What is Vanity?

Here’s a topic we’ve discussed before, but that definitely merits re-visiting: Vanity.

I take photos of my outfits and post them to a public blog. I am constantly encouraging women to find clothing that they adore, learn to express themselves through personal style, and embrace outer beauty as an integral component of holistic self-love. I write about figure flattery, fun shoes, shopping, hair care, and the power of compliments. I believe that loving your own body, just as it is, is absolutely vital.

And I’ve been asked, on occasion, if any of these behaviors or beliefs might be perceived as vanity. And they might. But not by me.

In my opinion, a behavior or belief becomes problematic when it impedes normal functioning. The dictionary definition of vanity is excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements, etc. Excessive being the key word, there. Enjoying clothing, playing with makeup, deriving pleasure from looking at your own reflection, feeling genuine love for your physical form are all healthy, normal behaviors. Doing any of these things to the point of obsession, feeling compelled to impose your views of your own beauty or importance on others, or sapping your personal resources for the sake of furthering efforts to either beautify or glorify your own image? Entering Vanity Territory, perhaps. It’s imbalance, fixation, and strong feelings of superiority that tip the scales.

But in the grand scheme of things, I see vanity as a relatively benign “problematic behavior.” Our society vastly prefers that women bathe in vats of self-concocted self-loathing, and any sign of body- or beauty-related pride creates an excuse to vilify the culprit. Truly vain people are irritating and tiresome, but since they are so self-focused any damage they might do is to themselves. And I’m inclined to believe that a little public vanity by some strong women might help those of us who struggle to merely ACCEPT ourselves feel a little bolder.

At least, that’s my opinion. What is vanity to you? Do you feel that exercises in self-love or lessons in personal style verge on vain? Are there any times when you, yourself, have felt vain? What were the circumstances? Did you feel shameful afterward? Any idea why? Does vanity irritate you? Anger you?

Image courtesy gotnc.

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  • Roselyne

    I think it’s one of those “can’t win” scenarios for women. On one hand, if we care about our appearance (haircuts/flattering clothing, whatever that might mean for you/make-up that suits/etc – enough to spend some time and money on it), we’re generally taken more seriously, both professionally and in our day-to-day life. On the other hand, caring incites accusations of vanity and “wrong” priorities. It’s frustrating.

    I think that accusations of vanity MIGHT have something to them when the EXCESSIVE comes in. Someone who spends upwards of 2 hours getting ready in the morning, or whose financial priorities have gotten skewed to the point where they can’t pay rent because they bought an 18th pair of boots… yeah, ok, skewed priorities, problem, fair enough. But for most of us… why WOULDN’T we try to look good and feel good in the body we have and with the time and resources we have? That’s just a waste of potential and good feelings, right there.

  • Texas Aggie Mom

    I struggle with this issue, as I was raised by a very conservative mother who wore homemade clothes with no makeup and taught me that vanity was a sin. As an adult it has been a challenge to find the line between appropriate self-care and vanity, but I think the key is whether I am paying more attention to my inner or outer self. I do spend quite a bit of time on my hair and makeup daily, as my job as a university program coordinator and recruiter requires a great deal of public contact. But I also spend a lot of time helping others through volunteer and church work. I want to be the best I can be, both inside and out, and I feel like any time spent improving those areas of my life is well spent.

  • I’m in a field where looking like you don’t give a shit about combining anything fancier than chinos and a button down is where it’s at. And an off the rack suit in a muted color if you need to fance it up. You go to a meeting of faculty whether male or female and most likely the only colors you’re going to see are white, blue, grey, and chino tan, maybe with some khaki or olive thrown in if someone wants to get a little out of line. So I worry a little about how my penchant for different colors and silhouettes (or the fact of my having a style blog if it were widely known) might affect people’s perception of me. I worry less now that I’ve been promoted to full prof I must say, it’s game on for colorful eccentricity as I get older.

  • what not

    I think “excessive” pride/vanity is, as with mental diagnoses, a question of whether it’s getting in the way of your life. If your two-hour hair and makeup routine means the kids don’t get a decent breakfast, maybe reassess. But if you have the time and money and this is a priority for you, then it’s just another lifestyle choice. I’ve seen bloggers who are, say, burlesque performers or vintage pin-up models, and cultivating a certain appearance is a large part of who they are and what they want to do. It works for them, and doesn’t seem vain to me at all.

  • PolarSamovar

    In my personal definition, I differentiate between a healthy sense of joy in looking/feeling pretty, vs. vanity. The healthy sense is a certain kind of open joyfulness and reveling in having a body, caring for one’s body, feeling a sense of accomplishment about the way your appearance makes yourself or others happy. It is typically accompanied by the ability to revel in other people’s beauty, too, even when that beauty is very different from one’s own. Basically, it’s a sense of overall appreciation for physical beauty.

    Vanity, being negatively connotated, to my mind is about deriving a sense of worth from being more attractive than others, or attractive enough to manipulate others. It’s about competing and using, rather than about appreciating and enjoying.

