The Trouble with Being Beautiful: Beauty, Vanity, and the Catch-22 of Body Positivity

When you looked at the title of this article, what did you think? Did you think, “Oh, lord, not another person talking about how hard it is to be beautiful. Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”

Truth is, if I happened upon this piece, I might have– and that response just what I want to talk about. I’ve been mulling a version of this piece around in my head for months, but it was the post “I’m pretty/smart/nice but…” by Braless in Brazil that prompted me to write about the constant struggle I have between accepting the body positive mandate to believe in your own beauty and still avoid the dreadful label of being thought of as “vain.”

The images in this post are all of bloggers who do manage to balance style, vanity and blogging in a way I admire. Also they are gorgeous, so it seemed appropriate.

Gabi Fresh in Hips & Curves

I have struggled with insecurities about my own appearance– it’s pretty difficult to be a 23-year-old woman in the United States of America and not have suffered from a feeling of crippling inadequacy at some point. For example: 8 months ago I felt like I was hideous and now I feel pretty awesome, although I actually look basically identical. When I’m at a low point I try to embrace body positivity and embrace the things I like about myself– at a high point I am constantly telling myself that primping in the mirror is vain and that I must temper my own self-love by remembering my flaws. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.

One thing I worry about is why being beautiful is so important to me. Part of me is constantly saying that it’s shallow, that I should be caring about making people’s lives better or improving the world or think deep thoughts or whatever it is that good people do. And yet, and yet, I can’t avoid the feeling that I’m letting down the world a little bit.

Lindsay from That Je Ne Sais Quoi

But beautiful things make me happy– and sometimes that beautiful thing is me or the clothes that I dress myself in, especially the lingerie. I can’t rationalize away my love for the pretty or the sparkling or the inventive. Is making myself happy a worthwhile goal? Is beauty a valuable enough thing to make me happy? I love the joy of owning and touching and wearing something beautiful. Twice as wonderful is making something I think is lovely (although much, much more rare).

I see actresses and models who indulge in self-criticism and airing of their insecurities described as ‘relatable,’ like it’s a good thing. I mean, they might be relatable, but is self-criticism really what you want to have in common? Sometimes I feel like we are rewarding insecurities as something that connects all women without pointing out how toxic that is. Compliments are hard to take because you’re supposed to pooh-pooh them, to point out all the ways you don’t live up to the image someone else has of you.

The Lingerie Addict by POC Photo

One reason I haven’t been able to try the fashion blog staple of ‘outfit posts’ properly even though part of me would love to style some lingerie as outwear looks is the paradoxical fear both of not looking beautiful enough and for appearing vain if I think that people would think that I looked good. And the thing is, I know that vanity would be a part of what drives me: I like praise, I like affirmation, I want people to tell me I’m beautiful and amazing. And when I look at bloggers I love doing their outfit posts, I think they look amazing and brave– I don’t see vanity at all.

Arabelle Sicardi from Fashion Pirate

I want to promote self-love, body positivity and self-acceptance. But if I’m afraid of falling in love with myself and punish myself when I do by reminding myself of all the things I do poorly, the ways I don’t look beautiful or behave imperfectly, what kind of hypocrisy is that? If vanity, not humility, is the ally of body positivity, maybe a little bit of ‘vanity’ is what we need.

But, I really want to know what you think: have you struggled with finding the balance between loving yourself and avoiding vanity? Do you think I’m totally off base with my assessment of this dilemma?

31 Comments
  1. AW thanks for including me <3! Nice to be among my friends, they're all my heroes.

    I'm a big big advocate of vanity as resistance to patriarchy and also as a method of self-care. Ladies are told that appreciating representations of themselves is something shameful but really i think being represented is so important and it's kind of a method of coping and survival. Without a way of measuring our lives in some way how can we tell where we've come from? i've written about this topic a lot.

