Vanity. Is it a matter of survival?

I am making a photo montage for our Family Gallery, something I enjoy and consider time well spent. This one is all about my husband and me over our years together.

This morning my husband asked me to remove an 80s photo of him in which he’s wearing tracksuit and white trainers. His reason – he doesn’t want to be reminded that he wore white trainers. I told him he was vain, and he agreed. We laughed about it and later he said it was OK to leave it.

It got me thinking

The montage had photos of me carrying loads more weight than I ever thought possible. Years of mental health medication had put stones on me – upwards of 50 lbs, or 22 kg – call it what you will, it’s a hell of a lot of weight. In some I stare blankly, cheek by jowl with others of me smiling, taking an interest, being involved with life. But that was me, and it was OK.

Next thoughts went to our sons, now in their forties and still preening their hair to face the world. Whenever they visit there are pots, bottles, pumps of gunk that appear in the bathroom. They both scrub up well and always look immaculate, but their need for this preening seems almost obsessive.

The word ‘preen’ extended my thought process. Preening is central to avian species. They engage in it routinely to keep their plumage well-maintained, but also during courtship when birds may preen each other. Prior to this stage the male will already have made himself more attractive, more of a catch, by upping his game on the appearance front. Colours enhance, and fluffed up plumage gives an appearance of greater size. Along with more complicated songs or elaborately constructed nests, these fellas pull out all the stops.

Then my mind was on animals…

On vanity

Males of many species (it could be all but I don’t know) up their game on the looks stakes prior to getting a mate. Mating in the animal world is for procreation and the continuation of their species. Not vanity then, but an innate behaviour with a specific purpose.

Extrapolating this to human behaviour, do we have a pride in our appearance not because of vanity but because of this innate need to continue the species?

Thinking of people I have known, the men with no desire to have children also showed no particular desire to appear sexually attractive. These are not men who don’t want a female partner, but who don’t want a broody female, seeking out those who will nurture them. This included family members, personal friends, my parent’s friends. There are others who may put on a bit of a show to attract a female but once the quarry is bagged all effort stops. A WYSIWYG attitude. I worked with a chap who was grossly overweight, ate what he pleased and had no plans to change. Reason he gave: I’ve got a wife; I don’t need to make an effort anymore.

Does vanity have its place

Vanity is hardly a Deadly Sin, just another aspect of human behaviour that we have little control over. We eat, sleep, move, communicate, for many reasons. When we dress each day it may be because of convention, or to regulate temperature, or for protection, but also to make subtle (or not so subtle) changes to the way we appear to the world. The bottom line? Maybe it’s just to keep our species going.

Vanity. Bring it on.

NB: These are my personal views and I’ve considered ‘Vanity’ with respect to heterosexual men and women. I do not know enough about individuals who identify other- wise and I have no desire to appear arrogant in assuming that I do. Neither can I comment on other ethnic groups, nor other religions. I hope you still find my premise interesting if specific.