Vain Motivation
August 5th, 2011

I understand that as a general rule vanity is a bad thing.  It leads to shallowness and superficiality.  It begs us to care more about appearances than substance, both in ourselves and in other people.  However, I would wager that we all have at least a streak of it.

If you had a cup of coffee with my mother and asked her about me as a little girl I would put money on the likelihood of her telling you the story of my purple jumper.  It was corduroy and bright grape in color.  Apparently I was a big fan of it because when I stood in front of a full length mirror the words that spilled forth from my mouth were an unabashed,  “I so pretty!”  (This was evidently before I got the hang of verbs.)  I cannot tell you how many times that moment has been quoted.  And while I have gotten much more discrete in expressing my vanities over time, I still have the same penchant today for looking in the mirror and being happy with what I see.  I think we all do.

It is a commonly held belief that when we look good we feel good.  I’m no psychologist, but the annecdotal evidence of my own life tells me this premise is true.  When the haircut is new, and the makeup is fresh, and the shoes are just right, and the scales tell us what we want to hear we pretty much feel like we can conquer the world.  Or at least that particular day.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of our character or the state of our general health.  Yet I still say it matters.  And that is why I was a bit dismayed to read Ramona Braganza’s article on The Huffington Post telling me that I shouldn’t aim for a “Hollywood body.”  She writes:

What I can tell you, though, is that the key to successful weight-loss and toning is choosing the right motivation. When [celebrities] train they not only do it for their images and their careers, they do it for a greater motivation: They do it for themselves. [Jessica Alba] trains for her health knowing osteoporosis runs in her family. Halle [Berry] trains to keep her diabetes under control. … The right motivation is health-driven — not image-driven.

I understand Braganza’s premise.  For starters, most of us will never look like Halle Berry or Jessica Alba (or Matt Damon or Ryan Reynolds, if you’re a man).  So making a spcific person’s figure your end goal is almost guaranteed to end in disappointment.  Also, we have to want better bodies for ourselves.  We should want them so that we can chase our kids around, or enjoy puttering around our gardens, or carry our grandkids up a flight of stairs.  Of course we should want those things most.  But I’m here to cast a second vote in favor of old-fashioned vanity.

If looking at a picture of a perfectly toned celebrity helps me get myself to the gym after a long day at work, what’s the harm in that?  If the satisfaction of getting back into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe will help me make healthy choices when I sit down to a meal, why is that a problem?  If I floss my teeth each night, remove every speck of makeup before bed, exfoliate once a week, exercise regularly, monitor my diet, drink eight glasses of water a day, and sleep eight hours a night just for the satisfaction of looking into the mirror and seeing white teeth, glowing skin, toned muscles, and a well-rested face why can’t that be good enough?

I’ve been on a bit of a Kate Middleton kick lately. I find myself inspired by her lean physique and classic sense of style.  I know that I will never be 5′ 10″ tall.  I will never have her thick, lustrous curls cascading down my back.  And  I will never (woe is me) have a British accent.  Nevertheless, why shouldn’t I take that inspiration and use it for my own benefit?  I know my own limitations and have no intention of making myself miserable trying to become something I can never be.  But aspiration is an incredibly powerful motivator, and I take exception to Ms. Braganza’s premise that it shouldn’t be allowed to factor into our own process of making healthy decisions.

Being the best version of myself certainly requires attention to more than just my appearance.  And we should all be wary of the day that what’s within us begins to matter less than what’s on the surface.  But staying healthy is hard work, and if a little vanity helps us over the hump, then I say bring on the full-length mirror!

10 Responses to “Vain Motivation”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’d kill for a British accent, too.

  2. Ana Says:

    I agree with you, that wanting to look & feel good is a powerful motivator for healthy living. But it needs to be more about looking/feeling YOUR best, not trying to reach some celebrity ideal. If THAT is the motivation, a person will invariably be disappointed & disheartened—leading either to giving up, or more & more extreme measures (excessive diet/exercise, plastic surgery).
    So, in general I agree that aspiring to have a celebrity’s personal-trained & airbrushed body/looks is not the best way to go about improving your lifestyle.

    However, like you, I completely disagree with Ms Braganza’s argument that the only motivation should be “health” (and her examples for “health” are not about general well-being, but specific diseases, that most people do not have). Health is such an intangible thing, and adverse health consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle are much more longterm, and thus hard to imagine for most people. I work with many obese kids/teens in my career (health care), and I see how little it means to them when I talk about diabetes risk factors & early heart attacks. It is drilled into us NOT to mention looks, because we don’t want to foster poor body image, so I’m always saying “it doesn’t matter what you look like, we just want you to be healthy”—and that is 100% true, but I wonder if there is a more gentle way to broach the idea that if the kids stick to a diet/exercise regimen they will start to see positive physical changes to the OUTSIDE as well as the inside of their bodies. I really think that short-term, outwardly obvious rewards are much more effective to the invincible and quite vanity-focused teen mind.

