You’re So Vain

I have found myself in heated discussions with multiple people from generation Baby Boomer and Gen X about how vain this new generation, my generation, is. I guess there is definitely some truth in the concept that the current population of teenagers, young adults and 20 somethings are more fixated on the superficial and materialistic that those of generations past. What I refuse to believe is that this is necessarily bad. So here’s my argument. The Upside to Vanity.

I have a confession. When I put on my trainers, my lululemon tights and my little crop top to try ‘shift a few kilos’ it has EVERYTHING to do with vanity and very little to do with health. I am a vain person. Possibly (and hopefully) not an extreme level of vain, but you can be damn sure I like to look good.

This probably sounds pretty shallow, especially when we always hear that we should accept our bodies as they are. To me this is a mark of complacency if anything. However, the rather PC view was propagated in the late ’80s and early ’90s when concerns about eating disorders among women and girls began to grow. Then came the tide of the overweight and obese in the ’00s and things got complicated. We got mixed messages. On one hand, it was healthy to accept your body the way it was and not fall prey to the tyranny of thin, but, on the other, it was unhealthy to carry extra weight and run the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The desire to look good can be a powerful motivator for health and fitness.

Healthy vanity is knowing there are a few kilos to be taken care of and being willing to do what it takes to change it. What’s unhealthy is coming up with one thing after another that needs to be changed. The danger is whenever we latch on to a single solution, like exercise, dieting or even cosmetic procedures, and think it’s the holy grail for controlling how we feel about ourselves. As with everything moderation and remaining somewhat realistic are keys here. Don’t go Heidi Montag or Joan Rivers on me.

People are hard wired to strive to look better because it brings benefits throughout life, be it in mate selection, employment opportunities, salary or life in general. Good physical health has a flow on effect into being more productive, energetic and confident. This makes you more enjoyable to be around, more employable and all around the best version of yourself.

The ‘beauty premium’ is very much a real thing. Beautiful people have long been shown to perform better in the workplace, be more likely to be hired, basically reap a whole lot of benefits due to what seems to be just their physical appearance. Is it that beautiful people earn more because employers, co-workers and customers respond directly to their appearance? Or might it be that better-looking people are more confident? If this bit of research is anything to go by it seems that the beauty premium is mostly due to a response to physical appearance, rather than self-perception.

Unfair you may say? Well to me a good looking person implies that they are well groomed, organised, fit and healthy. They take pride in themselves, starting with their appearance and inevitably their work.

Now don’t misunderstand. My perception of beauty is not restricted to the blonde haired, blue eyes, big busted stereotype (or the Ken doll male equivalent). When I say beautiful or good looking, I refer to someone who takes pride in their outward appearance. So moving away from the health argument of vanity, let’s talking about something that most probably deem as incredibly shallow; ageing gracefully, or a lack thereof.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, is an excellently unsparing examination of the ageing process, our treatment of the elderly, and our attitude towards death and end of life care. His outline of our certain physical degradation: the peak output of our hearts by 30, our bodies start losing muscle mass at 40, our teeth start crumbling. Gawande writes: “Our bowels slow down. Our glands stop functioning. Even our brains shrink.” Is there any point now reading War and Peace knowing my shrinking hippocampus makes it more difficult for me to “weigh multiple ideas”? I see nothing to commend ageing.

However, at what point do we cross that invisible line that takes us from being a person taking reasonable preventive measures to preserve our looks (and bodies) to becoming that delusional fool pinning their hopes on the point of a Botox syringe? Part of me sees those formerly gorgeous ingénues turned surgical gargoyles walking the red carpet and feels horror at a culture that might have so warped our self-image. But the other part of me knows that, if I ever did succumb to surgery, however slight the first incision, I’d be back for more.

Caring about our appearance may not be an especially noble activity but it’s not pointless. Even though he is loath to be drawn on the question of cosmetic surgery, Gawande acknowledges that some degree of personal vanity among the very elderly patients he talked to – “how they brushed their hair, or what they wore” – still allowed them a means of expression, and dignity. “Being able to put on lipstick, or fix their hair,” he tells me, “allowed them to feel themselves.”

And isn’t this what we’re all trying to achieve, with our night creams, and serums, and visits to the neck surgeon? To feel ourselves? To give up is to admit defeat. Most of us get over the loss of our looks when altogether bigger, more disabling physical problems obliterate such petty vanity for ever. It doesn’t mean we have to like it though, or give up the choices that allow us to feel ourselves. And whether your choice is the surgeon’s knife, or a handful of kirby grips, is no matter, as long as it’s your choice.

So off you go my bohemians. Be as vain as you would like. You have the nod of approval from me, a person completely unqualified whose opinion matters probably verge on moot.

xox your local bohemian

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