In the age of social media — when “selfie” is no longer a dirty word, the pursuit of beauty and recognition has become normalized (even celebrated!), and so much of that is tied to public “sharing” — does vanity have the same implications as it once did? What does it mean to be vain? Below, myself and the rest of the MR editorial team unpack these questions and more in the discussion below. -Emma
Emma: When I was younger, I looked in the mirror a lot. My mom would tell me I was vain all the time. I didn’t always understand what she meant — what that word meant — but as I got older and began to understand the word, what I gleaned was negative: that looking at myself meant I had too much of an interest in my own appearance.
Haley: I wrote about this once! My dad used to say I looked in the mirror too much too. I think I was more curious than vain. I didn’t understand how I looked to other people, and I was told over and over that it mattered, so I was obsessed with using my reflection to understand myself.
Leandra: Would your mom tell you that you’re vain in jest?
Emma: I think she was conflating vanity and narcissism.
Leandra: There’s a difference between the two. I have no problem with vanity — it’s not malignant the way that narcissism can be, and owning your vanity is worthwhile to the extent that it allows you to own yourself?
Nora: I think of vanity as inwardly focused and narcissism as outwardly focused with the intent to gain something for yourself.
Haley: I also think of vanity as more aesthetically driven than narcissism (of which presentation is only one piece). But to your question Leandra, I think it still has a negative connotation because people sometimes use it as shorthand for “lacking substance.”
Leandra: The reason it’s become a dirty word may also be a result of the self-deprecation with which so many of us are bred to announce ourselves.
Haley: Yes I agree — there is a kind of sheepishness around obsessing over one’s looks. I was trying to think of the last time I used the word and I’m certain it was to be self-deprecating. As in “ugh I’m being so vain.”
Nora: I feel like my attitude towards online presentation as a form of vanity has changed, and vanity is something I’m more likely to feel like I witness or notice or react to IRL.
Haley: Explain more
Nora: I think selfie culture is so normalized that participating doesn’t feel like an act of vanity so much as just existing online. Whereas if I’m with someone at dinner and they keep looking at themselves in their phone or in the mirror I experience that individually and that’s where the idea of them being vain comes in.
Haley: That’s so interesting and true.
Harling: Yes! It’s more acceptable to be vain specifically on social media because vanity has been roped into the slate of human emotions/experiences that are constantly “aired out” on platforms like Instagram (others include: insecurity, neediness, wanting to be loved, etc.) and therefore seems more like common ground now than something to be alienated by or feel ashamed about. I think vanity looks more like narcissism when exercised offline.
Haley: This reminds me so much of a convo I’ve been having lately: Why is it less “acceptable” for men to post selfies than women? Have they not metabolized vanity in the same way?
Leandra: I don’t know the answer to this question but historically, has vanity been linked more closely to femininity and womanhood?
Emma: I think that has to do with the fact that women and femmes have so much more to fight against or wade through in terms of standards of beauty — the cultural scripts that tell us we have to look a certain way or dress a certain way or have a certain hairstyle to be considered “good looking” are so much more apparent when they are considered through the lens of femininity. So femmes posting selfies — and the more general “acceptance” of that — more reflects something deeply ingrained, and knowledge that we are either trying to abide by or buck certain rules (or do both).
Harling: I actually think vanity is more associated with women and narcissism with men (see: Narcissus from mythology!).
Haley: Yes I think women have historically been valued for their looks, and thus are accepted as “pursuing beauty” — whereas men are valued for other things, and so their pursuit of beauty has been construed as emasculating (remember the term “metrosexual”?).
Leandra: So here’s a question: Has social media and particularly Instagram set up a generation of women to care even more about how they look, and if that is true, which I think it is (although make no mistake, Instagram threw and we caught), is it such a bad thing?
Emma: I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which IG and this particular moment in culture has been an opportunity for us to proclaim self-love in public spheres.
Haley: I think — like most things — it has had both positive and potentially negative effects. First thing that comes to mind is the myth of empowerment that’s been sold to many women via IG — i.e. the idea that looking conventionally hot on Instagram is somehow fulfilling for the soul. The second thing that comes to mind is how many people have had the opportunity to celebrate beauty *outside* mainstream convention on Instagram.
Emma: Yeah, remember when I wrote about this through the lens of that poppin’ Cardi B line — “walkin’ past the mirror, OOH — damn, I’m fine” — about how vanity as self-love is actually radical when we consider how intersectionality is part of the calculus?
Leandra: Let me back track for a second. I think we’re only reclaiming love for ourselves because prior to this movement, we were taught to poke fun at ourselves (see: self-deprecation) — what was that a product of?
