V for Vanity

Merriam-Webster online defines “vanity” as:
1: something that is vain, empty, or valueless
2: the quality or fact of being vain
3: inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance

Vanity as defined above has always had a bad rap, and probably rightly so. But a lot of what drives vanity is, in une femme’s opinion, not an inflated pride, but rather a deep insecurity about one’s own appearance or talents, and the constant need to puff oneself up to feel validated. (Case in point: the vain and wicked Queen in Snow White.)

In the manner of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, our culture has tended to label all concern with appearance as “vanity” and condemn it as vapid and shallow or even sinful (while at the same time, expecting women to effortlessly look like they could grace a magazine cover). Yet there is a positive aspect to taking care with how we look, one that indicates a healthy self esteem, a respect for others and a desire to present our best selves to the world. I can think of no word in the English language for this flip side of the vanity coin, and there should be.

Care with appearance is, in the greater sense, a small piece of the essential human struggle against chaos and entropy. On those days when we’re feeling blue or dog-tired, making the effort to wash our hair, or using a bit of concealer, or resisting the call of the ripped sweatpants are all small ways to show courage, and perseverance in the face of all that would keep us down. Maybe that is vanity after all, a way of inflating ourselves, and maybe it’s not such a bad thing. When we’re in good spirits, putting some energy into our appearance feels like a natural expression of that sense of self-worth, and a polite nod to those we come in contact with.

I think of the last time I visited my grandmother before she died at the age of 93. She’d always been well put together, and when I saw her that day sitting in her wheelchair at the lunch table, her hair was freshly coiffed and she’d applied her usual red lipstick. It was her way of saying to the universe, “I’m not done yet.”

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  1. Certes, une belle apparence plait à tous le monde,même à soi dans de mauvais moments. Merçi pour cette belle pensée.

    Orane Grandmaïse

  2. My mother very explicitly said over and over that anyone who sought to look pretty was an idiot, so this area has always been a bit tricky for me. Plus there is, unfortunately, a huge overlap with society’s many mandates regarding how women must look. (That is, the patriarchy’s mandates, thinking here, inevitably, of Twisty.) If you succeed in living up to these externally imposed ideals, then men feel free to treat you like a toy, and if you don’t, you earn derision, to a greater or lesser degree. Whew! Hard to sort it all out, what’s for me and what’s for others. My grandmother sounds similar to yours: Every day she dressed up, did her hair, put on her makeup and jewelry and went out and had a great time, until very near the end. (Which just may have something to do with my mother’s stance on the whole thing!)

  3. Orane G – merci bien pour votre commentaires!

    Jen – thank you!

    duchesse – the French have a word (or phrase) for everything important, don’t they? 🙂

    dana – yes, all of the English phrases are a bit awkward, perhaps reflecting our culture’s ambivalence?

    linda – yes, it can be a slippery slope. But I was thinking more in terms of “putting one’s best foot forward” rather than attempting to fulfill patriarchal mandates. To me, it’s about putting effort into whatever makes you feel presentable, and isn’t limited to women. For men, it could mean polishing shoes, or putting on a clean shirt.

  4. Great post! I think the untranslatable French word sortable is helpful. It more or less means “you are well put together”- but it impleis more than “presentable”.

  5. I was brought up on the ideas that vanity was bad … and that I needed to be more vain (because I was ‘letting myself go’). Right. Happily, I’ve embraced my quiet vanity, and I take pleasure in knowing that I can open my closet, put on anything I find in it and know I can walk out of the door looking ‘together.’

  6. Pseu, great post.
    I believe that dressing neatly an appropropriately is one way that we can show respect for others. It sends the message that we care enought about them to go through the trouble to polish shoes, tuck in our shirts, wash our hair etc.

    I also had a similar experience with my grandmother. She died at the age of 94 but up to the end she was coiffed and manicured and adorable.

  7. Vanity and narcism are siblings. And, narcissists don’t focus on themselves endlessly out of self love but, as you say, out of a deep insecurity.

    However, there are those who are so afraid of any self-love that they refuse to make any effort on there appearance–that kind of self-aversion is also malignant.

    Just occurred to me that a mirror in the bathroom is called a vanity mirror. Can we come up with a new word for that? It is actually quite self absorbed to go outside without checking your reflection. All the innocent people in the world should never have to look at me before I have fixed my hair and applied a little makeup. It is actually not a vanity mirror but maybe it is a “public service mirror.”