On Vanity

I’ve begun updating some of my greatest hits posts so they’re more current. This is one of them!

what is vanity

When it comes to public opinions on beauty-related activities and efforts, the mixed messages can get positively dizzying. If you spend loads of money, time, and effort creating a physical presentation that aligns with socially sanctioned beauty ideals, you may be told you’re vain. If you reject the idea that all women should conform to a single beauty standard and shun the clothing silhouettes and grooming practices associated with that standard, you may be told you’re frumpy. If you consider a manicure or facial or other practice associated with enhancing or improving your looks, people may scoff. If you are perfectly happy au naturale, people may sneer.

It’s a fine line, and many of us attempt to walk it on a near-daily basis.

Because vanity is terrible, right? It’s an indicator of self-involvement and prioritizing one’s self over others. It means that someone thinks more about her looks than her accomplishments. It’s a downright despicable character flaw worthy of universal scorn.

Or is it? If vanity means a propensity to engage in activities that help you look and feel your absolute best, what does that have to do with how you think of or treat other people? And who decided that someone who enjoys grooming and preening and looking at herself in the mirror couldn’t possibly be intelligent, ambitious, and accomplished? How exactly does tending your physical body in any way you see fit constitute a character flaw?

In my opinion, a behavior or belief becomes problematic when it impedes normal functioning. The dictionary definition of vanity is “excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc.” Excessive being the key word, there. Enjoying clothing, playing with makeup, deriving pleasure from looking at your own reflection, feeling genuine love for your physical form are all healthy, normal behaviors. Doing any of these things to the point of obsession, feeling compelled to impose your views of your own beauty or importance on others, or sapping your personal resources for the sake of furthering efforts to either beautify or glorify your own image? Entering Vanity Territory, perhaps. It’s imbalance, fixation, and strong feelings of superiority that tip the scales.

But in the grand scheme of things, I see vanity as a relatively benign “problematic behavior.” Our society vastly prefers that women bathe in vats of self-concocted self-loathing, trash-talking themselves at every available opportunity.  Showing any sign of body- or beauty-related pride creates an opportunity for any observers to vilify the culprit. Truly vain people are irritating and tiresome. But since they are so self-focused, isn’t most of the damage they do mainly to themselves?

Vanity is conflated with so many things these days. Women who love makeup or hit the gym every single day or buy expensive clothes are “vain.” Women who get monthly pedicures while leaving their kids with a babysitter are “vain.” Women who accept compliments instead of deflecting them or express pride in their appearances are “vain.” Yet NONE of these things are truly excessive, and none of them impede normal functioning. None of them are indicators of destructive self-absorption or a propensity to focus entirely on the physical and ignore the intellectual. None of them hurt anyone at all.

My experience leads me to believe that real vanity is quite rare. What passes for vanity these days is often just interest in fashion, love of cosmetics, or plain old self-care.

So the next time you worry about being vain yourself, or come close to attaching that label to another person, pause. Being interested in or proud of your appearance is not a crime. Try not to vilify yourself or anyone else for taking an interest in their looks. Because doing so causes no harm to others, and can even help build confidence, diminish worry, and boost body-image.

Image courtesy Icars

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