I always thought there was something undignified about being preoccupied with one’s own appearance. As teenagers, my friends and I would mock one another if we were caught gazing at our reflections for too long, whilst at the same time searching in the mirror for a way to present our awkward selves to the world.
The infamous Greek myth of Narcissus similarly warns of the pitfalls of being vain. It tells a tale of a beautiful young man who gazed into his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love. Unable to tear himself away from the sight of his beauty, he died at the edge of the water, riddled with the sorrow of his own unrequited love. The balance between self-confidence and self-obsession has likely crept into all of our lives at some point. Being vain is a criticism, not a compliment: even Aesop stated, “Vanity pushes a man to ridiculous boasting and hypocrisy.” As Narcissus shows, the perils of vanity are not reserved for only women.
The idea of a man having “swag” against being “full of himself” is a delicate line to tow. “Your hat strategically dipped below one eye, your scarf it was apricot,” sings Carly Simon in “You’re So Vain.” When she later describes how every girl at the party dreams of being with the recipient of her song, she also admits that she too has fallen prey to the man who has one eye locked on his own reflection. “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? Don’t you?” And of course, it is. Every single word of it. So what had Carly hooked? Undoubtedly, she was attracted to something confident in the subject of her derisions.
When we feel good about our external appearance, our confidence is boosted. We stride stronger, work harder, and approach social situations head on. This confidence, which sinks internally, has to spring from a place of pride in one’s appearance or taking the time to display ourselves attractively. The challenge with this is how the rest of the world is able to reconcile the interior of a person with their outer.
Do we consider a woman with immaculate hair and an outfit of chic perfection to be vain? Or the eccentric man who is in perfected tailoring in all the colors of the rainbow with shoes to match, to be in any way vulgar? I can’t help but smile and derive pleasure from the spectacle of someone who has made a real effort with their appearance; it seems more of an artistic act of self-expression rather than vanity.
Vanity, it appears, is not so clear-cut. The ugly truth is that we have become vainer and unhappier than ever. 53% of American girls age 13 are unhappy with their bodies. This number grows to 78% by the time they reach 17, according to the National Institute on Media and the Family. The rise of social media has made more and more people feel insufficient and unattractive whilst simultaneously more narcissistic than ever.
Along with this, the global cosmetic industry made $460-billion in 2014 and is estimated to soar to $675-billion by 2020. This growing industry profits on our increasing desire for beauty. That fresh lip color feeling and that brand new hairstyle, I cannot deny, make me canter like a glossy pony after a winning streak at the races.
Recently though, something stopped me in my tracks. It was the holiday period in New York City. I was walking around Fifth Avenue taking in the Christmas lights and the buzz of the city as people walked with their arms laden with bags stuffed with gifts. I walked past a hairdresser’s store and to my own disbelief, saw a “special” section of the mirrored wall with salon chairs for little girls to get their hair and makeup done to match their dolls. I saw two girls, probably 6-years old, having their hair blow-dried and makeup applied whilst their parents sat close by, beaming at the treat they were bestowing upon them. The little girls smiled at one another as a tinsel was tied around strands of hair, while they looked down at their matching dolls. My heart sank as I walked back into the crowds.
Vanity and beauty can seep into our psyches unwittingly from a very young age. In a study performed by Markus Mobius and Tanya Rosenblat, “Why Beauty Matters,” it suggests that within society there exists a beauty premium, whereby attractive people get further ahead in business due to their employer rating them as more able. They are likely to earn more money based off of this assumption. This starts at school where teachers tend to believe that children who are attractive are expected to outperform other children and are thus given more attention due to their perceived potential.
I have friends with children who are cautious of allowing others to tell their kids that they are “so pretty” or “cute,” as these compliments could nurture a vain streak. I’ve often thought that beauty can have power to draw one in. Some people admit to listening harder and giving more time to an attractive person.
Could being vain set us up to be more successful? “Any woman who counts on her face is a fool”, Zadie Smith writes in her novel “On Beauty.” Perhaps aging is the humanizing element of vanity, where we eventually begin to realize that the beauty of our youth begins to have less importance as we have no choice but to let it go. My own mother says, “You have your looks, you have your youth,”as if that is a worthy currency for my dealings in the world. She may be right; certain opportunities have come my way and certain doors have flung open as a result of my appearance, but they do not remain open if you are merely a pretty face.
So how do we proceed in a world that celebrates followings and likes, and places the beautiful right at the top of the hierarchy? Consider the sources of your greatest admiration. Mine are not lauded for their appearance or vanity but for their purpose, their thoughts, their actions, and their heart. This strength and confidence doesn’t come about through a preoccupation with beauty, it comes as a result of doing, with getting up and participating in the world. If we take people in based not on their looks but by their character and actions, we actually see the truthful sum of that person and begin to dismantle the pattern of the beauty premium.
We must look more deeply than just skin deep.
I return to the thought of the little girls in the salon. I too recall my first experiences with makeup. I remember vividly rifling through my mother’s makeup drawer, finding bright palettes and smearing on blue and violet eye shadows and fuchsia pink lipstick. I would look in the mirror at this new face. It was a new “me,” a “me” that looked like the faces I had seen in magazines. I had achieved that look, yes, but something was a bit boring about it, a bit too similar to all the other faces I’d seen. I took my hand and smeared the lipstick across my mouth, I rubbed the blue down my cheeks, my face now providing the perfect canvas for my totally original mess. That, I liked. That was fun. That was me.