I have more than one like this. However, there is one topic that has been struggling to the top of my mind recently: vanity and perceived vanity.
Can vanity be a good thing?
Vanity has historically been truly reviled.
Vanity is number seven of the Seven Deadly Sins. It's the doppleganger of number seven on the Seven Holy Virtues list: humility.
There are many moralistic tales of how vanity makes you evil and brings about a spectacular downfall. Consider the lady who bathed in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. Google Borgia+vanity and find plenty. The Brothers Grimm and Disney got in on the act too.
The Disney message seems to be: the truly beautiful don't need to be vain. They are just naturally eye-catchingly gorgeous.
And they are all gorgeous. Show me the Reubenesque Princess. Princess Flat Hair. Princess Vision 20/400. Princess Mom-had-two-kids and happily ever after involves a lifetime membership to Weight Watchers.
Ugliness is reserved for the mean people, like the step-sisters. After all, beauty is as beauty does, right?
It's not that simple. Morality and reality muddle each other.
The very very beautiful are about as rare as the very very intelligent, and no matter how natural, both require a lot of work to maintain. What you come with is really more about potential than actuality. Nevertheless, just as intelligence can enable success, so too can looks, which, like it or not, do matter.
Laura Morsch, CareerBuilder.com writer, in her article, "Do Pretty People Earn More? Looks Do Matter at Work" wrote:
Good looks can have a real impact on workers' bank accounts, according to research by Daniel Hamermesh and Jeff Biddle published in the Journal of Labor Economics. Attractive people earn about 5 percent more in hourly pay than their average-looking colleagues, who in turn earn 9 percent more per hour than the plainest-looking workers.
This means if an average-looking person earned $40,000, their prettiest co-workers would make $42,000 while their least attractive colleagues brought home just $36,400.
Plain-looking workers may also receive fewer promotions than those awarded to their more striking contemporaries.
So while we ought to be humble about our looks and ourselves, ought to eschew vanity, love ourselves as we are, the truth is deep down, I suspect we all suspect that pretty of manner is not always enough. I think that we all have a little crow in us and are attracted to pretty, sparkly things.
Now, I don't think this is the end-all, be-all for most of us. I also think that sometimes it might be more subconscious than anything. In the end, I don't think it's the most important thing. However, in a quick situation, a superficial situation, I think beauty can be a major factor in how your gut responds.
I watched that TV show test, using producers and then actor/models, to see how responsive the average person was to a regular looking person versus a beautiful person. Everyone was really surprised to have our deepest suspicion confirmed: people were much more likely to aid a beautiful person. I even thought the "average looking" producers were attractive. So, although all four people used in the "on the street" test used respect, courtesy and nice manners as well, the "attractive enough" people were more likely to get rude responses or ignored, whereas the pretty people got a great deal of pleasant attention and assistance.
Further, people are more likely to trust beautiful people, and are more likely to think they performed well:
Students consistently give better-looking professors higher evaluations than they give their less comely teachers, according to research by Hamermesh and Amy Parker at the University of Texas in Austin.
Except, maybe it's not the same for women.
Increasingly attractiveness in men is also correlated with perceived increasing levels of social influence, whereas this correlation does not hold for women. Cute, round faced attractive women give the impression of being warm, sincere, and honest, while attractive, sexy women are not rated as having high levels of these characteristics. Female raters may even suggest that such women are less honest than less attractive women. (Zebrowitz 1997)
Somehow, we have to strike the perfect balance between "attractive enough" and "too attractive."
But what about doing the best with what you are given? Improving what you've got?
During my weight loss journey, I have encountered criticism; sometimes the harshest bit has been from women.
I confess: I do want to look as attractive as I can. I want to get myself to a place where I look healthy, and in that find myself attractive. I don't mind if others think I look good, too. I confess further: positive attention to my looks is a nice little warm fuzzy. It's not my chief goal in life, and compliments to my brain end up mattering more to me, but I'll take flattery about how I look.
