Maybe the reason so many people conflate beauty with vanity is because it allows them to dismiss the whole emotionally fraught mess. Tending to your appearance is superficial, the thinking goes; it’s time-consuming, it gets in the way of big, important things. It’s vain. And who wants to be vain, standing in a club in a zebra-print skirt, with the devil holding your mirror?
We want to reject beauty because we believe it rejects us. For centuries, beauty was specific, measurable in inches, sized up with ratios. It had standards. It required conformity. The internalization of those standards accounts for a lot of misery, including my mother’s facelift.
The beauty-vanity entanglement hit me again when, in 1990, I was putting together a team to create Allure. One promising journalist after another declined my offer of employment with what they thought was pure logic. Their reasons were variations on, “I don’t even wear lipstick.” Many spoke those exact words. I doubt these journalists would’ve objected to covering the opioid crisis because they didn’t carry a bottle of OxyContin. But beauty was different; it was personal. And participating in it was somehow diminishing and — here’s that word again — vain.
But ideas about beauty aren’t static. Something started shifting over the past 10 years or so. Beauty wriggled loose of conformist standards in skin color, hair color, hair texture, race, ethnicity, gender, size, age rules, and regulations. Beauty became democratic and accessible. Individualistic beauty by its very nature defies calculation and definition. This change didn’t happen because some divine decree fell out of the sky. It happened because it had to. The old standards never reflected the population in all its variety. A few people proudly claimed beauty on their own terms, and more and more people woke up and took notice.
Then everything started to accelerate. Beauty became joyful, celebratory, a form of self-expression that transcended vanity. It became kooky and weird and wonderful. It even acquired a sense of humor. The ponderous Miss America pageant was packed away in mothballs, replaced by the exuberance of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Right here, right now, we’re in a golden age of beauty. Makeup has never been more wildly colorful or creatively inviting. Skin and hair care are full of potent ingredients and a luscious richness, with imaginative names and packaging that lift them out of their bland functionality. Hairstyles, colors, and ornamentation fill YouTube videos as well as Instagram and TikTok feeds like elaborately wrapped presents. Even the investment world loves beauty.