Category Archives: Body Image

The Pitfalls of Vanity: Do Your Looks Shape Your Life?

“Vanity is becoming a nuisance, I can see why women give it up, eventually. But I’m not ready for that yet.” –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye 

“How beautiful would it be if we could just see souls instead of bodies? To see love and compassion instead of curves.” –Karen Quan, Write Like No One Is Reading 2

Hello friend,

“Is my hair good?”

This is the question that my son poses to me every morning before he leaves for school. The question follows several minutes of primping with his comb and product. “Are you sure?” he questions after I assure him that it looks great (and inwardly wonder what I have done wrong as a parent). Then, as I pull him in for a hug and kiss good-bye, he fends off any part of me that gets too close to his hair. He zips up his big coat but carefully avoids his hood or hat, willfully ignoring orders from my wife to cover his head against the frigid conditions outside. And off he goes into the world, not minding one bit his mismatched socks or ragged sweatpants but obsessed with the placement of every last hair on his pretty head. Did I mention he is nine? Dear God!

Meanwhile, when I leave for work a few minutes after him, the last thing to have touched my hair was my shower towel. No combs, no products, nothing. Not because I have lost all of my hair with age, but rather because I have made the conscious decision to look worse just to be sure I am not walking around like my son all day, constantly worrying how my hair looks.

As part of my job in this frost-bitten land, I go outside for extended periods a couple of times per day, then return inside and resume normal work and life events. In order to avoid hypothermia, that means attiring myself in snow hats and balaclavas and such, which, of course, are guaranteed to make an awful mess of the best of coiffures. As a person possessed of no small amount of natural vanity, I was initially vexed by this situation. Last Autumn, as I pondered the upcoming daily embarrassment of a messy mane, I figured I had two real options: 1) accept my vanity and bring some hair gel to spruce up each time I came inside, or 2) shave my hair down to a length that nothing can mess it up, essentially “conquering” my vanity by becoming willfully unattractive. I went with the second option. It is counterintuitive, I know, and dripping with irony, but it somehow made sense to me.

The day I first shaved my head, it took a lot of self-talk. “It’s just hair! It will grow back if you want it to. Other people have no choice about this. How bad could it be?” For a guy who has enjoyed compliments on my appearance for most of my life, it was a challenge. I will never forget when my wife first saw me post-cut: she looked startled at first, took a moment, then said, “Okay…,” and walked on (clearly a well-disciplined product of the old “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” admonition we all learned in kindergarten). Lovely. I couldn’t quite believe I had actually chosen to become less attractive. And all to avoid acting vain? But now would I become more aware of my appearance? I was spinning inside. In untangling my hair, I had somehow managed to tangle my psyche.

While I have, as the year has proven, become more conscious of my hair and its downgrade in appearance in certain circumstances–when I meet new people, when I have to be in a picture, when I appear in public next to my very attractive wife, etc.–I have definitely embraced the freedoms it has brought. I wear a cozy winter hat more than ever rather than sacrifice my comfort to keep my hair sculpted. My baseball caps come on and off during the day without a second thought, as do the hoods of my hoodies. I increasingly seek out opportunities to swim or play in the rain. It is a new brand of freedom, and I quite like it.

It has made me all the more aware, though, of what people–myself included–sacrifice in their lives to work around their appearance. I notice my wife’s hesitation every time swimming is mentioned, knowing how much time and effort it takes to get her and my daughter’s hair clean and styled. That feels like a tragedy to me, as I tend to think of my time in the water as a source of Joy and profound Peace. I see people avoiding activities that make them sweat because of the work required for their hair or make-up to be redone, or that they don’t look attractive enough when sweating (to say nothing of insecurities about how they look in workout clothes or swimsuits). They go out in the cold or the hot sun without a hat, like I used to do, and freeze or burn rather than get their hair messed up. They avoid biking because of the helmets. The list goes on.

Of course, it is difficult to disentangle our vanity with our desire to feel healthy and confident, making this a sensitive and confusing topic. I go to the gym every day, and I can’t say for sure how much of my effort is aimed purely at being healthy and how much is to avoid looking a way that seems less attractive to me. I am sure when I started lifting weights when I was a teenager, it was much more about vanity than it was about my health. Probably it has only swung the other way out of necessity in recent years, cognizant as I am of the aches and pains of my aging body and wanting to delay any major malfunctions. And though body image is way too big of a topic for today’s letter, suffice it to say that vanity is still heavily at play in my life even now, as I move to this age when I don’t imagine myself to be physically appealing to anyone.

Maybe it is this relatively recent shift in perspective that best explains my willingness to shave my hair for the sake of practicality. In a way, I suppose I have given up. Not in a “poor me” kind of way, but rather just in a way that is more accepting of aging and my place on both my life’s trajectory and on the pecking order for our society’s definitions of beauty and appeal. The reality is that I am past our standard mating age and that they don’t show pictures of guys my age in the fashion magazines. Instead of resisting those simple facts, I am beginning to acknowledge them and flowing accordingly. Acceptance. It is not as though I am giving up hygiene and social skills; I am just not pretending that I might be attractive anymore. I don’t think anyone will fight me on the idea.

