My Vanity Troubles Me, But I Can’t Stop It

How do I divest from a system that has benefitted me so greatly?

My Vanity Troubles Me, But I Can’t Stop It IVASHstudio / Shutterstock

You ever stare at a picture of yourself for so long that your features grow legs and dance the Macarena on your face, grinding into each other until the photo resembles a Picasso painting?

Do you ever do it for an hour straight? And with more than one photo as you decipher which to post, because the first contains too many hair fly-aways but your smile looks more forced in the second? Or worse, what do you do when the photos are so similar that the only disparity is a one-centimeter head tilt? Flip a coin? What happens when you choose the first photo, but — hours later — you scroll through your camera roll and shriek, goddammit; I should’ve posted the second!


Asking for a friend.

I’m vain. Like an alcoholic verbalizing their addiction, I’m more cognizant than ever. I am not proud — my vanity eats a substantial chunk of my day. And bank account. Although one could argue that the two have an inverse relationship. For example, I recently tried microneedling, which diminishes pigmentation and acne scarring, thus requiring me to apply less foundation and concealer. Similar to my eyelash extensions — which require a one-hour reapplication every fortnight — because these permit me to apply no eye makeup at all, like my semi-permanent lip tint and injections, which eradicate the need for liner.


But there’s always a new procedure or product on the market, so I suppose the cycle never ends.

I frequently think about my vanity because it’s my least favorite trait. Vanity is the underbelly of beauty. Actually, I suppose there are several underbellies, like the obsession with perfection, because it’s typically beautiful people who partake in the aforementioned activities. You’d think the main contestants would be those deemed unattractive — by typical beauty norms, not individual opinion — but frankly, it’s the opposite. When beauty entrenches your essence, you feel compelled to uphold it. Improve it. And most importantly, showcase it.

Beauty has always been in demand, but I doubt it galvanized the tantamount vanity of today.

Aside from beauty’s current, endless enhancements — surgically or cosmetically — you had to work to platform it. Unless you linked with an agent, a modeling or acting career wouldn’t fall into your lap. Now, all you need is a camera phone and you’re golden. Social media is your oyster. The algorithm encourages vanity, and if you’ve got a modicum of beauty, why wouldn’t you try to capitalize on it? It’s what all the cool kids are doing. Could pay a pretty penny, too — no pun intended.


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Personally, beauty and I have a complex relationship. I don’t know how to discuss my perspective without hearing a soliloquy strummed on the world’s smallest violin. Grab your tissue box as I lament about my pretty person misfortunes because my life is so gosh darn difficult!

I promise: the absurdity doesn’t evade me.

I’m aware of the privileges beauty provides.


Secondly, save your breath before you call me vain, because I’m literally saying it first. You can’t mock me if I already mock me — ha, I got you there, folks!

Alright, there’s my disclaimer. Now, where was I? My vanity. Right. Yesterday I dedicated two whole hours to it. After I showered (deep-conditioned and face masked, too) I laid out the contents of my makeup bag, like an artist, and painted my face.

The process took about an hour — longer than usual, as my foundation didn’t match my neck and I would’ve resembled Trump if I didn’t apply three more layers, and I redid my eyeliner four times because I consumed too much coffee and my hand trembled, although my cat eye is seldom symmetrical even when I’m relaxed — and then I needed to document the end result. Because I rarely don a full face beat, so if I don’t photograph it, did it really happen?

The infamous selfie. Here’s where the real work begins. My left side is my better side — for some indistinguishable reason, inarticulable beyond my eyes — but then I must decide my expression. Shall I go with a soft smile, cheesy grin, or a demure smirk? Typically I’ll test them all for the first round, assess my camera roll, and regroup for round two. Sometimes the cycle continues for five rounds. I stop when my shoulder cramps from extending my phone for so long, but such ensues the final and most arduous step: photo selection.


I cannot estimate a time maximum on this one. As I said, staring at my face transforms it into an amorphous blob. Eventually, I toss my top three pictures into the group chat and let the girlies choose their favorite.

It’s an onerous ordeal. But not as much as it is extraneous.

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The gravity of my vanity hit when I glanced at the clock because the shorthand passed two numbers from my starting point. I could’ve spent those two hours writing. Learning verbs in my Spanish course. Folding my (overflowing) laundry. I could’ve vacuumed my entire damn house!


But alas, I tended to my appearance. And the photo’s influx of comments and likes proved it was worth it, I guess.

The specific occasion was a date. The man praised my beauty on several occurrences, insinuating that it was the impetus for his interest. I finally (half) joked, wow, I thought you liked me for my personality! He responded that my personality is the cherry on top! Because I am more than a pretty face! Unlike the “other girls,” my brain is the bonus!

I laughed and felt flattered at the moment. But as I evaluated the date afterward — when the pinot noir wore off — I realized the man muddled the compliment. Considering my personality is my identity, my looks are supposed to be the cherry on top. He inverted the expression. Not inadvertently, though. He told me exactly how he saw me.

Maybe that’s my vanity’s gasoline. I see me how others see me. Did I feel beautiful prior to folks informing me? Or did my belief sprout and foster because of folks’ adulation? Maybe a bit of both. We’ll never see our own faces — only photographs and reflections — so external opinions tend to feel more informed than our own. The more you hear something, the deeper you internalize it, and more willingly when it’s a positive.


I mean, if a bunch of people called me stupid, I’d probably question my intelligence, too, but I’d be more likely to shun than accept the opinion. Since beauty is one of the most elusive positives, maybe that’s the reason my ego labors to preserve it.

Or because my ego isn’t naïve. I’d be remiss to complain about my vanity without acknowledging the doors my appearance has opened.

Beauty is the key to many locks, and my subconscious generates vanity to remind me. I can’t ignore the opportunities I’ve received thanks to an attractive face.


Regardless of whether my personality sealed the deal, my looks granted me the invitation. We’re visual creatures and we live in a patriarchal world. How do I divest from a system that has benefited me so greatly?

I don’t possess the answers. That’s precisely the problem. If I had the answers, I’d be less vain. Nevertheless, “vain” is not synonymous with shallow. I’m multifaceted. My vanity is a part of me, but it’s not all of me. The fraction has enlarged more than I prefer, but I can — and will — diminish it.

I often reminisce about the girl I used to be before I knew I was pretty. I journey back to her. Rather than dedicating hours to my appearance, I leave my phone in another room and force myself to avoid mirrors. I pick up a book instead; I lose myself in a story the way I used to before my looks consumed me. Before I cared to maintain and flaunt them. Before I cared, period.

By the time I finish the last page, I’ve nearly forgotten how I look. In those moments, I feel like my childhood self again, and I think someday she could be free.


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Melissa Kerman is a writer from New York. You can follow her on Instagram, @melissakerman.