Capilli Vanitas

New long hairI had not experienced a Mexican summer with long hair before moving down here. My first summer taught me about the drawbacks of having long, very fine hairs (as in delicate, thin strands). The combination of a breeze and sweat provoked an incessant reaction based in a phobia of walking face-first through spider webs. I don’t like spider webs, and I don’t like having to un-glue web-like filaments from my face. So, I cut off the hair.

I went several years with short, spiky hair, and now I’m back to growing it out. Once again, I’m getting feedback on how well it suits me. Of course, this initial round of feedback stems from the stark difference in aspect, pre- and post- hair.

Yesterday for instance, I ran into a girlfriend who I hadn’t seen in a really long while, and she made quite a positive fuss over the hair. That made me resolve that the inconveniences of coiffing the thatch has value in how it affects the sensibilities of others, which in turn affects my own sensibilities about self.

As we parted ways, me to the bathroom (where I do my best thinking) and she to her spot on the beach, I thought: “Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!” I immediately started to wonder why I was bothering at all and why I rationalized that, since others have to look at me more than I do, I should cater to the preponderance of opinion [for some reason].

Capilli vanitas vanitas censure (hair is vanity, vanity is value)

Ain't Fabio Beautiful!It seems that many things we do, we do to make ourselves “presentable” in society, including bathing, dressing nice, wearing jewelry, combing our hair, brushing our teeth, and so forth. We justify many of those things as hygienically necessary, but even good hygiene presupposes concern for the well-being of self.

Beyond hygiene, I would argue that that the things we do are more about image-building: image of our self & the image of our self in the eyes of others. And we take pride in that accomplishment or in the endowments we possess (by accident of birth, rigorous exercise, amazing paint, or good invasive surgeries).

I suspect that the motivation for this is valuation: imagining or ascribing some value to appearance in the eyes of society, whether the point is blending in or standing out, belonging or rejecting, approbation or ostracism, admiration or contempt. In any form, it is something we want associated to us, forming our identity — the thing we take the most pride in.

Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.

According to dictionary definitions, vanity is the excessive pride in what one thinks he possesses, including appearance. But pride by itself is more associated with a measure of satisfaction whereas vanity is almost exclusively a concern with self-image as it pertains to the self possessions.

So you can have pride of self-image which turns to preoccupation or over-reliance on how you look according to the standards of the time or some social circle.

There’s also a flip side to what we normally think of a vanity. A preacher I was listening to one time made the point during a sermon that Pride has two sides: Look at me (all eyes) because I’m great; and Don’t look at me (all eyes) because I’m wretched. At each end of this spectrum, the concern is for the focus on self.

In the context of vanity, you can have anti-vanity* (like anti-matter), which would be that flip-side version, as with pride. One is tempted to think of anti-vanity as merely acknowledgment of a deficit of attributes (“I’m not pretty.”) or excess humility, but in fact, this type of vanity is, indeed, made up of matter, but more like the contrary of regular vanity.  The matter of anti-vanity lies in the negative thought forms (“I am ugly.”), rather than the “positive” thought forms of vanitas ordinarius (“I’m stunning.”).

Vain comes from Latin for “emptiness,” which is one of our definitions of vanity: lacking real value, hollowness, worthlessness, trivial, pointless. This vanity, when used in the Ecclesiastical sense, refers to the meaninglessness, or emptiness, of the transient things onto which we place our concerns and value. This is a particularly illuminating point because throughout time & in different cultures, the criteria used to judge “value” have changed while the underlying motivation for valuing has not.

After all, what makes something valuable? For things in general, it is what others want or prize highly. To the human ego, that translates to the sense of being valued, wanted, and appreciated. And we measure our progress of attaining these states by the reactions of others who hold the same values (and in whose society we wish to be part).

A twist on vanity that could be mistaken for anti-vanity is one that is the opposite of prideful of one’s positive attributes or identity — it is being prideful of one’s negative attributes being construed favorably. I cannot tell you how many people I know who glory in their peccadillos or less-polished aspects because it is “who I am.” The value here is in feeling that one is unique.

Vanity, it would seem, is a human condition relative to association with other humans and the resulting economic and social interactions.

Coloring Outside the Lines

How do you identify that line where presentable vanity ends and narcissism begins?

Mark Twain said, “There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it.” I would add that there is a 1:1 inverse proportion between the decrease in ability and the rise in pathology.

Freud thought that all of us are born with narcissism, which allows us to balance realistic self-interest and social interaction, and to develop skill sets in evaluating our adequacies (self esteem, competence, likeability, appropriateness, etc.) and other self knowledge. That’s called “healthy narcissism.”

Unhealthy, of course, would be overestimation of one’s abilities and having an excessive need for admiration and affirmation, which leads to a healthy-sized list of the “seven deadly sins of narcissism.” Those, according to trusty Wikipedia are: shamelessness, magical thinking (seeing one’self as perfect), arrogance, envy, entitlement, exploitation, and bad boundaries.

So, if it’s present in everyone, what’s the big deal? Well, for one, there are the accusations of being vain or narcissistic. But maybe that’s a wakeup call for those not too far gone to course-correct. Or maybe it’s a petty accusation of people you don’t need or want in your circle anyway. That’s where your valuation system comes in handy.

I’m wondering if I should care. It’s almost as if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But let’s go with the higher grade of vanity concealment and say: I will do the minimum in the form that best pleases the majority within the circles I travel. I will be “presentable” on the apparently more favored side.

“The only cure for vanity is laughter, and the only fault that is laughable is vanity.”
~ Henri Bergson


One Response

  1. I wanted to make a point about anti-[pride/vanity] and opposites. In some ways, the “anti-” bit is much like the difference (in logic) between contradictions and contraries. Here is an example as taught in lessons of logic:

    The terms alive and lifeless are contradictories because everything either has life (is alive) or lacks life (is lifeless), but nothing is both alive and lifeless. Basically x is alive or not-alive.

    The terms alive and dead are contraries because nothing can be both alive and dead, but some things might be neither (dead implies that it was once alive, but now is not).

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