In their excellent book The Narcissism Epidemic, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell (among many other things) discuss the symptoms of narcissism in America today. One of them is vanity, which they discuss in chapter 9. As one of part of this chapter suggests, “in pursuit of hotness” many people today do many things that were unheard of even 20 years ago. A few examples they give are teeth-whitening, botox, cosmetic surgeries, hair extensions, tanning spray, eyebrow shaping, mud wraps, day spas, lip waxing, male moisturizers, and fitness coaches (just to name a few). Why are people so obsessed with appearance?
One reason is to boost self-esteem. When asked why she tans, a high school girl said, “It makes me feel better about myself. Right now, the idea of skin cancer doesn’t concern me.” It goes as deep as parenting: some parents want their kids to look good so they help pay for tanning, cosmetic surgery, or other things listed above. After all, a parent will have his/her self-esteem boosted if his/her child looks hot.
Another reason is “the continuing juvenalization of our culture.” Not long ago it was OK to have grey hair and wrinkles: age demanded respect. Older women just a few years ago had no problem wearing clothes for older women. Today, however, in our world of image (TV and internet), older women (and men) are pressured to appear youthful. So we see 40- and 50-year-old women dress/act like 16-year-old girls (complete with sore thumbs from texting). On the other side of things, 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old girls try to look like 16-year-old girls as well! “Some twelve-year-olds get spray tans and eyebrow waxes,” Twenge and Campbell write, so
“It’s no coincidence that adolescence, the time of life that people of many ages now aspire to emulate, is also the peak of narcissism, and the peak time to concentrate on your appearance.”
I love one way the authors’ suggest we combat this vain side of narcissism.
“The easiest way to combat the trend toward excessive vanity is to start with our children. The idea that girls should start looking sexy at five – or even earlier – has entered the mainstream. It needs to exit. You can now buy high heels for newborn babies. They come in a ‘runway bag’ with a rhinestone clasp and are called ‘Heelarious,’ but a lot of people don’t think that sexy footwear on a 10-pound baby is funny. The people who make slutty clothes for eight-year-old girls will stop making them as soon as parents refuse to give in. Frank discussions about bodies are also a necessity with girls, who might wonder why so few real women look like the media ideal of very thin with large breasts. Teen girls need to know that surgery produced these results. The shallow values inherent in plastic surgery are another good topic for discussion.”
“…Keeping a close eye on the type and amount of media that children and teens consume is also important. The perfectly coiffed hair and surgically enhanced bodies so common on TV bear little resemblance to real life, even in a world where plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures have increased 450%. Too much media, and too much gazing at carefully chosen and even photoshopped pictures on Facebook, gives young people a warped view of normal appearance. Even adults can be swayed by what they see. … Overall, the world of magazines and TV can seduce us into a shallow worldview that undermines the invaluable, such as family, friends, and true learning.”
These are good things to think about (of course Twenge and Campell give more). As one person said (whom they quote), “The media portrays a world of surface shine with nothing but emptiness beneath…beautifully painted and clothed with an empty mind.”
As I mentioned before, this book is not a Christian book and is probably rated PG-13 or even R in some sections as the authors report their findings vividly. For a briefer but penetrating Christian view of the cult of youth, you must read Carl Trueman’s “Reckoning with the Past in an Anti-Historical Age” and “A Dangerous Gift for My Wife.” I’ll blog on those some other time.