In 1972, years before my arrival on this planet, Carly Simon called out a mystery man, proclaiming, in front of the entire musical world that that he was so vain he probably thought her hit song was all about him and his apricot scarf.
Vanity. Now, just like it did four decades ago, the word carries a pretty strong negative connotation.
But, I think vanity gets a bit of a bad rap. It’s like the middle school-er who had a bratty older sibling and the teachers steel themselves for the next kid in line, wary of what is coming their way. It’s reputation, fair or not, proceeds it. Yes, there are extremes that deserve the negative connotation. We can all think of someone so full of themselves that they can’t see anyone beyond the reflection in the mirror and we’ve all been subject to the rambling of that person who knows everything, has done everything and wants us to hear all about it.
Boatloads of vanity might be too much, but a bucketful or two isn’t so bad. For example, having just enough pride to not go to the grocery store in your pajama pants and slippers is okay. (Wear a baggy sweater with your hair in a ponytail, but for heaven’s sake, put on some pants that don’t have an elastic waist and some shoes that aren’t made for old ladies with poor circulation!)
Until a few years ago, I would not have claimed vanity as a character trait. While it is true I am not willing to leave the house without a bit of make-up (just some foundation, a swirl of blush and a swipe of mascara), I have no need to be dolled up for a quick run to the gas station or drug store. (Okay, I don’t actually go to the gas station or a drug store anymore, but you get the idea.) My vision of myself changed drastically though, when I realized I put more stock in my appearance that I had previously thought.
This realization came about during my first year living in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Stationed in rural western China, I was cut-off from most things “western,” but I still craved some American indulgences, like having my hair highlighted. After almost a year in the country, as I faced a huge summer commitment of helping to plan/execute a summer training program for Chinese teachers, I thought it would be great to go to the conference with fresh highlights. After checking with every salon in my small Gansu town, I settled on a stylist who insisted he knew about and had worked on blonde hair. He claimed to have worked in Xi’An, which doesn’t have a huge ex-pat population, but enough to make his story credible. With the help of a student, I described what I wanted and he seemed to understand the plan. Well, he didn’t. Rather than a few highlights, I ended up with a fully bleached head of hair. Glowing white barely begins to describe the look I walked out of his salon with. That morning, I would have told you a bad hair job wasn’t that big of a deal, as it was just hair and would grow out. Walking down the street looking like I had been exposed to deadly levels of radiation, I was singing a different tune.
Vanity. I had as much of it as the hair stylist had bleach.
Fast forward a few years. I’m back in China, this time with the Foreign Service. Well aware of the lack of good western hair stylists available in this part of the country, I’ve strategically planned salon-time into my schedule, having my hair done during a training in Bangkok and during R& R in Idaho.
But, that doesn’t cover another area of weekly vanity- my fingernails. For years, they’ve been the benefactors of a Sunday night paint job. Each week, I re-lacquer them with different colors/designs. Can nail painting be a hobby? (I hear Pintrest says yes, although they call it “nail art.” I’m not sure what I do counts as art, but I do spend enough time I should be able to list it under hobbies on my next job application!)
All was well and good until last spring when my ring finger nail suddenly developed a weird coloring and the nail became detached from the nail bed. Since I never go to salons, always doing my nails myself, I decided just to keep an eye on it, as it couldn’t be some creepy, flesh-eating bacteria. Which I did. And I watched as it didn’t get any better. And then I watched as whatever the mystery-problem was jumped to the ring finger on my other hand. And then I watched as nothing changed- either better or worse. Eventually, I went to our consulate nurse, who recommended I see a dermatologist while I was home this winter.
Which I did.
At the doctor’s office, after he examined both my fingernails and toenails (I did not see the toenail inspection coming, so I was mortified as I had to present him with my six-week old Marine Ball pedicure that was looking more like a post-boot camp pedicure by that point), the doctor told me that I wasn’t going to like what he had to say. I steeled myself for a ban on fingernail painting. I figured it would only extend to the two ring fingers, so I was already plotting cute manicures to work around the nude nails. As I daydreamed of polka-dots and stripes, he announced that he was going to cut my nails off. I whipped my head around faster than Willow Smith, nearly falling off the examining table.
Regaining balance, physical, if not mental, I asked when we would be setting up that appointment for. Glancing down at the sharp clippers in his hand, I realized there would be no second appointment. I was losing my nails right then and there.
With some clipping and less pain than I had anticipated, I walked out of the office half an hour later with two gnarly ring fingernails.
Trying to see the nail polish bottle as half full rather than half empty, I’ve decided that rather than lamenting my lack of nails, I’ll just think of this as a time-saving procedure. As I continue my weekly ritual of Sunday night manicures, I’m now 20% more efficient! Rather than having ten fingers to decorate, I’ve only got eight. Maybe I can use those few extra minutes to solve the problems plaguing the world: hunger, disease and war. If that doesn’t happen, at least I can use that precious time to update my Facebook, check my blog stats and watch Carly Simon’s clouds swirl in my coffee.