Vanity of Vanities

§   I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn.  §

Because I am and have always been a plain woman, I am usually meticulous about my grooming. Having no beauty to present to a judgmental world, I at least strive to present a tidy appearance. My hair, dyed these days to disguise the whitening roots, is colored with monotonous regularity; the roots are touched up between dye jobs. Peach fuzz on my upper lip and chin is removed weekly from my face. It’s rare for me to leave the house without at least lip gloss and mascara, and never without brushing my long hair into some semblance of order. In fact, the only time during the past two years when I have disregarded all these self-imposed rules was the dreadful winter morning when a friend called, begging help. Another of our group had awakened to find her beloved pet dog dead. Help was needed, and needed as quickly as possible. I hopped out of the shower to answer this early-morning distress call; only a few minutes later, having paused just long enough to run a towel over my sopping wet hair and throw the first clothes I could grab onto my body, I was speeding over ice-glazed roads to her home.

But dreadful events like that are rare. I can usually find, or at least make the time to present an orderly appearance. It’s my standing joke that, if I’m so ill that I haven’t at least gotten out of bed to put on clothes and brush my hair, it’s too late to call a doctor; call an undertaker.

I suppose that’s why I’m so often bewildered, not just by what I see as a lack of grooming as people go about their business in public, but by those of my own age group who seem, to put it bluntly, to have given up on giving a damn. Inch-long visible roots on women and grubby feet in flip-flops with chipped polish on their toes; men sporting chins thick with stubble and ripped, stained shirts…  I find myself ashamed, not of them, but for them. Why, I wonder, do they think so little of themselves, to present themselves to the world in so careless a manner?

Pride is a funny thing, though. I’ve been accused a few times of being quite vain, although that is, I feel, the furthest possible thing from the truth. I know that I have always been unbeautiful; now I am aging, as well. I have absolutely no vanity.

But I do have pride. That is why, looks aside, I always strive to be both neat and orderly, well-groomed and tidy. And since I also endure an on-going struggle with feelings of insecurity, I find in myself the need to always put my best face forward to a censorious world.

Standards of just what comprises that best face, though, do change. I recall my paternal Grandmother bemoaning the fact that dressing for church no longer meant a fine hat, pumps, and white gloves. In Grandma’s worldview, standards had undeniably slipped; I thought the lack of fuss refreshing. She would be utterly horrified by today’s come-as-you-are churches, where I have even seen young people arrive in pajama pants. (“Well,” I’ve sighed, explaining this phenomenon to my Grandmother’s shade, sitting there beside me in that pew, shaking her head in disgust. “Well, Gramma, at least they showed up.” )

But now, looking at my own attitudes through the lens of time, I wonder if I have not become my Grandmother. Are the strictures, I put myself through, the grooming I require of myself, really necessary? I no longer attend a church, but I certainly wouldn’t be arriving for services in pajama pants and a tank top. Long after most women had given up pantyhose, I still wore them, knowing that my tan-less legs look a helluva lot better when encased in nylons (and my stockinged feet felt a lot more comfortable in my shoes, too). But my other personal rules about appearance: Are they truly necessary? Am I lying to myself when I claim that I am not vain, but merely proud and insecure?

Perhaps my answer lies in something that happened when my mother died. As Dad and I chose clothing for her body to be dressed in prior to cremation, he objected as I dug through her mounds shoes for heels that matched the dress I’d chosen.

“It’s not like she’s going to be walking anywhere!” he protested.

“I am not sending my mother into the afterlife without proper shoes on her feet!” I retorted.

Standards of appearance. Pride or vanity or insecurity, it does not matter. I adhere to them, hold myself to them, even in the face of that final appearance in this world.