Lately, I have found myself thinking about my values and beliefs regarding beauty. I see someone help an elderly person in the store, I experience my chai latte being paid for at Starbucks as a stranger practices “paying it forward”, and I witness my 4-year old daughter give away her birthday gift to her cousin. Such acts of compassion, kindness, and selflessness are all examples of genuine beauty which I hold in high esteem. But this inner beauty is not the type of beauty I find myself questioning. For me, inner beauty is obvious and easy to understand. Instead, I am uncertain about where I draw the line between healthy concern about physical appearance and dysfunctional efforts toward vanity.
There are many questions. How do I make judgments about what is and is not okay, what is healthy and what is not healthy, and what is the difference between confidence in physical appearance and vanity? There’s a fine line, and the spectrum for what could qualify as vanity is vast, from simple hygiene to multiple plastic surgeries.
vanity-the quality of people who have too much pride in their own appearance, abilities, achievements, etc. : the quality of being vain (definition from http://www.Merriam-webster.com)
What qualifies as too much pride? Does a woman who is insecure and gets several plastic surgeries to gain a sense of self-esteem have more vanity than the woman who prides herself on her “natural” beauty yet uses it to manipulate others into getting her way? Are there defining differences between using physical appearance as a way to gain self-esteem and engaging in vanity? Vanity is determined by what is socially acceptable rather than some objective measure. A woman who loves herself and how she looks can easily be deemed as vain rather than confident. How do we differentiate?
To explore these questions, I start with looking openly and honestly at what I have I learned and start over. I’m throwing out the messages I get from society. Society has taught me to judge other women for both not caring what they look like and for caring what they look like. This leads to my own self-judgment and feeling confused when I try to make decisions about where I want to be on that spectrum of caring to not caring how I look. I don’t want to be vain. Too much pride always ends badly: denial, selfishness, feelings of ingenuity, loss of relationships, etc. But, I also want to look good. Is it vanity though to want to look good when there are people suffering in poverty, starvation, and war zones?
I think few would disagree that we are not vain when we show pride in wearing clean clothes and taking a shower. Practicing hygiene is an act of healthy concern for physical appearance. But next on this spectrum comes things like make-up. I like to wear make-up. I like to get highlights in my hair. I like to wear clothes that accentuate a womanly figure. I also do not think any of this makes me vain. In fact, since motherhood, I often face work weeks au natural despite the preference of wearing make-up. And strangely, wearing no make-up sometimes gives me a confident attitude (or maybe it’s vanity) of “see world, I am a working mom and don’t need make-up, so ha!”.
At some point though, the line has to be drawn. It’s line drawing time.
Often, women take measures to enhance beauty. We will get our eyebrows waxed, go spray tanning, spend extra money on the cute pair of shoes, get a facial, get our ears pierced, etc. Taking it a step further, women may also get tattoos (make-up or regular), may get liposuction, face lifts, butt lifts, nose jobs, boob jobs, etc. How do you judge which women are vain? Answer: you cannot judge who is vain neither by merely looking at them nor by counting the number of ways in which they attempt to enhance their beauty. Vanity can only be judged by knowing what is on the inside.
Here is an example of how to differentiate. Woman A saves her money to buy high fashion clothing who also enjoys thrift store shopping, had a boob job, makes it her priority to work out regularly, and loves how she looks. She is gracious when given compliments, and she does not judge others by their looks. Woman A is confident, not vain. Woman B will only wear high-end fashion, will not be seen without looking put together, knows she looks good, and expects others to treat her as privileged based on her looks. Woman B is vain. Notice also, the only way to judge vanity fairly is by seeing a pattern of behaviors over time. If you saw Woman A walking down the street, and you give her a compliment, and she rushes by with a “uh huh thanks” because she’s had a bad day and in a rush to get to the dry cleaners before closing, it would be easy to deem her as vain. Vanity cannot be judged by a single encounter. Also, being in a bad mood and looking good does not make someone vain.
Another time in which women are often misjudged as vain is when their efforts towards enhancing beauty have become unhealthy. When someone’s thoughts are preoccupied with how they can continuously enhance beauty to feel better or be able to tolerate their own body, they have crossed the line into negative body image problems. It’s normal to have negative body image to some extent. When behaviors become obsessive, when anxiety becomes problematic, when it’s never enough, one has reached that point of needing professional help. Often, these women (and men too) are judged as being vain when the reality is they are struggling with anxiety, depression, issues of self-esteem, and likely more. Whether it’s multiple plastic surgeries, debt incurred through buying too much Prada, or restriction of food towards weight loss, these are behaviors meant to alleviate pain which is the opposite of having too much pride.
The differences between vanity and confidence, between healthy and unhealthy really are not so difficult to discern when societal influences are removed, however, removing societal influences isn’t easy. Seems like society doesn’t want women to have confidence, but instead wants women to always feel insecure. Unless someone is of celebrity status, and often, also when someone is of celebrity status, society tells women to judge. “Who does she think she is?”, “What is she wearing?”, “OMG, she thinks she’s so good.” If we take out all of that judgment and allow ourselves to truly see, we will learn beauty is everywhere. When we can get down to the core, when we can look at a person from what is within, we see people in their truest form. When we allow ourselves to do this, we make room for compassion and opportunities to build confidence and pride.
As a mother of a daughter, I want to give her the right message about beauty. I want her to have a value system that guides her to be non-judgmental about physical appearance. I want her to be confident in her own beauty, both inner and physical. However, she can only learn this by seeing me do this. Giving her words to guide her are not enough. Despite living in a society which banks on women being dissatisfied with their appearance, I have to commit to liking myself, loving myself, no matter how I look. It’s hard work, but I got this.