Thursday, 22 July 2010

Beyond vanity

When I was a boy, paying too much attention to your appearance was regarded as unseemly vanity. Particularly in the case of women. Tarting yourself up, using too much makeup, having fancy hairdos, and any sign of excessive primping and preening, was dismissed contemptuously as nothing but vanity.

Somewhere along the line that all changed and constant attention to your appearance was no longer vain but completely normal. Everyone wanted to "look their best" or "make the most of themselves". Naturally a woman wanted a more flattering hairstyle or a smoother complexion, anything less was "letting yourself go".

Now we've moved even farther and perfecting your appearance is not just normal but almost compulsory, a measure of self-worth. Spending huge amounts of time and money achieving the looks of a film star or a supermodel now shows that you value yourself, you believe in your potential and your talents.

Anyone who isn't feverishly botoxing, boosting their breast size, having a Hollywood or adding highlights clearly doesn't think much of themselves. They're content to be the sort of second-rate, unimportant low-achievers nobody ever notices. Improving your appearance is now as vital as taking a degree or buying your first home. It demands rigorous effort and single-mindedness.

For too many women (and increasing numbers of men) tarting yourself up is no longer a naughty pleasure but a daily treadmill, another domestic chore that mustn't be neglected. The innocent days of unseemly vanity are long gone.

How did this shift of emphasis take place? How did we slide so unwittingly into such an all-demanding obsession?
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The gap in life expectancy and health prospects between the rich and the poor in the UK is now greater than during the post World War One slump and the Great Depression. And that's after 13 years of a Labour government....

22 comments:

meno said...

I blame the media and marketing. People have figured out that they can make money selling us stuff to "improve" our looks after convincing us that we aren't attractive enough.

Bah!

Grandad said...

The purpose of most advertising is to undermine our confidence in ourselves [I cannot be complete unless I have this].

I think people who have have retained their self confidence don't spend quite so much time in from of the mirror?

Nick said...

Meno - Media and marketing are certainly heavily implicated, but I think we also have to take responsibility for our own willingness to become such slaves to body perfectionism.

Grandad, long time no see! As I said to Meno, I don't think advertising is the sole culprit here. You're right, people with plenty of self-confidence are not so neurotic. But goodness knows how we restore self-confidence once it's been undermined.

Grannymar said...

Nick, is it not the wheel turning full circle? In the past at different stages powder and paint were important as well as frills and powered wigs - for the men as well as the women.

e said...

There is a difference between taking care-ie exercise, eating healthily, getting enough sleep and appropriate skincare and "tarting up."

And no, I don't spend too much time with either television or the mirror.

Nick said...

Grannymar - And what motivated the wigs and makeup, I wonder? Pure vanity, I imagine. Especially if they were to cover up baldness and terrible skin.

e - I would say exercise, healthy eating, enough sleep and skincare are the positive end of showing self-worth. Tarting up, botox etc is the negative end.

kylie said...

i have often wondered if my refusal to play that game has contributed to the fact that i am invisible to some people

Wisewebwoman said...

Ah, but Nick you're worth it!
Every plucked hair, every dollop of lotion.
Your fans demand it. You have to be always ready for that closeup!!
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Kylie - I think you're right. You're at that age when women become invisible unless they're super-thin and stunningly attractive. Jenny knows all about it!

www - Absolutely, you have to be ready for that merciless close-up at all times. Every wrinkle is a sign you just don't care about yourself!

Eryl Shields said...

It's the pendulum effect, I reckon, Anglo-Saxons seem particularly prone to it. As far as I can see the French, who have never been shy of a little primping, eschew the extremes that are becoming quotidian here and in the States.

I heard a rather convincing argument that the 'because you're worth it' advert has played a huge part in this current obsession: hegemony at its most potent.

I've always admired women who aren't afraid to be seen without make-up, it's only in the last few years I can bring myself to nip to the corner shop without stopping to apply mascara, and I still wouldn't go any further than the corner shop without some sort of enhancement.

That life expectancy gap news is a bit alarming.

Nick said...

Eryl - I'm sure catchy lines like "Because you're worth it" have hugely influenced the body-perfect equals self-worth trend. I for one was very dismayed when the feminist-inspired shunning of makeup gradually waned and full makeup became normal again.