Despite the constant moral message to eschew vanity, I had no idea this desire to be attractive was so controversial. Just look at TV. The biggest marketing dollars are spent appealing to our desire to look and feel good. Of course there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of this, and marketing is often unhealthy and unrealistic.
In fact, I think the media is notorious for coining ridiculous notions, terms, concepts, and alleged values---particularly regarding looks and their importance to each of us. I often find it offensive, and frequently find it disgusting. For example, on the show Hope&Faith, Kelly Ripa's character Faith joked that Faith Ford's character Hope was "fat" after having had three children. How ridiculous. And yet, forming minds might take that comment and think, wow, I'm a lot bigger than size -1, I must be REALLY fat. It's terrible.
Regardless, it's the method advertising uses because the wish to look good is pretty universal.
And I'm all for taking back real from ridiculous. I'm also all for owning a term and changing its meaning. "Gag me with a spoon" fell out of favor (thank goodness) and hopefully so too can some really tacky terms about 30-something and 40-something women taking pride in their appearance and getting out and about in the world.
That's why I found it hilarious that Lotta of Mom-O-Matic named the online weight loss support group "Future MILFs." I'd so much rather people think of a group of moms striving for health. I'd so much rather that image than this pornographic one. I'm just naive enough to think it is possible to do.
That's also why I was so shocked to find---in the blogosphere---such tremendous offense taken to the name of that group. It's been discussed far and wide, by good, great, and famous bloggers, on personal blogs and online ezines.
A lot of people discussing it didn't do their due diligence and worked solely off the name. The assumption was made that it was a group of women striving to be hot hot hot, nasty ladies, who wanted male attention, especially that of young males. I got the impression that some people thought it was a group of "cougar" type women who qualified for MILF solely because they were still raising young children.
Few seemed to know or understand that it was intended humorously, and was actually the name of a weight loss group.
Mad Hatter did understand, and was one who wrote an intelligent objection to the name. Lotta formulated an intelligent response.
But as I read other posts, and comments to the discussion, I realized: it's not that simple. It's not just a name, or the term, that people object to.
Underneath, when you get past the talk about the name of the weight loss group, I sense an undercurrent of disdain for people who are perceived to pursue vanity.
I know in each response I made when the topic arose, I was quick to deny any pursuit of vanity. I lied. I just wanted my efforts, me, to be perceived as pure of motive. Virtuous. Not sinful.
Inherently, why are we uncomfortable with a direct pursuit of better looks? Why is wanting to look attractive problematic (between the lines of course). When I say it directly, out loud that way...of course it sounds ridiculous. Of course it is deniable.
Still, it leads to questions such as the one Kristen of The Mom Trap asked recently about women participating in the M * I * L * F group, "And why, on the other hand, are there women that look at it as something to aspire to?"
I concede the term can be problematic, as can the culture it resides within. That's another post for another day.
I also concede that "making one's self up to one's best" is a far cry from "truly vain." It's a degree, a perspective. My appearance isn't the end-all be-all for me. I'm casual. I'll go out without make-up. I don't limit my life in any way based on a concern about my looks. It's not the bottom line of my self-esteem, although I admit it affects my self-esteem, to be sure.
It hurt sometimes being "the smart one," instead of "the pretty one," growing up. But by the same token, it caused me to look deep and find my own personal beauty (just as my sister had to look deep to find her own personal intelligence).
It's a circle, for me. When I feel good, I do well by myself and I look good. When I look good, I feel like I am doing well by myself and I feel good about that.
I also think the out loud need to eschew vanity is clearly a Christianity thing. A Western Christianity thing. Do we have the concept that our body is a temple?
Perhaps I am existing in that fallacy of the excluded middle.