    Some women act out of fear that they aren’t pretty enough to be lovable or worthy unless they put a huge amount of attention into their appearance. I would never call that vanity. I would call that a woman who needs a big hug and a daily dose of Already Pretty. 🙂

    • Rachel

      I really like your definition, PolarSamovar, especially the part about enjoying other people’s beauty. I’m sad to say it took me years to recognise beauty in other women without feeling envy, anxiety, or making negative comparisons with myself. I was a very weird-looking teenager and seeing pretty people just seemed to represent a kind of charmed life that I could never have (quite overdramatic but I was a teenager!)

      Now that I’m 30 and much more comfortable in my own skin, I spend far less time getting ready and can also look at another woman and cheerfully think “She looks great” without any negativity and I’m much happier for it.

      Like other commenters I have known people to appear very pleased with their looks but also become very unhappy if they were rejected or met somebody they thought was prettier. I think for some people it’s like trying to create a bulletproof facade where they are above criticism – but of course someone is always going to burst your bubble! A former friend of mine who was like this could never show any vulnerability and her looks were a part of that. I suppose you could say vain but it’s also sad to me.

    • DesignWrtr

      Right on! Your is a very solid, useful definition. I’ve been thinking about vanity a bit lately, and thinking of myself as a vain person because I care about my appearance and I enjoy doing my hair, using makeup, picking outfits that make me feel pretty and confident and strong. But this really helps me put vanity back in perspective. I may sometimes feel vain, but I am not a vain person. It’s hard to remember that sometimes.

  • Lisa

    Yes, I think you are right. I might articulate this as “Vanity is a distortion field.” Or I’d just stick with what you said:).

  • I almost feel like vanity comes from a place of insecurity. If you’re spending 3 hours doing your makeup one day but are equally as happy to spend 10 minutes doing it the next, then to me that isn’t vanity. If however you feel incomplete without spending that much time on your appearance, that feels different to me.

    Vanity seems to hinge on some kind of achievement – be it the way you look, something you’ve done etc. People aren’t vain about just being. If you’re able to feel content and complete to just BE, then any pride you have in your achievements seems natural and healthy. But if you must look a certain way or achieve a certain thing in order to feel acceptable, and then emphasize this very strongly, that seems like a vain focus that is in fact rooted in insecurity.
    I guess you could argue this applies to all of us to some extent.
    This doesn’t feel like a very clear comment 😛 but it’s definitely interesting to think about.

  • jan.4987

    I agree with your definition. I grew up in a household where thinking about yourself *at all* was called selfishness and self-indulgence, and I’m sure that’s influenced my opinion that “vain” is mostly used as a term of abuse for people who can think or talk about their appearance without putting themselves down. People *unhealthily* obsessed with their own appearance are most often insecure about and critical of it, and that’s not vanity. I did once know someone who could have been called vain, who was genuinely convinced that she was the most physically attractive person around, but even that led to a form of insecurity in itself, because if anyone turned her down, especially if they preferred someone else, she would get into a rage because what she saw as reality had been contradicted.

    So yeah, I’ve never had occasion to use the word “vanity”; like “laziness” (which is usually used in relation to people experiencing either depression, physical illness or an inflated sense of entitlement) I think it’s an unhelpful umbrella term for a disparate group of thought patterns and behaviours.

  • YesGrrrl

    Thanks for posting this — it made me think. Lately I’ve heard my mom say things about my 13-year-old niece, like “She’s getting pretty full of herself.” It brought back unhappy memories and while I think my niece is already miles ahead of where I was at her age, I don’t want anyone to knock her down at this delicate point.

    In recent years, we’ve been told to compliment female children on their skills or accomplishments, more than their looks. Point taken. But what about boosting their body confidence and yes, even tell a pre-teen she looks pretty or great in that outfit? I don’t think it should be ignored entirely for exactly the reasons in this post, but I wish I could learn how to better navigate that balance (and to help my nieces as they all come of age).

  • Lynn Barnes

    I agree wholeheartedly! The connotation of “excessive” is what lifts mere self-interest into the realm of vanity. The origin of the word is from the Latin, meaning “empty.” If your obsession with the outward appearance of your body leads to an emptiness in your inner life, then you have fallen victim to vanity. This means that what is “vain” to one person is not at all “vain” to another, as the condition is relative to each person’s life.

  • Helen

    The only problem I personally can find in vanity is when it starts hurting other people’s feelings ie when the person starts believing that he or she are more worthy than other people and more entitled because their better looks, their money or possessions, their style etc. Vanity as in enjoying your looks, loving fashion, make up, shopping or whatever makes you happy is great in my opinion. As a general rule I think that whatever people do to enjoy themselves and that doesn’t hurt anyone intentionally is great.

  • 33

    I think when a person stops caring what she/he looks like, ignoring personal hygiene, grooming, and outfits, she/he sure lost the will to live. I observe this among old people. Those who put an effort into what they present to the world are mostly more alive than the one who do not.
    So what/when the line is crossed into vanity? I think if looking good becomes looking perfect, it’s vanity.
    I also have an outfit blog that I post my daily outfit. I do it not out of vanity but a means to use what I own in my closet. The whole prossess takes about 15 minutes from photo taking to uploading. After 4 months of this I find that I am generally more motivated to be fashionably creative, to pay attention in personal grooming, and become more motivated in physical fitness (after I saw the pounds creeping up).
    Most things if done moderately are not necessarily bad. Only when one becomes obsessed that a line is crossed.