“There are no grades of vanity, there are only grades of ability in concealing it.”
Mark Twain, Notebook, 1898
I’ve been distracted lately, uncomfortably so. Newscasters, celebrities, models in magazines, even those who are never in a spotlight, have me wondering why everyone is so glow-y. Their bronzed faces and merging strips of illuminator with blind-my-eyes brighter-than-white teeth must have been painted by a master Impressionist. Except I’m more impressed to cock my head like our dog Sage does when he’s bewildered and question, “Why is it all so extreme? Am I not okay, just as I am?”
I now realize why this bothers me so. I only thought I had used up my quota of vanity during my teenage years. Yes, this was a time when I reflect in horror all the summer days I squandered sun-up to sundown sunbathing on the lake with friends. One particular summer we treated it like a job as we were working on our tans, prepping for our church’s youth group trip to Florida.
Another great endeavor was my persistence in building a complete set of gargantuan hair rollers out of two sizes of orange juice cans. (Note to younger readers: we had no velcro rollers back then or curling wands. The hair straighteners were more like cattle irons, sizzling away anything within its grasp.)
Of course, I’ll never forget entering high school my sophomore year and excitedly talking with a boy who was a big-time junior. Standing in the hallway between classes, he gazed into my eyes and finally said, “I like the way you do your eyelashes.”
Huh? I thought, tilting my head to the side. He likes the way I do my eyelashes?
Not “Oh, what lovely eyes you have” or “Your eyelashes are so long, so thick.”
No, he said it in such a way that he knew I had devoted twenty whole minutes that morning on this work of art, stroking on layers of mascara and painstakingly separating them until I got the desired effect.
Hmm, I was devoted to an effect.
It wasn’t until I reached my early twenties I realized the vainglory of it all. That’s when I met truly beautiful women with names like Winnie and Bertie at my new church and Bible study. There were also women like Mary who had transformed her retired husband’s doctor’s clinic into a tea room, mini-mall with speciality items and a gathering place for women’s Bible studies.
Mary was choosing not to retire but offer a venue for gathering. Many of these women were twice and three times my age. All of them were aglow, in love with Jesus who loves us unconditionally. Their faces were illuminated by a depth of beauty too vast to contain. Obviously no bronzing products were needed.
I’ve carried that with me over the decades, firmly believing when I was their age, I might possess an nth of their glow. Only now I’m distracted by the pressure of others in pursuit of eternal youth. Not just men and women in their golden years, but those in their twenties, and sadly, those who are still in their youth.
The message seems to be we’re not enough unless everything in our outer person is perfectly in line with particular standards.
What does that say about the influence of vanity?
Well, it says I’m still influenced.
Several months ago my ophthalmologist determined I had to begin eyedrops to prevent glaucoma. I asked the typical question, “Do the eyedrops have any side effects?”
“Yes,” she said, “your eyelashes will grow longer.”
I felt the curl of a smile creep up my cheeks, divulging my innermost thought: Finally a side effect I can live with!
Dr. S explained that once the pharmaceutical company realized the side effect for treating patients for glaucoma with these eyedrops that the formula for Latisse was developed. She then listed the other possible side effects, like darkening on the lid and iris, but I no longer heard her. I was foreseeing my ultra-long eyelashes without the laborious efforts from my teenager years.
Yes, I determined, I still have plenty of vanity in my make-up.
Always before when I read in the book of Ecclesiastes “all is vanity,” I had interpreted that to mean “the futility and fruitlessness of humankind’s striving in worldly gains,” not so much as the “obsession of one’s appearance.” But doesn’t one lead to the other?
And that was my rub, the uncomfortable knowing that I could easily move from experiencing a full well-rounded life to spending my time and money to attempting to look my best for the world’s approval.
Much like when I get a new shirt, all of a sudden everything else that might have gone with that shirt appears old, worn, unfashionable. So in keeping with the new item, new shoes/boots, jeans/skirt, purse/car must be bought. (See Not a Fashionista, Are You? for my dread of clothes shopping.)
This thinking leads me to wonder if I start having work done, possibly softening the deepening lines that point like arrows to my non-bulbous lips, won’t it only call more attention to the creases across my forehead and around my eyes?
How are we to live with our feet in this world and our eyes focused on a mirror?
I am determined for me it’s discovering that balance in my heart and mind. I find beauty when looking out our kitchen window at the birds, lake and trees, watching grandchildren play peacefully, laughing at my husband’s corny jokes and ding-y friend’s thoughts. And the way many of those I love and admire have crinkles around their eyes like I do.
For me, it’s also about my not judging others for what they’re choosing to do and what I might define as extreme for me. I know I won’t fall off the deep-end when I buy a jar of self-tanner or use a tray of teeth-whitener. And didn’t I wear braces for a year in the sixth-grade? I might even someday wish to “soften” some of my wrinkles. I just don’t want to make it my life’s work and be devoted to an effect.
To imagine hours in a waiting room, hours having it all done, and months for the more extreme makeovers, nightmarish visions haunt me. Okay, okay, I did get a chemical peel a few years ago that resurfaced a bit of those years when I worshipped the sun. Yet, those persistent wrinkles remain, and I simply can’t do the needle thing, yet.
Yet, I realize our younger generations can’t go back to the days when we saw people as people with their character-building weathered exteriors. Will we ever see past the veil–transparent or opaque–to their true selves underneath: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Yet, somehow, someway, I want to honor those whose true beauty lives large in their depth of character, lives of integrity and philanthropy, their true shine—like Betty at my church. A widowed octogenarian, Betty is gracious, beautiful and vital. I recognize what she’s advertising because I see its effect.
Or my grandmother, Momalee, who showed me what mothers do for their families and secured me during my childhood’s fractured world. She lived to be ninety-three, and I don’t remember one wrinkle on her face. I was too affected by her expression of delight each time she saw me.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Let this be your time to live beautifully, and think on those things that are lovely.