more responsive to the call for imperfection as a result of the body positivity movement. Esprit’s ‘Imperfect’ campaign harnesses the power of individuality and self-expression through dance, using colour and texture to tell a story of diversity. [23] Reebok’s ‘Perfect Never’ campaign, featuring Gigi Hadid, focuses on the female journey of inner strength. It’s arguable that Hadid’s looks and lifestyle are not aligned with imperfection, but the message of the ad points out the hidden flaws of a seemingly perfect life.

Similarly, footwear brand Po-Zu (meaning ‘to pause’ in Japanese) is well-aligned with Zen principles. The brand is dedicated to sustainable, slow fashion and owner Sven Segal set up the Better Shoes Foundation as a commitment to improving conditions for industry workers and respecting the environment.

Brands are embracing self-acceptance when advertising Brands are embracing self-acceptance when advertising
Match.com (2016) ©

Insights and opportunities
With aspirational advertising preying on human weakness and insecurity, brands are being challenged over their motivations in pushing perfectionist ideals. “The key is to be able to strive towards a better version of ourselves without forgetting the constraints we need to live with,” says Bortolotti. “Sometimes, misleading advertising can make us believe that constraints do not apply, and this leads to disappointment and frustration – to a sense of inadequacy.” [10]

Online retailer D.EFECT reflects realism particularly well in its ads; 'The Beauty of Imperfection' campaign reveals the physical imperfections of models (such as scars), sending a message of individuality and self-expression to connect with audiences. This sentiment of accepting one’s flaws is echoed by model Iskra Lawrence. Commenting on her decision to keep her photos ‘raw and real’ on Instagram, she says: “I had to forgive myself for the times I saw retouched pictures of myself with slimmer arms, a thigh gap, unachievable smooth skin, with no cellulite or back fat, and thought that’s how I should look in real life. I now know that just because people decided to alter my appearance to look ‘perfected’, it doesn't make me any less beautiful in the real world – where I can’t walk around airbrushed.” [24]

But brands should refrain from defining people solely on their attitudes to perfection. “There’s no such thing as ‘perfect and imperfect people,’” confirms Bortolotti. “We are all imperfect, but some of us are more successful at harnessing our strengths or at turning weaknesses into assets.” [10] It’s a message that progressive brands are taking on board as they weave notes of imperfection into their narratives, highlighting the positives of personal or product defects. Yet while the food industry adopts the ‘ugly’ trend, aligning ‘ugliness’ with imperfection is at odds with truly embracing flaws, as the term indicates harsh judgement, and this jars with the idea of unconditional acceptance.

We are all imperfect, but some of us are more successful at harnessing our strengths or at turning weaknesses into assets

Dr. Lisa Bortolotti, professor of philosophy at Birmingham University

Match.com’s ‘Love Your Imperfections’ campaign served as an example of how not to use this narrative in advertising. One of the ads unwittingly implied that red hair and freckles are imperfections, consequently sparking backlash on social media. [25] The reactions are in line with the sentiments of younger generations who demand non-standard representations of beauty – e.g. calling for the cosmetics industry to better serve minorities – with 60% of teens saying they back brands that share their views on social issues such as human rights, race and sexual orientation. [26]

Bortolotti states the importance of both perfection and imperfection in equal measure. “I feel strongly that we should foster in young people both the good side of perfectionism – a desire to do things well and to strive to become a better person – and the good side of imperfectionism – an awareness of our limitations and an acceptance of our fallibility,” she says. [10] To this end, some schools are promoting mindfulness and meditation, and Headspace has introduced an app for kids. [27]

The principles of Zen spirituality are well aligned with the premise of imperfection and the wider values surrounding it – e.g. compassion, tolerance, acceptance, authenticity and impermanence. And with younger generations expressing a strong desire to live in a world where there is more equality, fairness and balance, crafting a narrative that embraces imperfection as a state of being rather than a flaw could be pretty Zen.

Shabana Ebrahem is a cultural intelligence consultant, trends forecaster and editorial writer. She has ten years’ experience in the global consumer lifestyle sector and works extensively across the premium, luxury, beauty and retail industries.

Related behaviours
Shared Values: A growing expectation for brands to rise to society’s challenges.

1. '2016 was a year to smile about for ‘ugly’ produce', The Huffington Post (December 2016)
2. 'The optimization generation: Wunderman shares new generational research', The Drum (May 2016)
3. 'Mental health info for young people', Rethink
4. 'The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide', Review of General Psychology (September 2014)
5. 'Kintsugi & Wabi-sabi', The Sound of Little Feet
6. '7 design principles, inspired by Zen wisdom', Fast Company (February 2013)
7. 'Listen millennials. Lena Dunham's Girls is ending - and it's time to grow up', The Telegraph (January 2016)
8. 'Millennials admit to being narcissists, but don't you dare call them that', Science Daily (March 2016)
9. 'From hero to zero: How narcissistic perfectionists hurt those around them', Dalhousie University (April 2016)
10. Interview with Lisa Bortolotti conducted by author
11. 'Think millennials have it tough? For 'Generation K', life is even harsher', The Guardian (March 2016)
12. 'Disparate measures – improving the assessments of perfectionism', Social Science Space (October 2016)
13. 'Suicide rates climb In US, especially among adolescent girls', NPR (April 2016)
14. Interview with Ben Weaver conducted by author
15. 'BBC's Great Pottery Throw Down fires up with 1.9 million viewers', The Guardian (November 2015)
16. 'Etsy now worth over $3 billion. Stock jumps 88% after IPO', CNN (April 2015)
17. 'Why Macy's needs Etsy (and it's not just about Millennials)', Forbes (February 2016)
18. 'Greenery in London: Airbnb & Pantone’s Outside In House', WGSN (January 2017)
19. 'Half of all US food produce is thrown away, new research suggests', The Guardian (July 2016)
20. 'This food trend isn't pretty – and that's the point', Mic (June 2016)
21. ''Ugly' fresh produce gets hipper for grocers, but there's one problem - supply’, CNBC (July 2016)
22. 'Pizza Hut introducing imperfections into its hand-tossed pies', Inquisitr (January 2014)
23. '#ImPerfect – The Esprit Fall/Winter 2016 Campaign', Esprit (August 2016)
24. 'Read Iskra Lawrence's TED talk before it airs', Glamour (January 2017)
25. 'Match.com to remove posters implying red hair and freckles ‘imperfections’', The Guardian (April 2016)
26. 'Gen Z is on the rise, here is what you need to know', Forbes (January 2017)
27. 'This school replaced detention with meditation. The results are stunning', Upworthy (September 2016)

Shabana Ebrahem