THE BLOG

A Defence of Vanity

27/04/2015 10:10 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 10:59 BST

My appearance is one of my hobbies. I enjoy researching skin creams and hair masks, I look forward to nose pore strips, the make-up section of Superdrug calms me down on stressful days like I'm an unglamorous Holly Golightly and it is my Tiffany's. I'm vain, and someone reading this just drew a lot of conclusions about the rest of my personality from that one fact.

Vanity is a strange trait. It is, and has always been considered a feminine flaw: a vain man puts his masculinity at risk. Unlike many other flaws, it comes with a great deal of baggage. If you are vain, people will assume that you apply your vanity to others: that you are shallow, and judgmental. They might assume that you are frivolous, unintelligent, self-centred, and oblivious to the greater problems of the world. They might assume, as well, that you are insecure and secretly unhappy, and are desperately trying to make yourself pretty so that someone will ignore your lacklustre personality. This baggage has something in common: all of these drawbacks, vanity included, are things that men have throughout history counted as inherent female vices that they themselves are not prone to.

An eighteenth century woman had very little influence over her own life, which would be dictated almost entirely by who she married. A beautiful woman, however, was likely to have more suitors than an ugly one, and with the ability to choose came a modicum of power: therefore, vanity in a woman was more than an aesthetic frivolity. It was an attempt to maximise a woman's power of choice on the most life-defining decision she would ever make. As 18th century poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote, she was "glad they find in the imaginary Empire of Beauty, a consolation for being excluded every part of Government in the State." Beauty was for many women the only power within their grasp. Accordingly, many people condemned vanity, threatened by the influence a beautiful woman could exert on her stricken male admirers--Milton's Eve, after all, would not have so easily swayed Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge had she not been so lovely. Women were uneducated and sheltered, thus they seemed frivolous, unintelligent and self-centered in comparison to their less ignorant male counterparts. The idea of the clearly inferior sex gaining control was, perhaps understandably, alarming. Virtue was recommended in vanity's place, and vanity condemned as a sign of the many negative personality traits people still to this day attach to it. The virtues recommended, of course, were female virtues: chastity, modesty, patience, obedience--all traits that put women safely back under the control of men. Vanity was the search for female power, and virtue was the submission to male power. History is written by the victors, and vanity today is still attached to the vices that have throughout history been attributed to the female sex.

I use the 18th century as an example, but this has been the case throughout Western history. Today, of course, vanity is not the same desperate attempt to seize power. It is, for most, a hobby. Yet we still suffer from the same historical hang-over that attributes moral worth to a woman's chastity, and when I say "I am vain", you will instinctively think, "she is frivolous; she is shallow, she is self-centred". Vain women are "girly": and, not coincidentally, they are assumed to embody all the historically female vices because of their vanity.

To me, my interest in my appearance is not that different from my boyfriend's interest in football. It takes up a few hours a week, it's fun and relaxing, and it bonds me with other people of my gender. But I have learned the hard way that unlike my other hobbies (English Literature, social activism, improvised comedy), I cannot talk openly about liking make-up and hair products without risking being judged--ironically, by people who assume that my vanity makes me judgmental.

This is not something that I believe people are conscious of, because anyone who thinks about it for a second will realise that they don't actually equate watching youtube hair tutorials with being a bad person. Nor is it some great historical conspiracy by evil bad men to put down poor helpless women. It's just that vanity used to be something threatening, and now it isn't anymore. Legally Blonde has got it right: don't assume that just because a woman finds solace in manicures, she won't get into the best law school in the country.