Age of Enlightenment: In Praise of Vanity

Kathyrn Harrison learns to appreciate vanity as more than just a vice

by Kathryn Harrison
age of vanity image
Photograph: Gerard Dubois

A Sunday evening in June. Having stayed at the beach too late, we’re snared in city-bound traffic, heading into a fiery sunset. My husband squints behind the wheel. I glance at the passenger-side mirror, anticipating that the lingering glow will improve me as it does the buildings and trees we crawl past. Instead, the angle of the sun conspires with that of the mirror to reveal what even the most flattering light can’t erase. At the point where my jaw meets my neck, the skin has begun to sag, just as my mother’s did when she was around my age. The image floats above the familiar warning objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Of course. Isn’t mortality always creeping up on us?

I stretch my neck up, to the left and to the right, hoping another position will reveal the discovery as an optical trick and remembering my dismay upon noticing the same little vertical fold of loose skin on my mother’s lovely long neck. I felt then what I feel now, a little twist of grief and something that quickened my pulse—fear, I think. Unlike laugh lines, easy to embrace as evidence of humor, this slackening suggests not character but aging. It’s ugly enough to force me up against something I hadn’t known about myself: I’m vain.

Vain and filled, at first, with self-reproach. As a college girl, I’d taken a stand against vanity: I wore ragged used clothing, left my hair unstyled and self-righteously turned down my mother’s offers of facials or manicures. I wanted her to understand that I considered her pleasures frivolous and superficial. Why would anyone neglect cultivating her inner life to waste time gazing at her own reflection?

Now 51 and peering ahead to 60 in the passenger-side mirror—to which I return as if it were the wicked queen’s in Snow White, obliged to always tell the truth and never flatter—I can’t help asking a different question, How bad is this worse-than-a-wrinkle going to get? Bad enough to make me reconsider my claustrophobic rejection of turtlenecks or even succumb to the kind of cosmetic “adjustment” I’ve always dismissed as money misspent, making me not only vain but also a hypocrite? How long before this harbinger of the dreaded crone’s wattle demands strategically wrapped scarves? Can it be time to resort to one of those high-ticket creams that promise, via the sorcery of retinol, to revive aging skin’s former elasticity?

What it isn’t time for, I decide, is surrender. Because I don’t. Suddenly vanity seems less a vice than the resolve to align my appearance with my spirit. I was wrong about my mother—and for that matter, about her mother, who at 90 didn’t consider herself dressed without pearls, red lipstick and Chanel No. 5. They were good role models, neither of whom ever looked in a mirror and saw someone who had relinquished the idea of herself as an attractive woman. Collagen collapses, gravity triumphs, but those pink lightbulbs my mother favored for the flattering light they shed? You’ll find them in the supermarket, aisle 10.

Kathryn Harrison can be reached at kathryn@kathrynharrison .com. She is the author, most recently, of Enchantments, a novel, and is currently working on a biography of Joan of Arc.

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First Published Wed, 2012-08-01 08:43

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