“Vanity? I had thought that vanity was the evil queen in Snow White, gazing into her mirror, desperate to be the most beautiful in the land. Vanity, I knew was always feminine. It was always about beauty…”
The ever-changing beauty ideal
When we think of vanity, what often springs to mind is beauty standards and femininity.
We’ve cared about our appearance since the dawn of time, for various reasons; whether it be for the purpose of attracting a mate, self-upkeep, confidence, being in a position of high authority and now more so, just to appear ‘civilised’.
A big factor influencing beauty standards of today is cosmetics. Used to accentuate features and minimise imperfections, it wasn’t always considered as appropriate for the average person to wear. ‘Fixing our face’ is something we’ve always done, “for as long as there has been people, there has been makeup…” Reader’s Digest shows the evolution of makeup from ancient times, worldwide up to today.
Backtracking to a few centuries ago, it was mostly people of more affluent backgrounds who would pay more attention to their appearances. It was harder for those with limited access to money, to conform to these beauty ideals. For example, in 19th century Britain, only actresses and prostitutes would wear makeup.
Any attempt to mimic such looks was in fact considered shameful. However, surprisingly, this moral dilemma was not enough to dissuade ageing women from recapturing their youthful looks. You can read about the scandalous story of Madame Rachel, who was inspired by hair restorer lotion, to start a business in ‘fashionable cosmetics’ for hopeful older women.
One article written for the Journal of Young Investigators states that beauty matters, as shown by research. It “…pervades society and affects how we choose loved ones. Thus, striving to appear attractive may not be such a vain endeavour after all.”
What does vanity mean to you? Does it mean materialistic, superficial beauty? Or something more? Here are some pictures of vanity and beauty in all sorts of forms.
Owning lots of materialistic possessions such as jewellery can also be associated with vanity. Possibly because in earlier centuries, wealthier families would have the money to purchase these goods and along the societal expectation, they typically made sure their appearances were well kept maintaining their high level of authority.
Nowadays, those seen taking lots of ‘selfies’ and posting them onto social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook are considered vain.
Cosmetics, a widely used way to enhance one’s natural features and minimise imperfections is also associated with beauty and vanity.
A magazine cover for Vanity Fair, 1914.
A magazine of popular culture, fashion and current affairs. The first version was published in the UK in 1913. This is another example of how beauty standards are portrayed and directed to the public.
This picture of illuminated billboards showing advertisements in New York City, is another way of how we are subjected to western culture’s societal view of what is beautiful.
The Amaryllis Flower
Flowers were once used as a language and every flower has its own symbolic meaning. Floriography was (and sometimes still is to this day) used to send messages to family and significant others without the need to write it in a letter! The Amaryllis flower shown above symbolises ‘splendid beauty’ and also represents ‘worth beyond beauty’