  2. I totally agree with you, I think it’s difficult to find the balance between self-love and not fall into self-righteousness. But also I think these time we are living is a time for people to heal themselves, because we have lived so much time thinking we are wrong.
    Also I think there are several people who live in the path of “service to self” that need just the “self-righteous” part, but may be they don’t know this path is, in the end, so lonely.
    I hope you find your own balance, thank you for all of your considerations in every post, share your humanity is a great way to change and improve the world.
    Blessings,
    Manuel

  3. I loathe, I mean, I utterly LOATHE the mandate that female actresses make self-deprecatory, self-criticizing comments about their bodies in interviews. I used to read them and think “oh whew, they’re just like me,” but the problem with that is the secondary thought that comes on even louder: “shit, if So-And-So hates her body, I REALLY ought to hate mine.” In the ballet world it was particularly powerful, as we all put down our legs and feet and knees and hips and necks and every little itemized part of ourselves. I’d hear that a principal ballerina hated such and such a part of her anatomy, and for the next few weeks in class I’d look in the mirror and cast venomous thoughts at the corresponding part of mine.

    I too have struggled with self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-love vs. vanity. Trying to jump from “I am hideous” to “I am pretty” cold turkey is really jarring and rings false and forced. I love praise and I do want it– a comment from a crush that I look nice makes me feel like I’m floating. I desperately want to be told I’m pretty, while at the same time feeling kind of gross for A) wanting to be told I’m pretty and B) not being satisfied with just feeling good. Yet I love complimenting other people, and I would never dream that I was stoking their vanity; I just hope that I’m making them feel good. I think I’ll always struggle with vanity/humility, so I’m just going to have to shoot for honesty. If a compliment makes me feel good, I’ll say “this made me feel good, and that’s okay” and then try to move on with my day.

    Thanks for writing this great piece! It’s a really important thing to try to analyze, especially with all the mixed messages about our bodies we’re bombarded with every day.

  4. You already know my thoughts on the subject but I just wanted to say I love what you wrote here:

    “I see actresses and models who indulge in self-criticism and airing of their insecurities described as ‘relatable,’ like it’s a good thing. I mean, they might be relatable, but is self-criticism really what you want to have in common? Sometimes I feel like we are rewarding insecurities as something that connects all women without pointing out how toxic that is. Compliments are hard to take because you’re supposed to pooh-pooh them, to point out all the ways you don’t live up to the image someone else has of you.”

    This bothers me to no end and it seems like there are other, better things that we can find that we have in common with celebrities beyond body image issues.

    • Thanks so much! I feel like there are so many ways to bond about how awesome we all are, rather than focus on the negatives. I am always happy to count myself among all of you fantastic bloggers, for example!

  5. What a wonderful article! I think the idea of self-love and vanity transcends even beauty and goes into elements of our personality too. To this day, if people complement me on where I went to school or my intelligence, I blush (yes, I literally blush!) and mumble something about “Thank you, but I just work hard” or something like that. June’s post is so analogous to this one because it’s difficult to strike a balance between being proud of yourself and feeling good about how you look with societal pressures to be modest about your abilities and self-deprecating on your appearance.

  6. I think this is a really great conversation to have! I’m not sure when it exactly happened for me (though I think it was around when I began taking martial arts), but one day I just loved my body. Like, genuinely enjoyed my shape and my size and my face and my skin color and my hair texture and my scars and my stretch marks and my moles and just all of it. And not in a “Oh, I’m better than everyone else,” kind of way. But in a “Hey, this is my body and it’s pretty cool,” kind of way.

    I don’t think body positivity has to come from a place of vanity or from a place of humility (though if it does for you, that’s great). For me, it comes from a place of being okay with myself. I feel good for me; it’s like the ice cream in the sundae. And if other people dig what I’m doing too, then that’s the cherry, nuts, and whipped cream on top.

    I also agree with Arabelle’s earlier comment that body positivity and self love and high self esteem are radical actions in our culture of body hate. Women are so programmed to hate their bodies and hate other women’s bodies that the simple act of just loving yourself and everyone else somehow transforms into this huge statement. And I think being a woman of color and dealing with the fact that women who resemble me, in any way, are incredibly underrepresented, makes that stance even more radical.

