It’s Time to Talk About Vanity

Hi! Welcome to July on Man Repeller. Our editorial theme this month will be Vanity. A relevant topic for those of us prone to self- documentation and reflection, and one we’re prepared to explore with a fine-tooth tortoiseshell comb. Technically speaking, vanity refers to excessive self-admiration, but today it feels more like a lens through which to see the world. A manner of being, perceiving, and processing. One that’s permeated our culture like jasmine in a Hilton lobby or the saccharine aroma specific to porta potties.

But is it right to assign vanity a moral value?

There is seemingly no end to the harmful ways it can manifest (sometimes this feels like the bedrock of Western civilization), but it’s also true that the proliferation of the first clear glass mirrors coincided with the rise of individualism and the age of enlightenment. To gaze at oneself can be one way to recognize the worth of the self, and the worth of individuals everywhere. It’s from this ethos that self-admiration can blossom into something resembling freedom.

So no, it doesn’t feel quite right to dismiss vanity as narcissistic or selfish, despite it occasionally leading to those qualities. It feels more accurate to think of it as a formidable social phenomenon to approach critically and carefully, but never cynically. Because sometimes, it can lead to interesting places….

A few weeks ago, I attended a dinner where a woman with high cheekbones and a blond pixie cut told everyone who they were based on their birthdays. I did not expect to learn much—I’m best described as aggressively secular—but I attended out of morbid curiosity. I wanted to see how earnestly people believed these things; whether the mystical movement I’ve observed online is dead serious or only kind of. Also, there would be hummus.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that no one was kidding around. At least not visibly. The faces around the farmhouse table appeared rapt, sometimes solemn, other times laughing incredulously at being read so accurately. “I bet you’re the kind of person who is very sensitive to your physical surroundings,” the woman said to a young woman in her Drew Barrymore-like lilt. “Do you ever sit down at a restaurant and have the feeling that you want to move to a different seat?” The person scoffed genially and nodded, eyes aglow. I feel that way too, I thought. But my chart said otherwise.

At one point, our leader asked us to pause and consider where in our lives we were experiencing friction, and whether it might be the result of us trying to be someone we’re not. Although I didn’t believe she knew who I was, I liked the prompt; it struck me as useful regardless of where I was born (San Jose) or when (2:15 p.m.). But strangely, when I paused to consider it, nothing immediately surfaced, prompting an absurd surge of hubris to move through me. Maybe I’m no longer broken! I thought. Did this mean I’d be getting an A?

I left the party feeling smug, and the next week, the friction appeared in droves. A necessary humbling. And to my surprise, I couldn’t get the mystic’s question out of my head. Where was I experiencing pushback in my life, and might it be a signal that I was approaching the conundrum dishonestly? The more I turned this idea over, the sooner it occured to me that I was no different than the attendees at the dinner—curious if not desperate for answers as to who I am and how to meaningfully center myself in all things that happen to me. Same endgame, different tactics, nothing, necessarily, to feel special about.

It would be fair to chalk such explorations up to vain, self-important endeavors, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also useful to look obsessively inward from time to time, even straight into your navel, to better understand the vessel in which you’re experiencing the world. Maybe then you can grow to accept it, love it, and express it outward. Is that not also a form of self-admiration?

Ironically, my relationship with vanity is one of my prime sources of friction. It’s a cause I feel both committed to and repulsed by, and this incongruence haunts me. But my desire to ceaselessly unpack it is a symptom of self-obsession too, so my attempts to separate these parts of myself are probably futile. This is why the topic of vanity is so endlessly interesting. We’re as bound and attracted to it as we are critical of it.

As for what you’ll see on Man Repeller this month, look out for musings on private vanities and real vanities, stories about Botox, True Mirrors, and Blanche Devereaux, and the most delightfully vain advice column you’ve ever laid eyes on. If there’s something you’re hoping to see covered, drop it in the comments below. And if you’ve ever sat down at a restaurant and wanted to change seats, say ‘Aye.’

Feature photo provided by Haley Nahman. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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