On the one hand, you have the whole Hollyweird obsession with every aspect of looks. Some of the most popular media outlets are based on the entertainment industry. Joan Rivers has a new career critiquing how entertainers look. You have girls like Nicole Richie starving themselves through weight disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. You have perfectly beautiful actresses like Jennifer Anniston starving an extra fifteen pounds off themselves to look thin enough next to waifish Courteney Cox.
We do have an image disorder situation, and it largely revolves around weight, but not exclusively. It also revolves around looks. Teen girls are seeking cosmetic surgery in increasing numbers. Plastic surgery is one of the most lucrative areas of medicine.
I think this extreme (which is incredibly unhealthy in general) has created an equally extreme backlash in which we remind ourselves, austerely, that vanity is a deadly sin.
We want looks to not matter.
But they do.
So how can we get to a healthy middle ground, wherein we understand and accept a healthy desire to look one's best (through healthy diet, exercise, fashionable clothes, flattering haircut, etc.)? Accept that we do like to appreciate (and be appreciated for) physical attractiveness?
Are the Beautiful People images so overwhelming that deep down, we all doubt our attractiveness? Doubt the ability of our peers to recognize our attractiveness? Are standards so unrealistic?
Or am I backwards? Is the drive and pressure to look one's best so overwhelming that we react neagtively to any attempt to do so? Is it perceived as an automatic "falling in with" an unhealthy and negative need to look a SPECIFIC way?
If so, why?
In Anne Zeller's Human Communication as a Primate Heritage: Lecture Eight: Functions of Non Verbal Communication Systems, you learn:
There is an appeal of familiar faces. Why do we like to look at patterns that we know rather than those we are less familiar with? Part of this has to do with understanding something better with repeated exposure. When we know someone well their non-verbal cuing is more familiar to us. This goes even to the point of individuals preferring to look at a mirror image of themselves rather than a photographic image of themselves because that is what they see most often. Their friends prefer the photographic image because it corresponds most closely with what they normally see . (Zebrowitz: 1997) As the length of acquaintance grows with people we like, we tend to rate them higher and higher on an attractiveness scale. In fact, people of similar objective measure of attractiveness are rated differently if one of them is known to have a more pleasant and appealing personality than the other. The attractiveness of familiarity gradient is a very important aspect of non-verbal communication in humans.
I'm not sure which came first: the chicken (attraction to beauty) or the egg (cultural taught need for beauty). Psychological studies seem to point to the chicken as the genesis, but the egg is certainly integral. I do believe that our natural inclination towards beauty is continually reinforced (even more today than in times past) with an onslaught of beauty images. We're trained more and more to seek beauty.
I think this is hitting unhealthy, and is a problem. That's why I understand conscientious obection to using the term "Future MILF" for a weight loss group, no matter how tongue in cheek it is intended, or how empowering it hopes to be. I'd like to be part of a change that accepts real looks, real women, real people living real lives that don't often enable us to hit the ideal, or even 50% of the ideal.
Like I said, I don't know the answers here. I do know how and when I look my best, based on me, not in comparison. I do know that when I am striving for my own personal vanity, it is striving merely for my own personal best looks all things considered. It's not a reflection---literally and figuratively---of anyone else.
I strive to have a healthy appreciation and perspective on looks, which are largely out of our control, because I know it come sthrough in how I parent my children. I also know my children are the gender---female---at greatest risk of losing perspective and doing harm to themselves in an attempt to hit an artificial standard of beauty.
And I do mean artificial. Have you seen the Dove Evolution video?
I want my daughters to take care of themselves, and their appearance, just as I do, but in a healthy way.
For me, my goal each day---with how I look---is simply to be healthy, and look as good as I can, all things considered. Looking at the people around me, I don't think I'm at all unique. I'm sure there are others who like to look as good as they can simply for looking good's sake as well as for health's sake.
Therefore, I think there can be a healthy level of vanity. If nothing else, it can drive us to good decisions about caring properly for our bodies.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
Tags: women's beauty and health, weight loss and weoght loss support for women, media images of beauty, Dove evolution videa