    Kind of a disjointed comment, but the gist of it is I’m really glad you wrote this. :-)

  7. Thanks for the post! I’ve been lucky to work in a body-positive place for 3 years but still struggle with criticism from some in my personal life. In recent months, I’ve begun to occasionally dress up in lingerie on my own, have some time and love my body. It’s a secret for the most part, I’ve told some close friends and shared pictures with significant others.

    I think both vanity and humility are related to self-love. For me, feeling good about myself through vanity allows me to be happier and more productive. It brings an optimism that makes me want to help others.

  8. I don’t think loving oneself has to be related to vanity in any way, shape, or form. To me, loving Self is about embracing ALL parts of myself-the happy, beautiful, ugly, and jealous parts, and everything in between. Every day I encounter different aspects of myself, and some are harder to get along with than others. But ultimately they are all looking for love and accepance, and its my job to do just that. I believe that if everyone did themselves the justice of self-love, this world would be a pretty magical place ♡♥♡

  9. I still feel awkward that I posted on June’s blog first so forcefully and without equivocation. Like most, I was taught to put qualifiers on positives for modesty’s sake. I did feel like I should do it just to see if I could, though!

    Physical beauty is a bit different for me than smartness or character traits. I don’t believe I have control over how my body looks- the basic template of my height, coloring, bone structure, etc. are genetic and environmental. They are neither my fault nor to my credit. I’ve had my issues with weight, skin discolorations, stretch marks, and scarring over the years, but I’ve come to accept them as part of the package.

    My body positivity is really for four people on this planet- myself, my parents, and my partner. Myself because I live in it, my parents because they made said body and better like it, and my partner because if he doesn’t like it that would put a damper on some activities. My physical aesthetics aren’t for anyone else. Your beauty should be for you, not for me. No woman or man owes me his or her attractiveness.

  10. I think vanity & even selfishness are super fucking important, especially to women. We’re constantly taught to be critical & self-depreciating and to put others first… and it’s total bullshit! passionate self-love and egocentrism is just so liberating + empowering imo. love it.

  11. I love these thoughts, and can’t help but think of RuPaul’s quote, which is my life motto, “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” I’ve found in my own experience that if you don’t honestly love yourself, you project that lack of love onto other people, whereas when you truly like and care about the person you are, there is a great deal more room for grace when dealing with others.

  12. “Visibility matters” (as Cora commented) and at any age, I would add. At 56 I too am “still trying to figure out how to feel pretty without self-doubt and avoid an over-reliance on positive affirmation.” Especially because, quite frankly, much of the positive affirmation that comes the way of older women is of a very patronising nature. When you reach the “invisible age” it. is. really. hard. Wearing and making beautiful things still makes me feel beautiful though. They keep me “visible” too, even if I do notice the odd snide smile from someone younger.
    I look at my 18yr old daughter and desperately hope she is learning believe unashamedly in her total beauty. I felt I was almost there …but then the landscape changed. Vanity after 50 is a different mountain to climb than the one I climbed in my 20′s, 30′s and 40′s, but worth the effort none the less.

    A great post to think about, thank you!

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I definitely think that ‘feeling pretty’ can get even harder as you get older because beauty is so often associated with youth– which is silly. Even at my age (23) people talk about ‘anti-wrinkle’ creams like wrinkles are some sort of disaster. You can be beautiful at any age, and it’s not about ‘looking young.’

  13. When I do a photo shoot of a dress, I obsess over which photos I should post. How many are too many? Does the goofball super-happy shot that includes me swishing my skirt and showing off my crinoline make me look like a cheap vain fat bitch in denial? I try to have fun with it, but there are photo shoots I haven’t used because I don’t like how I look. On my Facebook page, I’ve decided to make an outtakes album for the bad focus shots, the derp faces, and the stupid hair disasters. But I also can’t stop looking at the blog photos because, for the first time ever, I see what other people see, and I don’t mind it. I have boob popover regularly – whatever. I make a goofy face to make myself laugh so I can get a real smile in the next shot – so what? I’m not always in position when the shutter clicks – what of it? I try to remember that there are people who want to be around me, and I give them a reason. I just need to see what that reason is. These photos help.

