Saturday, 22 April 2017

The sky's the limit

When does paying a lot of attention to your personal appearance just mean healthy self-respect and when does it turn into obsessive vanity? Or is the label "vanity" simply a gratuitous insult?

Men and women are judged differently of course. What might be dismissed as sheer vanity in a man (getting a manipedi or a leg wax, say) would be seen as normal behaviour in a woman. Forever looking in a mirror might seem odd for a man, but not for a woman.

American journalist Tom Shone confesses he devotes a lot of time to his appearance. He makes sure photos get his "good side", he trims his hair every morning, he has a pile of creams and lotions, he exfoliates. He thinks he's horribly vain.

Actually he doesn't sound very vain at all. I've read of men who're far more body-conscious than he is - going to the gym every day, getting plastic surgery, removing every trace of body hair, getting hair transplants. Tom is a mere beginner in the vanity stakes.

But women have to go much farther to be accused of vanity. When I was young, women were seen as "vain" if they did anything more than be moderately attractive. Nowadays the sky's the limit and women go to such extraordinary lengths to enhance their appearance that the word "vanity" becomes meaningless. Their endless body-awareness isn't narcissism, it's merely an attempt to meet an ideal of female beauty that gets more rarified, more impossible by the day.

The typical dolled-up news presenter, in a tight-fitting dress, thick layer of make-up, three inch heels and bottle-blonde hair, isn't seen as vain but simply dressing the way she's expected to.

Personally I have barely a shred of vanity. I try to be presentable, but beyond that my body is of little interest to me. I'd hate to be bald or over-run with body hair, but that's about it.

So is the word "vanity" obsolete or does it still mean something?


  1. I hope it is obsolete, the fewer words we have to undermine each other the better.

  2. Eryl: Agreed. Why shouldn't people just dress and behave the way they want (within reason obviously)? Why this idea of behaviour that's "outlandish" and therefore "vain"?

  3. In women it seems to be less vanity than necessity if they wish to be accepted.
    I am men really want women to look like identikit dolls?

  4. i hate to sound like an ageist...
    if that's the right word.
    but i gave up vanity long ago.
    i'm 71 now and there is just so much more to life than worrying about all that surface stuff.
    at the same time i like to be immaculate. so maybe that in itself is vanity! i don't know.
    age doesn't mean slovenly. or at least it shouldn't i think.
    so i vote for clean and comfortable!

  5. Clean and comfortable works for me too!

  6. Helen: Exactly. In many situations it's simply necessary for women to dress in a certain way.

    It's odd in the year 2017, but yes, a lot of men do seem to want identikit dolls. They're still in thrall to those tired gender stereotypes.

  7. Tammy: Clean and comfortable is good. Is it vain to be immaculate? Not if that only means neat and tidy. On the other hand, if you're worrying about every little detail and everything has to be "just right"....

    Jean: I'll go with clean and comfortable. And easily washable and non-iron!

  8. It is absolutely true that women are held to a different standard than men. But what would happen if women agreed NOT to be pushed to devote excessive time and money to trying to meet some impossible ideal. As I've gotten older, I've become less and less inclined to do that. I've always had hippie leanings, so I've never worn much in the way of make-up and don't go to salons. I've never once had a manicure or pedicure (I paint my own nails if I want it done). Part of that is financial - I'd much rather spend my money on travel and good food than in a salon. But lately I have felt increasingly put off by the length women go to to try to look younger. So I'm letting my gray come in and I'm embracing my age. And as a result, I feel better about myself than ever.

  9. These days I am confined to wearing runners/ sneakers at all times and it has played havoc with my once flamboyant sense of style. I bemoaned this fact to a friend and he accused me of vanity. I didnt view my style as vanity but as self expression.
    Anyways, I can't be called vain, shampoo and a toothbrush are my beauty must haves. I wear earrings and lipstick if I want to look "polished"
    All else is folly

  10. nope... then... not immaculate!
    i just like the word. but in today's world it does sound like it smacks of OCD. LOL!
    i'll join you and monk with clean and wonderfully comfortable. :)

  11. Agent: You seem to have a very sensible attitude to the whole beautifying syndrome. The obsession with looking younger gets more and more ridiculous. The plastic surgeons and botox injectors and manufacturers of anti-ageing creams must be laughing all the way to the bank. Travel and good food are a much better alternative.

  12. Kylie: Indeed, why is self expression seen as vanity? I'm intrigued by your "once flamboyant sense of style". That must have been before I got to know you!

    Tammy: I don't think wanting to be neat and tidy implies OCD. But like everything else, it can be taken too far....

  13. I will admit to some vanity. I like to look my best and am a bit proud of my body, as I eat right and work out most days. I'm not going to get Botox, but I color my roots. In general, I do the easiest and cheapest things to look my best.

  14. Gosh I gave up on all that biz (and I never invested much time anyway) a very long time hair is au naturel I never do my nails and I guess I really fail at Barbie.

    I am continually amazed at those who spend hours and hours on themselves and presume they're bored. Or desperate. If I think about it at all.


  15. If you look through humanity evolution you will notice that men and women whereever they live and especially in what we call and (which is clearly false) primitive cultures always try to make their appearence more beautiful.Throughout history make up, perfume, costumes always played a big role.I agree that plastic face etc. operations make people all look the same and is sometimes even a dangerous enterprise. Beauty changes with the centuries. Sometimes women with hips and breasts and a big bottom were the beauty ideal, today you need to be slimmy to be trendy. Choose what you want I live my own life and do not judge these people .
    Mia More

  16. Bijoux: You look pretty fit and healthy in your photos. I certainly couldn't imagine you resorting to Botox.

    www: I'm also amazed at the time and money some women spend trying to turn themselves into beauty queens.

  17. Mia: True, the idea of beauty keeps changing, which is one reason why putting so much effort into meeting the current definition is rather absurd. In some cultures being big is the ideal, because it shows you're prosperous and able to eat as much as you want.

    I don't judge other people's grooming and beauty regimes either. I'm just amazed at how much time and energy goes into trying to look flawless.

  18. I have been brainwashed to believe that I must be presentable always. I have minimised my wardrobe and now wear only our white national dress of kurta and pajama when I go out. At home I wear lungis and t-shirts or kurtas. I keep my beard and what little hair I have on my head short and neat. If that is being vain, so be it.

  19. Ramana: I also like to be neat and tidy. I don't see that as vanity, just self-respect and having certain standards.

  20. I see women's increased attention to that more as social pressure than pure vanity. And among the younger women I know, things actually seem BETTER than they used to; many of my female friends can't be bothered to jump through all the flaming hoops.

    Male vanity is a different animal. As a gay man I get something of a cultural pass here, as I'm expected to be vain, but really it's just license to more openly express the body-image dissatisfaction that many men feel anyway but feel they can't talk about for fear of appearing "feminine."

  21. BrightenedBoy: True, I think social pressure has a lot to do with it. You don't want to be the one woman without make-up, with tousled hair, or with hairy armpits.

    And yes, a lot of men still don't like to admit to disliking their body, or not wanting to be seen naked, or wanting plastic surgery. As you say, they still recoil from any such "feminine" confession.