Beauty Is Bigger Than Ever, So Why Is Vanity Still Stigmatized?

The camera roll on my phone follows a rather predictable pattern. There are whole gridded chunks of near-identical portraits of my face and body from every discernable angle, followed by a hodgepodge of random screenshots and various objects and scenery, and then another hefty grid of near-identical selfies, and so on and so forth.

The average number of shots for one posted selfie hovers around the upper sixties or seventies under optimal conditions (good lighting, good setting, good makeup/hair, etc). That number creeps past 100 when any of those things are compromised. This is not something that particularly irks me, but if someone were to scroll through the camera roll on my phone I’d instinctually smack my iPhone X out of their hand should they see the grid populated by upwards of 100 selfies in a row. I’d rather someone find my nudes than witness “my process.”

camera roll of selfies

Sable Yong

Taking selfies doesn’t hurt anyone, isn’t offensive by nature, and largely is pretty inconsequential. Somehow selfies have come to define the smartphone generation’s self-absorption. Some are posted in earnest, some are posted in irony, and some take a stance against selfies altogether. Selfies are a public reflection — kind of like looking at a mirror and checking yourself out, but outwardly. It’s a technological reaping of natural human vanity in all its forms and iterations.

It’s not exactly a secret that humans have been fascinated by our appearances and concepts of beauty since the beginning of time. Most of the fairy tales I was fed as a kid involved wicked stepmothers who were homicidally obsessed with their looks, ultimately vanquished by their way younger and naturally beautiful stepdaughters (the “lesson” being that the fairest of them all wins because of some bogus ethical implication that beautiful people are morally good and vain people are evil).

Go to any art museum and there are scores of paintings and sculptures of our centuries-old study of the human form. Psychological studies have discerned time and again the benefits of looking attractive — pretty people get ahead more easily in life and looks are important, no matter how you feel about them.

What makes that tricky is that vanity, old as it is, has been generally viewed as vacuous, vapid, and contemptuous — a bit ironic when you consider how it’s only really been up until recently (like, post millennium) that beauty conventions have shifted from prescriptive to expressive. No one appreciated being told how to look beautiful before then, and no one seems to appreciate how people broadcast their own beauty now. (One resolution: minding your own business makes either a non-issue.)

Social media is the easiest target because it’s the most fertile petri dish for vanity. Photo filters and those “Instagram aesthetics” have swung beauty standards into the realm of quantifiable validation with likes, comments, and followers. Maybe it’s the unabashed thirst for validation (and the disappointment in its absence) or the indulgence of self-performance that gets tongues clucking, but since when did liking yourself become so contemptuous? We encourage people to be confident and to respect themselves but to remain humble by some murky standards. No one benefits from liking themselves on someone else’s terms and vanity is, above all, an extremely personal thing — and one that isn’t necessarily always so appreciative of what one sees in their own reflection either.

Sure, our digital feeds are thoroughly oversaturated, and your eyes may glaze over blinded by blue light, but the cool thing about the democratized platform of handheld vanity is that there’s no longer one authority acting as gatekeeper to what you get to see as beauty. My adolescence crested just when the Internet was becoming an in-home staple in my community. I didn’t have a cell phone until college (and it was a flip phone). My only visuals cues for beauty came from magazines, which I devoured eagerly. And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in that celebrated context.

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