But speaking of society and our social norms, this topic of vanity and the freedom to age “normally” has stirred up some thoughts that aren’t about me so much but about you and everyone else in my world. Like this one: Why has it come to be expected that women dye their hair? I understand that some people–men and women–of all ages do this for fun or “something different” at all ages. Whatever, I like creative expression. But think of how few women, especially, that you know who actually have grey hair. I don’t know very many. I just think of all the time and money people spend on this–not to mention the emotional energy–and can’t help feeling it is all such a waste. And yet I know society has trained me not to judge them–which I don’t seem to–because it is so thoroughly “normal” (though I must admit that, for reasons that I can neither explain nor justify morally, I feel myself being critical about men who color over their grey). Still, I can’t help noticing and feeling some extra bit of respect for those few women I do see who have embraced their grey. Unconsciously, I think I do the same when I see women who have adopted an “easy” hairstyle or wear little or no make-up even if it makes them appear “less attractive” according to our current standards of beauty. Maybe I am finally opening my eyes to the damaging effects of patriarchy and our collective shallowness, and it is leaving me disgusted enough to appreciate anyone who bucks the system.

I would love to think that this is just part of the process of my maturation and learning the wisdom that old people sometimes arrive at: that there is no inherent worth in physical appearance and thus no use in giving it so much power over our self-confidence and our time. But maybe it is a convenient bailout for me at a time when my appearance–other than my whiteness and maleness–is finally failing to give me any rewards. Because, while I have often chastised myself for “flaws” in my natural physical appearance, I am also quite willing to admit that I enjoyed the unearned privileges of being considered “attractive” when I was younger. I have no doubt that it helped me in the eyes of teachers, employers, peers, and prospective mates. I am grateful for that, as I know it shielded me from a lot of things that I have never even considered and colors my perspective on everything, including this very topic. It is highly likely that now, as just a regular, middle-aged, grey-haired dude who nobody looks twice at, I am finally getting on the bandwagon of “wisdom” and wanting to be more dismissive of appearance. Maybe rather than enlightenment, the best explanation for my evolution is that I don’t want to play society’s game anymore because I can no longer win at it (I’m taking my ball and going home!).

In any case, I am highly aware of the messages our society and the people around us send to everyone, but especially to kids and women, about our appearances. In the last couple of years, I have made a conscious effort to say nothing about a person’s appearance. No compliments, no critiques, nothing. I sometimes fail, but I am aware of it now when I do. As a parent of kids whose bodies are constantly changing and who are becoming full consumers of the barrage of messages out there in our society–my son is 9 and my daughter is 11–I am hyper-vigilant about what I say to them. Occasionally I will soften my stance and tell them how adorable I see them to be, but mostly I try to say nothing about their natural appearances. I try to choose other things to compliment them on, such as their kindness, empathy, or hard work.

Although I consider them blessed with physical beauty and likely to be deemed “attractive” by their peers as they mature, I don’t want them to get any more attached to their appearances than society will already mold them to be. I especially don’t want them to equate their appearance with who they are. I also don’t want it to be so much work, physically or emotionally. It’s why it disturbs me so much when my son obsesses over his hair before he leaves the house. He cares too much.

Is there any way to be a member of our culture and not be a little bit obsessed about your appearance? I was going to say it is to get so old that no one is looking at you for your attractiveness, but even most of the elderly people I know seem very focused on getting their hair just right and looking fresh. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have a problem with wanting to look good. I guess I just don’t want myself or my kids to miss any opportunities for fun and adventure because it might mess up our hair or cause our make-up to run. And mostly, I want us to walk through the world knowing that our value is not in our appearance, no matter what our society tells us. I want to let go of my vanity as best as I can, not to justify looking bad but just to live more freely, with one less master to serve. I may not turn any more heads on my path, but at least I will be choosing my own way.

How about you? How much does your appearance shape the way you go through the world? Open up your journal and your mirror? What do you see staring back at you? First, just describe your appearance without judgments. Next, throw in some judgments, first of your own preferences and then of what society would say are your best and worst features. Who do you think is easier on that person in the mirror: you or society? What accounts for the difference? Regardless of your personal judgment of your appearance, how hung up on it are you? First, how much time do you spend on it? Do you spend your morning in front of a mirror trying to get it just right? Do you go to a salon for cuts and colors? How about manicures and pedicures? If you exercise, is it primarily for health or appearance? What other ways do you spend your time focused on how you look? At what age did you spend the most time on your appearance? Were you most or least satisfied at that age? How about financially? How much money do you spend on improving your appearance? Has that amount increased or decreased as you have aged? What other aspects of your life do you sacrifice financially to be able to afford your beauty upkeep? Do you feel like it is a good investment? Finally, how about the emotional investment? How much of your heart do you leave vulnerable to the way you look? Does it stress you out? Do you think of your appearance as who you are? How has that affected your self-confidence throughout your life? With all of that investment of time, money, and emotion attached to your to the way you look, how has it determined how you spend your time? What activities do you avoid because they would mess up your look? In what ways has your ambition to look good limited your enjoyment of life? Have you ever been so disgusted with your vanity and its hindrance to your life that you did something to make yourself look worse just so you would toughen up? Have you done anything to your appearance purely because it was easier to maintain or allowed you to live more freely–shave your head, let your grey go, given up cosmetics, etc.–even though it made you feel less physically attractive? How did that work for you in the long-term? Were you able to stay committed to it, or did you return to your higher maintenance look? Even if you can’t quite commit to looking less than your best for the sake of comfort and convenience, are you still willing to admit that our society has an unhealthy fixation on appearance and lots of unrealistic and damaging ideals that we are expected to conform to? Are you more likely to resist or conform? How has that changed as you have aged? Leave me a reply and let me know: How do your looks shape your life choices?

Be a beautiful soul,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you today, please share it with your community? Let’s rise together!

P.P.S. If this brand of self-reflection feels appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.