I’m a shockingly vain person. I don’t want to be, exactly. It comes along with the eating disorder.
The only started thinking about it recently. It’s hard to square vanity with self-hatred but an eating disorder shows it’s possible to exhibit both simultaneously.
Eating disorders are many things. Self-love is not one of them.
Vanity is excessive pride in or admiration of one’s appearance or achievements. Although I hated myself to a level that is difficult to articulate when I was deep in my eating disorder, I also had pride, hidden underneath.
Pride in the depths to which I was willing to go, perhaps. Look what I can do. A sense of smug superiority over everyone else who didn’t have the self-control, the drive. Casually disclaiming your small stature while making sure you point it out. That’s vanity.
That’s the dirty little eating disorder we don’t like to talk about.
Of course, I was vain. A solid some percent of the time. Often it showed up as a pushback against thoughts of quitting, of getting help, of breaking free. It’s like trying to quit the gym. The eating disorder acts polite, argues her case. She shows you how far you’ve come, how close you are – look at those ribs! – do you really want to quit now, when you’re almost perfect?
I’ve had doctors tell me I don’t see myself clearly. For instance, I do very poorly at the “rank yourself in context with these other people” game. So, they’re correct, in a sense. But they are only correct some of the time. Other times, I’d see myself clearly indeed. They seemed to think I didn’t see the bones. I did. I was proud of them, even as I feigned concern, even as I pretended I couldn’t.
At the same time, I could look in the mirror and see nothing but fat and flesh, nothing to engender even the tiniest speck of vanity. The profile I’d been admiring for its narrowness only seconds before was now superseded by my eating disorder’s focus on legs she insisted needed serious work.
Vain and filled with self-loathing nearly simultaneously.
I still lust over the emaciation of fifteen pounds ago. It’s hard to let go of that; I’ve pined after perfection for decades. And yet, though the body analysis and desperate vanity are still there, it’s different. I’m less emotionally connected when I check now. There’s an emergent ability to shrug and say “oh well”, at least some of the time.
I no longer race to put in an hour on the elliptical while stripping my diet down to mostly lettuce because of a bit of flesh.
And yet, we need a level of vanity to care enough to engage in the necessaries of self-care.
Definitely my new favourite sin. I can still be vain. I just have to be healthy about it.
“healthy vanity is taking a healthy interest in what you look like…to ensure maximal health and vitality.” *
I’ve had a hard time believing this in my bones: that it’s okay to take care of yourself and take pride in the results. That taking care of yourself is a good thing, even if your eating disorder is displeased with the level of thin.
Coming to believe I’m entitled to certain things, like nice shampoo, a new lip stain, a manicure, or a new pair of boots while I’m imperfect has been a hard slog. Even now, doing self-indulgent things “just because” makes me feel a little bit like I’m getting away with something immoral.
I started with skincare. This was particularly challenging considering the struggles I’ve had with my face. The scars and nerve damage causes distress. I prefer not to look. Which makes skincare routines challenging.
Plus, I have wrinkles where I didn’t use to have wrinkles and softness in places that used to be firm. In this case, healthy vanity and the more traditional kind collide.
Healthy vanity is about more than your surface appearance. Healthy vanity benefits the soul. The eating disorder-related vanity didn’t even know I had one.
“[Healthy vanity is] the desire to look and feel your best. Healthy vanity inspires you to seek out ways to better your beauty and body.” *
“Better” is an important word. Healthy vanity is about being better. It’s about improvement, about taking care of yourself. Unhealthy vanity is about perfection. It’s about judgement, self-criticism.
The extreme vanity that comes with an eating disorder is bad, requiring as it does extreme self-harm. Swinging completely the other way and neglecting our appearance is also negative, and can have unwanted effects on our emotional and physical health.
It’s a good thing. *
*The Devil’s Advocate. Burbank, California. Warner Home Video, 1998.
*Ask Dr. Kurt. The Concept of Healthy Vanity. August 8, 2016.
*Jolene Hart. Beauty is Wellness. Eat Pretty Vocabulary: Healthy Vanity. March 13, 2014.
*I should probably credit Martha Stewart.