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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