One needs only to burn their bicep with a curling iron to begin thinking of vanity.

It was Sunday. I want to write that I was rushed, that the burn was a byproduct of a frenzied morning and a failed attempt in multi-tasking, but the truth is that my mind was elsewhere and my reflexes are slow, and now there is a purplish-reddish Illinois on my upper arm.

When I survey the many hours I have collected in front of the bathroom mirror – blow-drying, plucking, moisturizing, brushing, applying, removing and styling, it makes me weary. Even in keeping a relatively low maintenance beauty routine, the math is staggering: thirty minutes daily, for thirty plus years, let me pull up the calculator… no, this math cannot be true:

5,475 hours.

And I wonder why I have not yet found the time to take up the piano.

But oh, I love to look pretty. I love to feel seen, to improve, to appear transformed with a brush and some cream. Before and after. Made over. Put together.

My grandmother used to call it this, put together. “You’ll want to look put together, young lady.” As if we were broken and needed reconfigured, as if we were not yet one, not yet together, not yet whole prior to the applying of the lipstick, the detangling of the curls.

Of course we are not whole, of course we are not complete, of course we are terribly broken. A dab of concealer will not fix it.

But I still try.

What is it about concealing that makes us feel better, that makes us assume we are putting our best face forward? What is it about the clothing we don – the uniforms we create – that scream we are individuals when we are, in fact, camouflaging ourselves into another?

I do not know the solution. I know only that I’m over-thinking it, yes.

Or perhaps I have been under-thinking it for far too long.

  • so I only did the math because I was curious about my own number, definitely not to correct or point it out. and, while your point is still a great one and I’m still mulling it over, it looks like maybe (hopefully??), that daunting figure is the number of minutes. and maybe it’s just 5,475 hours that we’ve lost. still reason enough I haven’t perfected that piano habit…

    • Haaaaa oh good gracious, you are so right. Thank you! Math is clearly not a strong suit. ;)

  • I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about getting dressed that makes me feel ready for the day. For me, this generally means getting dressed and fixing my hair — another weird phrase — as I don’t tend to do makeup unless it’s a special occasion. Perhaps it’s the accumulation of having done this most mornings of my life thus far?

  • I think about this often as a teacher at an all-girls’ high school. In my own life, I don’t wear make-up and try to spend little time on my hair and clothes. I ask my students to think about why we do all of this- the constant trying on of clothes, the practicing of eye makeup, the careful placement of errant hairs. Is it really for ourselves? However, at the same time, I know I find myself looking at other women and admire how “put together” they look, even often feeling inferior. It’s such a tough thing!

    • It is – I can’t get to the bottom of it. I certainly feel better when “put together,” but I don’t like that I do. ;)

  • Erin, thank you, as always, for sharing your beautiful thoughts through your inspiring writing. I look forward to these every time!

  • I’ve thought about this a lot in recent months. A sudden and pretty severe struggle with adult acne over the last couple years left me feeling like I MUST spend quite a lot of time “putting on my face” (ha — there are so many great phrases) before being seen. I reflected on this quite a bit and have tried to come to peace with this just, you know, being my face for now (even as I am in the process of treating it) and that it’s okay sometimes to be seen as I am. But it’s not easy (complicating matters is the fact that I live in China, where it’s culturally appropriate for everyone to comment on your features/skin/zits and ask what’s the matter with you and are you okay because did you realize you have giant pimples all over your face?).

    Even now though as my skin has cleared up some, it’s hard to find a balance between just getting ready and looking nice (makeup and hair can be a fun creative outlet!) and RELYING on those things for security and image. I love the question you posed — what is it about these things that makes us feel we are putting our best face forward? People see our face and hair and clothes for an instant, but what makes a lasting impression is our attitude, our love toward them, our words and actions in their presence. I was convicted several months ago by a really familiar passage that seemed to suddenly have new life: “Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of old jewelry, or the clothing you wear — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” I think the thrust being not that we can’t do our hair or wear fun clothes, but that these aren’t to be the MAIN way we represent ourselves, our primary source of beauty. So challenging.

    Funny that this post originated with a curling iron burn…I have a nasty curling wand burn myself on my forearm that’s just now starting to heal. Sigh :)

    • Ha, I love this note, Amanda, and goodness, you’re right – the cultural appropriate comments in China could certainly sting! I do rest easy knowing that, even with a breakout, most people ignore it. ;)

      Thank you for your sweet, introspective comment! Good luck with that burn. ;)

      Also, completely unrelated, but I LOVE this system for adult acne:

      It seems too good to be true, but it did the trick for me. ;) Any time I steer from the regimen, my skin freaks out!

  • I am vain. I admit it and accept it about myself. I have gotten more vain as I get older. I like the way I look when I dress the way I like and have make up on the way I like. I don’t feel bad about it. After I had my baby 15 months ago I had a very hard time. I had a traumatic birth, I had to go back in the hospital, I took forever to heal and my baby was so all consuming. Staying home with him for 4 months was hard. I am not cut out mentally to be a stay at home mom. But everyday during his first nap I made the bed, showered, got dressed and put on makeup. It made me feel better and it made me feel like myself. And I don’t do it for other people. I don’t care what they think. I do it to express myself, my autonomy and my beauty. I am a very intelligent person and I think people are sometimes surprised that I love fashion so much. But to me it is art and self expression and guilt free. Self examination is great. That is why I LOVE your blog but sometimes we just have to say. I am like x. *shrug*

    • Hi Laura:

      I love that it is guilt free for you! Art and self expression are lovely practices. ;) And I hear you – it’s a struggle for some and not others. I’m still deciding where I fall on the fence. ;)

  • I turned 50 this year, and I spend so much less time “primping” than I used to. Like you, I realize that even being fairly “low maintenance” takes time. I look back and shake my head at the hours I spent lying in the sun trying to get a tan, for example. What a wasted effort! My skin never tanned, and there were so many other things I could have been doing. Why couldn’t I have learned to embrace my pale skin all those years ago? At least I did it at some point. Also, gone are the days of perms and hair coloring, except for the occasional (every few years?) henna application. Will I stay this way when my hair turns grey? Thought provoking post. Thanks! :)

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