Reflections on vanity

I’ve always been fascinated by vanity.

As a girl growing up with two brothers, I was perpetually ridiculed for any superficiality and overt fashion or makeup choices I made throughout my adolescent life.

There was the Goth phase, the preppy phase, the au naturel phase, the “I-don’t-care-what-people-think-even-though-I-do” rebellious phase and other experimental phases in which make-up would be applied to suit the vibe of the occasion.

Like many others, I’ve fallen victim to the seductive powers of Instagram.

I’m guilty of taking selfies, trying out various filters, coating on some bronzer to make it look like I was in Mexico over the weekend — you know the drill.

But why do we do it? Why do we waste time and energy deciding between the Lo-Fi or Mayfair filter? Is it so that others can express their approval with a ‘like’? Let’s cut to the chase here. Instagram is an application with the sole purpose of bettering our appearance through designated filters, lighting, and editing. It’s clearly not a reflection of how we truly appear.

All this got me thinking about make-up.

Doesn’t make-up do the same thing — better our appearance through a filter? Why do some of us feel a need to wear make-up every morning and alter our natural selves? What would it feel like to bare all and show our naked faces to the world?

I decided to find out. I conducted a social experiment in which I wouldn’t wear make-up or look in any mirrors for 48 hours.

Though I thought it would be a fun and liberating experience, it proved to be much more challenging than I originally anticipated.

Waking up in the morning and struggling to get up for my 8:30 class, I caught myself immediately stumbling towards my bedroom mirror.

I realized that, instinctively, the first thing I always wanted to do in the morning was look at myself. After avoiding the mirror, getting on with my morning routine felt very odd.

I couldn’t check for dark circles under my eyes or confirm that I didn’t fall asleep with pen marks on my face, which I genuinely worried about for the rest of the day. I couldn’t apply my usual daily make-up, so instead, I washed my face and I brushed my hair blindly hoping that it had turned out relatively normal-looking.

As I left the house, I immediately ran into multiple people I knew, and although nothing was overtly said about my appearance, I was definitely looked at slightly differently than normal.

That morning I got two “you look tired” greetings I could have done without and a double-take from a friend of mine. I immediately began to feel more self-conscious.

As the day went on, a feeling of paranoia grew heavier and heavier as I encountered more students on campus.

Did I really look that different? Did I look worse? Maybe I looked better? I definitely looked tired. They said I looked tired.

I felt disappointed in myself as I became steadily more conscious that I cared a lot more about my appearance than I had thought.

Prior to this experiment, I believed that this would be easy, that I was confident enough to go without any make-up and that I likely wouldn’t succumb to feelings of insecurity. I have to admit I was wrong.

Jess Bird, a professional make-up artist working in Kingston, said make-up can provide us with a certain confidence for various reasons.

“I’m very interested in our obsession with beauty and youth, I think girls learn from a young age that beauty is important in our culture,” Bird said.

“If you hide your flaws and enhance your features, you can change how the world sees you. Going out without makeup can show people you are usually wearing a mask.” Though Bird believes it’s important to go barefaced every once in a while, make-up has also done a lot for her confidence.

“I struggled a lot with acne growing up, so for me make-up helped me get out of bed and into social situations. I have recently tried going barefaced whenever possible,” she said.

“I must admit though it depends on my skin,” she said. Bird said she only feels the need to wear make-up when she has issues with the way her skin looks, but is very open to going natural if she’s comfortable enough to do it.

Not only was going without a ‘mask’ a little nerve-wracking for me, but not being able to look at myself in mirrors only increased feelings of insecurity. I had never wanted to look at myself in mirrors more. I realized there was a comfort that comes with looking in a mirror every once and a while, whether you’re checking your teeth for food or even just glancing at your reflection for a brief moment before going on with your day. I hadn’t realized how often we do this until it became taboo.

Day two of my experiment was surprisingly easier than the first. Although I had now gone 24 hours without any idea of how I looked, I had started to care less.

That morning I received the exact same looks from my peers, which I now perceived as entirely ordinary and that I must have overreacted to the day before.

I no longer felt an itch to fix my hair, a desire to look in mirrors or glimpse at my reflection in passing windows. When I was discussing the experiment with my housemates later that night, they claimed not to have even noticed that I hadn’t been wearing make-up for two days.

I now felt a bit ridiculous about having been so uncomfortable the day before and it showed me how influential our egocentric reflections are in affecting how we feel about ourselves.

I had thought I looked radically opposite to the made-up face I normally put on, when realistically, no one was scrutinizing my appearance or cared nearly as much as I assumed.

Julie James, ArtSci ’15, rarely wears make-up except for special occasions.

She said she views make-up not only as a tool to beautify, but also as a way to hide one’s true beauty.

“I have better things to do with my time than spend an hour in front of a mirror obsessing over parts of myself that I want to hide or change,” James said.

“My most attractive quality isn’t at surface level and can’t be seen, so I don’t feel like I need to cover anything up.”

She agrees that confidence is the most attractive quality in a person.

“I’m a big believer that someone is most attractive when they are comfortable, and that goes for both clothes and make-up,” she said.

There may be an evolutionary reason to why we wear make-up. In a June Psychology Today article by Concordia Marketing Professor Gad Saad, he explains that we use sex-specific products, such as cosmetics, as sexual signals.

A study indicates that make-up creates greater facial contrast, which affects how masculine or feminine someone’s face looks.

In general, female faces have greater facial contrast than male faces. Thus, the application of make-up highlights the sex differences in facial features.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, there’s evidence that evolution may play a part in why we choose to beautify our faces. Though at times make-up can make us feel more assured or confident and cover up what we perceive to be our flaws and imperfections, it can also obstruct one’s sense of self-confidence and ability to just be ourselves.

At the end of the day, the idea of beauty comes down to individual perspectives.

I learned from this experiment that the way I carried myself in social situations made me feel a lot better about myself than the amount of make-up I chose to wear everyday.

Once I became independent of and impartial to people’s opinions of my appearance, it didn’t matter how much make-up I did or didn’t wear. What did matter was how comfortable I felt with my appearance.

I’ll still wear make-up at times, take the occasional selfie and falter between Instagram filters. I have my insecurities too, just like everyone else.

We’re human and there’s no harm in a little vanity, just so long as we recognize it when we look in the mirror.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.