Leah said...

I tarted up with my recent quest for blonde-ness. I enjoy tarting up, but don't make it a daily practice by any means. It is a little scary when it becomes a sine qua non of your daily routine, and the definer of self-worth.

i remember when I was in college, I lived on the same hall as a very nice jock-y guy who had a fancy girlfriend. She would often spend the night with him, and I would see her in the early morning in the bathroom, before he woke up, putting on her "face" and doing her hair. Full makeup, hair gel, the works. I always wondered whether he thought she just happened to look that way naturally, as he had never seen her in her true form...

Kylie's comment is very very interesting, and I empathize. I've deliberately unloaded the people who wouldn't "see" me without pancake and lipstick and "done" hair, gym body etc etc. I'm left with a great group who really seem to like me for me, and to hell with the rest! It's unnerving, though, and Kylie I really know what you mean!

Nick said...

Leah - I bet there are still plenty of women who're secretly perfecting themselves unknown to their male partners. Discreet waxing, hair dying etc. They're terrified he won't accept the real them. Good for you dropping the so-called friends who expected you to be laboriously dolled up.

secret agent woman said...

Maybe because of the omnipresence of photos like the one in your last post? I'm not pinning this on you, of course, but we are constantly bombarded with images of surgically enhanced and photo-shopped women and that has become the new standard of beauty. It changes the way men view women and the way women view themselves. So many women feel the only way they can be acceptable is to chase after that impossible look. I try to protect myself from it - I stay away from the images as much as I can, refuse to do anything involving surgery or needles to myself, refuse to cave into the idea that grown women shouldn't have pubic hair (God, where did that come from?), often go out with no make-up, don't buy bras with their own built-in breasts, and so on. I'm not immune, but even when I'm going all out it's still a pretty natural look. And anyone who has an issue with it can just spend time with someone other than me.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - Well said. I liked that contrasting pic because both women's appearance could be seen as objectionable by some. As you say, we're bombarded with similar "female bombshells" who make ordinary women feel inadequate.

It doesn't surprise me that you reject all that falsity and deceit and insist on being true to yourself. Absolutely right, if a man doesn't like you as you are, then let him look elsewhere for his fantasy Barbie doll.

kylie said...

hey,
i should elaborate on my comment.
i'm thinking of work, where the big boss is an image conscious lady. she asks women employees about their weight, their hair colour, their exercise regime, comments on a new "do", but she doesnt enter into any of that with me.
i dont mind that but i have also been undervalued as an employee and i cant help thinking the two are linked
as i write i wonder whether my employment record would be different if i was into all that stuff and as quickly as i ask the question i know that is a compromise i cannot make

kylie said...

there should have been a full stop after "linked"
sorry

Nick said...

Kylie - I suspect the two are very much linked, that the women who fit her preconceived keeping-in-shape image get discreetly favoured. But as you say, who wants to go down that road of time-consuming, narcissistic beautifying?

Rummuser said...

In all walks of life, not only in one's appearance, humanity has moved from content to the container. Just look at values that currently operate and compare them to those that operated say in the sixties and seventies of the last century. Just one example and I can come up with many more.

Nick said...

Ramana - In many cases I think it's true that the container has become more important. Or to put it another way, the increasing emphasis on image. Home furnishings are a good example. Nowadays it's not so much whether they do the job but whether they look right, whether visitors will be impressed by the style and ambience.

Kate said...

I have a worn out expression "I gotta be me".... no-one but me to please.... yes I dye my hair outrageous colours but why on earth not? At £4.00 a go - its a bit of fun!

Just like a famous lady - I have 'a face that I keep in a jar by the door' but I'm not averse to leaving it there - it depends what I'm doing...

Its good to have that choice - my lovely Mum always wanted to have her hair dyed - even after a massive stroke left her disabled - she said it made her feel better....

I'm all for feeling better - wrinkles and all!!!

Nick said...

Kate - Nothing wrong with a bit of casual beautifying. Why not dye your hair or try some new make-up? Especially if it makes you feel good. It's when it becomes obligatory as a way of proving your self-esteem that it turns sour.