Emma: The capitalist imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy? (Where’s bell hooks when ya need her!)
Leandra: I remember distinctly when I married Abie that he used to tell me I could do to be a bit more humble which I took to mean: shit on yourself more! Then I realized that when you’re hard on yourself/down on yourself, you can argue that you’re doing the same thing as when you’re high/up on yourself, no? Which is making it about ~*you*~
Nora: Like saying sorry instead of thank you!
Haley: So perhaps the way we feel vain hasn’t changed so much as how we express it. It used to be that you could only obsess over your looks privately. And now it’s more normal for women to express their relationship with their aesthetic self very publicly.
Harling: I also think the rules of “acceptable” vanity are looser online than off.
Haley: Right — vanity is the modus operandi of social media. Not so IRL.
Harling: Yes, and vanity online serves a direct purpose — more likes, more affirmation, etc. It’s currency, which is why there’s more leeway for it.
Haley: But then again, if I go to someone’s IG account and EVERY photo is just their own face, in a similar framing, I might quietly peg them as self-obsessed or uncreative. That’s actually so rude! And I judge myself that way too, if my feed is just mirror selfies all the way down. Do you do the same? Or am I an asshole? (My feed, btw, is 95% photos of me.)
Harling: It really depends — if someone is constantly posting selfies but the captions are funny or relatable, or if each one offers up something unique (cool makeup, accessories, etc), I feel differently. Haley your Instagram might be 95% you but they never get stale because each one is different and none of them are touting some kind of unattainable perfection. Maybe their existence is an offshoot of vanity, but it’s an offshoot I want to consume.
Nora: Gassing people up has become my preferred way to interact on Instagram.
Emma: Yes!!! Same.
Haley: Is gassing on Instagram a kindness because it gives people a free pass to be vain?
Harling: Or the result of knowing how good it feels to be gassed up by others?
Haley: That’s very altruistic.
Emma: For me, Haley, it’s just about the knowledge of how important it is to support something that, at first glance, is so easy to do (post a selfie, say “Damn, I’m fine!“, etc.) but actually isn’t. Not for everybody.
Haley: Do you think it matters whether the version of yourself you’re celebrating is true to you versus catered to what others will like?
Harling: I think it is a window into a brighter future in that IG is effectively democratizing vanity by giving anyone a platform to celebrate their selves — even if it’s a version of selfhood that might not be completely true to who they are offline. What matters, ultimately, is not the outcome but the access.
Haley: Right — I think I brought up the “true to yourself thing” (which might be a fallacy anyway) to bring in the idea of intention. Are you celebrating yourself to celebrate yourself, or to make others feel envious? That’s when the future feels less bright and more like a competitive nightmare.
Harling: My assumption is always that people are celebrating themselves to ease their own insecurities/seek validation from others. So online vanity is more about building yourself up than it is about tearing others down.
Emma: And you have to remember that there are some people who aren’t in “the race” at all — to Harling’s point, the access that social media allows is a way into that race for some. So thinking about how social media might be the precursor to a future that is a competitive nightmare is bypassing the future that must come first, the one wherein people who have historically been barred from obtaining the very social currency we have said vanity now offers actually might, finally, have access to it.
Haley: Yes that makes sense!
Emma: Does this mean I’m actually an optimist?
Haley: I know I’m about to break my own editing rule here, but might be worth bringing the ACTUAL definition of vanity into this conversation: “excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.”
Emma: What’s interesting in that definition is the use of the qualifier “excessive.”
Haley: Maybe what we are describing then, is simply self-admiration. And what defines “excessive” has drastically changed.
Harling: In other words, what used to be considered vanity is no longer vanity because it’s not excessive — it’s the norm?
Haley: Yes! Within limits of course. It seems there is still a certain calculus involved in judging whether someone is vain — it’s just more sophisticated than it used to be. And even if self-admiration has become the norm, I still think there is a lot to unpack around the broader reaching effects of a vanity wave. Especially around the commodification of self. I think a lot of people feel trapped by having to “aesthetically express” themselves online. And a lot of social pressure has dovetailed with this movement of self-branding. Like most things, it brings good and bad.
Harling: Yes! I wrote about that — the anxiety of liking your online self better than your actual self. It’s wildly new emotional/cultural territory, as is the evolving definition of vanity and what actually falls into that bucket in 2019.
Leandra: You’re so vain you probably think this slack is about you.
What do you think? What constitutes vanity in 2019?
Illustrations by Amber Vittoria.