    For myself, I know that the promise of seeing my legs tone up after running regularly for a few weeks, and knowing that my arms look better in tank tops after lifting weights for a couple of months is a really strong incentive to re-start my long-abandoned workout regimen post-baby. On the other hand, if I think my belly is ever going to be as flat as Angelina Jolie’s after 2 big babies in my 30s, I’m going to be sorely disappointed, so I am trying to focus on the things that ARE within reach!

  3. Laura H. Says:

    Looking at pictures of celebrities seems like an unhealthy thing to do, even if it does get someone to the gym. First, I am sure you read about the recent banning of L’Oreal ads in the UK because of the photoshopping done on Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington. So those body images many of use to motivate us are unattainable even by Julia Roberts and Christy Turlington! Then there’s the plastic surgery celebrities…if I’m not willing to have plastic surgery, why would I look at picture of Halle Berry for motivation? Sure she eats healthy and exercises to maintain that body, but she also wouldn’t have that body if it weren’t for plastic surgery.

    I am currently a reader of only two blogs – yours and one other of a sorority sister. That blog is about desiring God in the midst of motherhood. In it she has discussed her own struggle with an eating disorder (so brave to put out there!) and that she looks to her own worth to make sure she is healthy in her eating and exercise habits now. She discovered her worthiness through God – loving herself because God loves her, and caring for her body because it is God’s creation. This may not be the road to discovering worthiness for all of us, but it seems a lot healthier than the photo of a celebrity that has been airbrushed or of a celebrity who has had plastic surgery.

    What does it teach our children to see us motivated by vanity versus something purer like our own health or God?

  4. Lori Says:

    I’m going to comment on this topic as a middle school teacher (since I had the extreme pleasure of doing just that for 7 years before I had my own son.)

    Many conversations we had behind closed doors about our students, especially female students) were full of concern because at the ripe old age of 11 or 12, these girls were “on diets” so they said. They had pictures of celebrities plastered all over their binders and lockers and would consequently feel the need to eat only a fruit roll up, or split a cookie with a friend and call that lunch. We also saw a lot of kids have a small frappucino from Starbucks for breakfast?!?! If you have been around that wonderful age (and I say that with completely genuine- I LOVE that age) you know that they are brutally honest with you if they trust you. Girls would say again and again how they wanted to look like _________ and would idolize that body image overtly on their personal belongings. They had friends that were skinnier than them, or some one had a boyfriend because she was skinny…

    Then their parents would come in for parent/teacher conferences and some of them also looked as though they were trying to look like all of those people who are airbrushed, have plastic surgery, etc. Either that, or they were the complete opposite carrying extra unhealthy weight.

    I have NO problem with taking care of yourself to be healthy, but after watching so many young girls potentially affecting the development of their body I feel pretty strongly about this topic. There has to be some kind of middle ground. You naturally a role model to children you come in contact with, not just your own children or family members. I believe we need to do a better job of “advertising” why we take care of ourselves and do our very best to take celebrities, or other people who are made to be better than the rest of us, out of the picture. I try to be healthy and active so I feel good and can (now) keep up with my two boys, but teaching made me really open my eyes on the effect that society and the media’s emphasis on vanity has on kids that have NO idea how important it is to be healthy…not just skinny.

  5. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I suspect you already know my feelings on this – or somewhat. We (women especially) hold ourselves to ridiculous standards in this country – and have for 40 years, certainly. Media influences (and now prevalence of cosmetic surgery) have made this so much worse.


    Yes – a bit of healthy self-interest in appearance seems reasonable (and “a bit” is subjective I realize). But it’s healthy self-interest and healthy vanity – because we all feel better when we believe we look put together.

    But we’ve gone so overboard in this country. I worry for all of us. For the values we seem to be losing, at every turn.

