Appearance and Vanity

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

There exists a palpable collective contempt held for the perceived vanity of women.

I have felt this contempt through a lifetime of recurrent offhand remarks and demeaning comments targeted at appearance-focused women, remarks made by men and women alike – and often in the name of feminism. Statements such as “God, what has she done to her lips? She looks like a duck” or “You’d have to take her swimming on the first date!”

As a society, we often reserve a special judgement for women who invest in their appearance, dismissing them as narcissistic or mindless, most particularly in their choice to pursue plastic surgery or cosmetic enhancements.

The unmistakable disdain towards women who make these choices has always left me feeling unsettled and disconcerted. I frequently find myself guided by an impulse to defend ‘vain’ women and their choices – a group I have often been included in – very aware that there are greater dynamics at play resting just beyond the perceptible realm.

There are numerous external influences and forces that consciously or subconsciously drive women to make these choices, for which they cannot and should not be ascribed any blame or fault.

The scorn that women face for placing a focus on appearance is unacceptable, as beauty is absolutely a valuable form of capital for women – the cultural and social inheritance of which must be examined in place of indiscriminate judgement.

Essentialism is a notion purported by patriarchal ideology that reinforces the false belief that women have a fixed and unchanging nature with which they act in accordance. This manifests in a series of widely held myths that ascribe to women ‘morally flawed’ traits of narcissism and vanity, which are held as a justification for the continued narratives of women as an inferior group.

Ideology by definition masks itself as natural, convincing us that the traits we ascribe to women, like vanity and narcissism, are an objective truth.

However, these naturalised traits and behaviours are, in fact, not natural at all. Rather, they occur in a logical reaction to the oppressive social relations of patriarchy. These structures, reducing women to object and to a being-for-men, reinforce women’s sense of self as objects in the eyes of others. There results a symmetry between the fantasies of masculinity and the expression of femininity, in order to attain a sense of power in a state of enforced objectivity.

When a woman has been treated and positioned as an object her entire life, it follows that she will internalise this logic and strive to become the best possible object in order to gain the favour of men – to whom she is partly at the mercy of, particularly in the financial realm.

Beauty and youth become an essential form of capital, as the ability to attain completely independent financial means is still far more greatly apportioned to men than to women.

For example, within spaces of employment, potential for upward mobility still rests often in the hands of men, where men are more often in positions of holding power to grant opportunities and promotions. In addition, if a woman lacks the concrete resources to independently assert their own means, finding a financially stable partner is often necessary to combine and supplement income. In either situation, appearance often plays a vital role in women’s social and financial outcomes.

It is true that beauty is a form of capital for all genders, and that grooming and appearance factor heavily in social and financial outcomes regardless of gender. However, as men are consistently enabled as independent subjects by patriarchal ideology and are not generally at the mercy of women’s will, if they do not meet their (significantly lesser and more natural) standards of beauty they are still more able to assert their own means.

As such, it is often the case for many women that an investment in their appearance is highly beneficial for social advancement, an investment for which they should not face judgement or scorn.

It is completely understandable that women may subconsciously internalise the object status that is continually thrust upon them, using appearance as a means to create value and power within this naturalised yet entirely unnatural role of object-being that patriarchal ideology has relegated them to.

The ‘vanity’ of women is a more than justifiable reaction to the social structures we are all subject to, and they must not be judged as narcissistic individuals. Instead, we must understand and appreciate the driving forces behind this focus on appearance, and work to continue the destruction of the ideologies and structures that enable it.

Illustration by Aileen. You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenngstudio

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