Thursday, October 15, 2009

Vanity and aging

Vanity is "the excessive belief in one's own abilities or attractiveness to others", characterized by excessive pride. Vanity often concerns physical appearance, which is why a small case or types of cabinetry are called "vanity cases" or a "vanity".

Jane Austen differentiated between vanity and pride: "Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us."

We are all vain about something, even though we might not express it, or feign modesty (as women were taught to do) when complimented: "You have a beautiful singing voice." "Oh! Not
really."

Vanity is the distortion of a virtue, love, which includes love for one's self, just as gluttony is the exaggeration of healthy appetite.


I'm vain about my ability to make confident aesthetic choices. I'm vain about my curly hair, and I even feel vain
about being vain about it sometimes, because so many women conform to the sleek, straight look even if they have to go through all sorts of work to get it.

There are times though, when I am fed up with my vanity; I fire myself from claiming any specialness. I will see a decor article with its sumptuous pictures and think, "I could never assemble that audacious blend of colour, texture and objects!" I notice my hair is thinning as I age, so my vanity in being curly is not so certain. I am vain about my hands, especially my fingers, which are long, with strong nails. They are now crossed with prominent veins and plenty of wrinkles- I have to downgrade my vanity there, too.

If vanity is one's Deadly Sin of choice (mine is Sloth thank you very much, and I'll get back to you much later), aging is terrifying. The antidote for vanity is a practice of releasing some of the props and accepting what is.

Sometimes life does this for us as the years roll by, diminishing athletic skill or scratching up the lustre of youthful beauty. "What we would have others think of us", in Austen's words, is less relevant as we are released from the scrutiny of the world's judging eye.

As I age, I hope to retain a modest amount of pride, for it keeps me in the game, engaged with the world. My mother, at 98, wanted to be sure her lipstick matched her dress. But I will be relieved if I can shrug off the futile and false desire to receive continual confirmation from others.

10 comments:

metscan said...

A great article once again ! I agree on so many things you wrote. Pride and vanity have always been something forbidden in my childhood home. Vanity was even worse than a sin. As an adult, I won´t accept that anymore; I don´t have to. Sure, I have-in my mind-judged people and their choices and thought that mine were better. Only this past year, have I learned to accept a compliment ( although it is extremely embarrassing for me ). Yes, I am vain in many ways, but as long as it does not hurt anyone else, I will allow it for myself. And, aren´t women supposed to be somewhat vain ?

diverchic said...

Brilliant post! Learning the difference between vanity and genuine admiration and acceptance of myself has been a painful struggle for much of my life. I now parse received compliments to see exactly how much I believe and how much of the butter is excess. Sometimes it is fun to roll around in the excess for a minute even though I realize it is bullshit.

Belle de Ville said...

Great post but I wonder if we can ever stop wanting confirmation from others. It seems to be a human trait that all people share.

Maggie said...

Duchesse, you said it best...pride is what we think of ourself, vanity how we want others to think of us. Recently, close friends, an attractive couple in their early 50s, made a surprizing comment. They had attended a wedding and remarked that they had felt "invisible" all day. According to them, the young, fresh out of college types, and the truly elderly garnered all the attention. They world belonged to them. This sparked lengthy debates that touched on many of the same issues you raise here. If the young are concerned with the vanity aspect, and the old more so with the pride, then 40s, 50s, and 60s are interesting decades to pass through. We need to sort out what makes us feel good about ourselves. That may mean dipping into both pride and vanity with varying degrees as we see fit.

LPC said...

I have a slightly different attitude, although I am not disagreeing per se. I feel that wanting confirmation from others, when it's reciprocal and affectionate, can be wonderful. But when you get your confirmation from others at their expense, that's the trouble spot. Humans are interdependent, and a fairly needy species. But they need to work out their nature in full respect for others.

Lisa said...

Duchesse, thought-provoking post-thanks.

diverchic, I'm distressed by your remarks (and others I've read in some of these blogs). Why would you so readily assume that a compliment is "bullshit"? I would hate to think that a person I'm admiring is taking a sincere compliment and transforming it into something meaningless.

A compliment to me means I've succeeded in grooming myself well and that I have shown respect for others and the occasion by doing so.

Duchesse said...

metscan: I was always scolded for being vain and remember the reproach, if I stopped to check my hair, the usual teen stuff. I see it now as a form of shaming, and we know how unhelpful that is.

diverchic: Do you think many compliments are insincere? I react very badly to compliments I read as attempts to influence me.

Maggie: Their comment fascinated me. One of the things that I think makes elders compelling is that many have let go of trying so hard for the approval (which I distinguish from admiration or respect) of others.

LPC: I differentiate between appreciation and approval. We all need to be seen and heard, and we flourish when we receive sincere appreciation. But vanity is dependent on others' approval, and if one is vain, one's self-esteem rises or falls depending on that judgment.

Lisa: A sincere compliment to me conveys appreciation, and I enjoy them. When I was young, was very suspicious of compliments I got from men- of their intention. Not sure that was what diverchic meant (perhaps she will respond), but I recall feeling, "this is BS, he just wants..." which might have been harsh and unfair at times- and other times turned out to be exactly the case.

Frugal Scholar said...

Very interesting. As I recall (and I may be wrong), in Dante's Purgatorio, pride and envy are right next to each other. Better to have pride (modulated to self-esteem) than envy--the worst feeling in the world.

metscan said...

I have also been scolded for looking in the mirror. My grandmother would say that it will make me proud. I have started to accept compliments, as I told before, also because I think that it is rude not to do so. Envy is not our enemy. It can give us just the right amount of strength to reach for the something we crave. Words like pride, vanity, self-esteem are close to each other, but have significant differences. I would like to have a bit of everything, not just a whole lot of one.

diverchic said...

Yes, Duchesse, you got my meaning as usual! I needed to put in more words.

Lisa, I don't generally assume insincerity but the opposite. It is my readiness to believe positive, even overblown comments, that I am suspicious of. I am always grateful for an honest, if admiring, observation about how I look or what I do. For me the sweetness of compliments is like an addiction. I can be too easily led astray in my opinion of others or myself if I allow myself to indulge. Perhaps it comes from being desperate for praise as a kid. Or that my mother could never accept admiration from me.
I appreciate your courage in bringing up your distress at my comment.