  6. Gale Says:

    Laura H – Perhaps I should have clarified myself better. Yes. We have to value ourselves fundamentally first. We have to want health for the sake of health. I didn’t mean to undermine any of that, and I tried to convey that when I wrote, “…we have to want better bodies for ourselves.” And I absolutely agree with you that much of what we see in celebrities is unattainable. I meant to convey that when I wrote “… making a spcific person’s figure your end goal is almost guaranteed to end in disappointment,” and “I know my own limitations and have no intention of making myself miserable trying to become something I can never be.” So yes, you have to have a foundation of self-worth, and an awareness of the impossibility of what we often see in celebrities before you can safely travel down this road. I spent many years of my own adolescence aspiring to achieve an appearance I was never meant to have and I whittled myself down into the danger zone in that pursuit. I understand what’s at risk there.

    But I was trying to make a different argument, based on the premise that our self-worth is well established and our understanding of celebrities’ appearances is not uninformed. Given those two things, I think you can still use vanity to your own advantage. For me vanity is often inspired by people I see in the media, but it doesn’t have to be. As Ana suggests there can be value in being motivated by positive physical changes on the outside of our bodies as well as the inside. We could merely be motivated by improving our own skin, or losing a single inch from our waist or hips, or zipping up a dress that has been too tight for a couple of years. Those goals are appearance-based and their realization can be spurred on by a small but healthy dose of vanity. Being motivated by vanity doesn’t mean that we believe we are worthless until we look like Angelina Jolie. Certainly in some slippery slope circumstances that is a risk, but I believe that there is a lot of middle ground to cover before a person gets to that point.

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful feedback!

  7. Gale Says:

    Lori – To piggy-back off of the response I left for Laura H, I think you’re right if you’re talking about adolescent girls. But I wasn’t. I was talking about myself as a grown woman who is confident in herself, and about other women who fit this description. Somehow I have inadvertently painted this as an all-or-nothing picture, and it isn’t. Seeing an image of someone with an enviable figure might prompt me to get to the gym when I was thinking about skipping my workout. It doesn’t prompt me to lose all sense of self until I get into double digits. For anyone whose self worth is staked in appearances, there are bigger issues at hand that must be addressed first.

    As for the example we set for our kids, the things that motivate us privately and the way we talk about them as parents don’t always have to be exactly the same. Naturally I have to actually value health, not just appearances, in order to set an honest example of what motivates me to eat well and exercise. But if I am also privately motivated by appearences (in addition to my value of good health) I don’t think there’s any harm or shame in that. As I said in my post, I have no intention of making myself miserable trying to become something I can’t be. I know my limits. And as long as those things remain true, I believe I can be motivated by the desire to look good without compromising the values I set for my family.

  8. Gale Says:

    As I was driving home from work I had another thought which I sort of alluded to in my original post, but wanted to reiterate here. I think we ALL have some measure of vanity. Have you ever colored your hair? Have you ever worn makeup? Have you ever put on a baseball cap because you were having a bad hair day? Have you ever asked some permutation of the question, “Does this make me look fat?” These are pretty universal experiences for most women living in developed countries. And they are all functions of vanity at some level. I can’t remember the last time I looked in the mirror and said to myself, “Well, I look like a wreck, but boy my bone density is top notch!” We care about how we look, truly we do. And if that is the case then why not leverage that vanity into a motivator to make healthy decisions? I’m not saying it’s the only motivator or the biggest motivator, just one in a list of motivators. I’m saying it can play a role without disrupting everything else we stand for. We are motivated by many things in our lives, and if vanity shows up somewhere on the list, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

  9. e Says:

    I agree that some vanity exists in just about everyone of us. It may be nothing more than looking in the mirror and realizing the blue of your shirt brings out the blue in your eyes…..and the next time you shop, considering that when contemplating a purchase. Perhaps this blog hit a personal spot for some of us and we reacted more to the concept of “Hollywood bodies” than to striving to be healthy. I hope I never give up my desire to be healthy…..not even when I’m 93. Chances are good that I won’t be looking at a 93 year old actress (but then again Cher might still be around making me look bad) for inspiration….but I’ll probably be looking to something like “not wanting to embarrass my children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren” by my looks so in some weird way…..vanity will still play a role.

  10. Kathryn at Good Life Road Says:

    Interesting post – I agree I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with being inspired by someone else’s great body or stylish way of dressing. As animals looking for “role models” is part of our DNA. It’s how we learn. And frankly as a culture haven’t we just shot right past the idea of being healthy for healthy sake? I mean really. We have been force fed images that are purposely made to make us yearn for things so clearly sometimes the look of the person will be our motivator. Let’s just hope the body we are admiring really is a healthy goal for us (underage models comes to mind). I worry about this for all little girls in a world that so closely monitors and judges female looks. I do think vanity, caring about the way we look is a sign of psychological health though, it’s there to support the organism (life).