    I haven’t taken the leap of knickers shots yet. Just nursing bras. I’m not up to that yet, and I’m writing more on that soon. But, no, this dilemma isn’t something you’re making up. It’s real. I haven’t exactly shared the dickens out of my blog with folks I know yet; just the few who I knew agreed with me anyway. It takes time to accept oneself.

    And yeah, some people are going to think us vain and conceited. But they thought that about us before we started our blogs. We cannot win. We cannot hold out for universal popularity and still be happy with ourselves. We cannot love ourselves without pissing off the patriarchy and the misogynists and the women who wish they could do the same. We cannot be successful at ANYTHING without pissing those people off. Our most perfect and complete selves would have to be in utter thrall to those groups, and then they would hate us for that, and say we are weak. You could never win over the bigots due to your sexual orientation just like Treacle can never win over the racists, and I will never win over the people that insist that if you have large breasts, you must also be fat, stupid, or both.

    We cannot win these people over. Considering their views, why do I care to have them like me? Why do you? That’s not a flippant question, I’d really like you to think about it (although you needn’t answer here – the answer is for you, not for me).

    I’ve come to realize that I don’t really care what they think. I just need to start acting that part in real life. These photos are helping me get to be a better me. If anyone thinks I’m vain, so be it. I’m out of f*cks to give.

  14. This is so well addressed! I feel that even if we’re secretly vain or happy or even just content about our bodies / appearance we still have to project an image of self-deprication to the outer world. Or maybe for the male gaze? I don’t know.
    Cue that Mean Girls scene when they’re all in front of the mirror…
    “God. My hips are huge!”
    “Oh please. I hate my calves.”
    “At least you guys can wear halters. I’ve got man shoulders.”
    “My hairline is so weird. ”
    “My pores are huge.”
    “My nail beds suck.”

    “I have really bad breath in the morning..”

    We are told that putting ourselves down and being ‘faux humble’ will help us make friends, and its really messed up.

    Anyway, thanks for opening this line of discussion! I hadn’t really ever thought about it before and I’m glad I am now.

    • I would be lying if I said that the scene from mean girls didn’t occur to me as I was writing this! I’m glad you started thinking about this and I feel like it’s a great discussion to keep having :)

  15. I’ve found (this year) that when I feel bad about my body because I’m “too heavy” in some way I feel awful about myself, and when I feel awful about myself I eat more, and then I feel worse because not only am I “too heavy” but now I’m getting (theorectically) heavier because I’m eating more. This may be a familiar struggle for some, but it’s new to me.

    However when I change my outlook, and decide that I like me (I’m graduating with my bachelors degree, getting my masters, holding down two jobs, and doing different fun projects for myself) and feel proud of myself, outside of how I think others view me, I eat better, I exercise more, and I’m happier. Sometimes though changing that outlook isn’t as easy as listing those accomplishments to myself, and instead comes down to something like this “my thighs may be big but my waist is the SMALLEST OF WAISTS.” Maybe I don’t say this to the public, but a little bit of vanity does me a lot of good. Being proud of your body and being pleased that it’s pretty isn’t bad (addressing societies image of what is pretty and how that’s all sorts of wack is something I don’t want to touch on), and if it works for you and people think it’s vain then FUCK THEM.

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  18. I would really really love to see some outfit posts. As a femme lingerie loving lesbian myself, I would find it incredibly brave if you posted photos of yourself, and I would admire that bravery and feel bolstered by it and maybe others like me would also.
    I follow a gay girl on tumblr who posts photos of herself, not for any particular reason, and she constantly faces questions like “Why do you post selfies, do you think you’re that attractive?” (sans correct spelling and grammar as haters seem to have the written language skills of first-graders) and she just keeps posting them, and the amount of people who love it or are indifferent to it far outweigh any ‘You’re so vain’ comments. I think she’s fantastic for that.

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