Mirror Mirror on the wall, when did I get so damn vain?

Vanity is expensive. I discovered this a few years ago when I went to
visit my dermatologist for my annual skin cancer inspection. I had a
pimple at the time – one of those awful blind ones that take forever to
disappear and look like a mutant facial feature – and I was complaining
about it. “I can get rid of that right now if you like,” she said
casually, while glancing over a few harmless freckles.

It turns out, you can get this kind of zit injected with something or
other and it disappears instantly. Celebrities do it all the time. When
she worked in LA, my doctor and her colleagues would be urgently
summoned to movie sets and photo shoots to work their injectible magic.
The only downside is the price: about $100 per jab. Which is fine when
you’re Cameron Diaz, harder to justify when you’re not. Naturally, I
justified it. Cash gone. Zit gone.

Vanity can also be fickle. Clearly, I am vain. But it’s not a blanket
policy. I care how I look. I spend a disproportionate amount of my
income on attempts to look better – clothes, haircuts, eyebrow shaping.
And yet at other times, unexpectedly, my vanity vanishes. Pouf. Like
when I find myself at the fruit shop in my pyjama pants, old t-shirt,
no bra, hair unwashed, very Helena Bonham Carter*.

Are you becoming more or less vain as you get older? I put this question to a few friends this week and they all agreed that while aging throws up more invasive options for feeding the vanity monster (botox, boob lifts, hair transplants etc), your priorities change. Explained one: “I’m still vain, but when I was in my twenties vanity was all about being skinny. I enjoy food too much now to care about being that thin. These days waxing and blow-dries are my vanity indulgence. But I’m 41 and single so I have to look good. There are far too many younger, hotter women right behind me.”

For couples, your level of vanity around your partner is an effective way to measure the age of your relationship. Like ring-barking. Its fair to say relationship vanity peaks on your first date. Remember all that time spent primping, preening, plucking, sucking in stomachs and choosing nice undies? In those early stages, vanity can make women do some pretty out-there things. Like getting up really early and sneaking to the loo to apply a quick no-make-up look with, er, make-up. Or running the tap during toilet visits to disguise the sound of any bodily functions. Fast forward a few years and you’ll probably find that same woman sitting on that same toilet in full view of her partner who may be trimming nasal hairs or squeezing blackheads mere feet away. Perhaps familiarity or just plain time erodes vanity. So do other things.

This week I had dinner with a girlfriend who is heavily pregnant with her first baby, due next month. “I’m huge,” she announced matter-of-factly. “Oh no you’re not!” I countered supportively. “You’re beautiful!” “Mia, shut up,” she said, punching me in the shoulder, “I’ve put on 26 kilograms.” But there was no despair in her voice. She wasn’t fishing for compliments or seeking reassurance. All she was seeking was dessert, actually. Because despite ordinarily being one of the most innately stylish, image-conscious, exercise-happy women I know, right now she couldn’t give a toss. “Look, I’m so excited about this baby it’s just blown everything else away. I’ll probably care afterwards when I’m not pregnant, just fat, but right now it doesn’t matter.”


I usually remain fairly vain during my pregnancies but when it’s time to give birth? Well, then I go into vanity deficit. Both times, this was surprising to me. The first time, understandably because I’d not experienced the pain, I mean the joy, of childbirth before. Clearly that’s why I packed a black Collette Dinnigan dress to wear during labour and, you know, the pushing part.

Hell, I’d seen all those post-birth photos of exhausted women with stringy hair and blotchy faces in those hideous hospital gowns holding their new babies and smiling wearily for the camera. I wasn’t going to be like that. Just like a wedding photo, the  post-birth picture is an iconic one and dammit, I was going to look my best, or at least half decent. No bloody hospital gown for me – literally or figuratively.

Except that within minutes of arriving in the delivery ward, I was hugely nude and utterly devoid of all vanity and in fact all sense of decency. So consumed was I by the agony, I mean, joy, of labour, that I decided it would be perfectly fine to stagger naked and wailing down the public hospital corridor from the showers back to my room. Vanity shmanity. Fortunately for innocent by-standers, my husband was able to throw a large blanket around me just as I reached the door. Lucky it was large.

In the end, I was triumphant. There is no ugly hospital gown in my photo. Instead, I peer blissfully bleary-eyed into the camera, damp hair plastered to my head and an old hospital blanket preserving what’s left of my modesty. My vanity, fortunately, had left the building. 

*I used to think Helena Bonham Carter was vanity-free. How else to describe that get-up. Now I’ve realized she’s just barking mad. And that when she wakes up in the morning, her thought process goes something like this: “If I use a couple of bulldog clips, I can make this doona into a fetching strapless dress around which I can tie some thermal underwear as a belt, then throw a shower cap over my head, wrap some garbage bags around my feet and I’m good to go.” With considerable understatement, she admits, "I am so not Mrs. Style. I am not Sienna Miller or whoever. I’m the Antichrist of fashion."

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