There’s a reason vanity means both “excessive pride” as well as “something worthless, trivial, or pointless.” Most of the things we feel excessively proud of are also things we secretly fear are worthless. Or perhaps we worry that the things we are excessively proud of do not sufficiently balance out our Secret Fears and Flaws. I spend a lot of time pinging the world to see if it will echo back to me those words I long to hear:
I am British, after all. Every once in a while, I just like to know that I’m doing okay.
For me, vanity is a sleight-of-hand act: I try to distract everyone from all my Secret Fears and Flaws, with self-effacing humor. I provide a huge display of Acceptable Achievements to keep you from noticing the man behind the curtain who is not so sure that they are really achievements at all.
Desperate to believe that my “life choices” (bleh) have been good ones, I embrace them a little too tightly, declare them a little too loudly. (Look at me! See what I’m doing! Isn’t it a good thing I’m doing that?) Desperate to believe that my future remains unwritten, I engage in activities I think are (and, perhaps more importantly, that I suspect you might also think are) adventurous, spontaneous, perhaps even a little crazy. This makes up for the fact that I have very little true permanence or stability in my life: what better way to cope with that Secret Fears and Flaws than to transform them into choices? (I’m too kooky to have a stable life. Look at me go! Whee!)
Friends with children have admitted to equivalent tactics but for opposite reasons: I may be in the family way now, but that doesn’t mean I’m any less exciting. Watch me do these crazy things (sometimes with my crazy kids). Whee!
I hate to admit vanity because I try really hard to cultivate an I-don’t-care-how-I-look persona. But let’s face it: that, too, is a “look,” right? My look—like any fashion statement—announces something about who I believe I am or who I want you to believe I am. But my fashion “statement” ends up sounding something like, “I don’t abide by traditional standards of female beauty because I consider wit, intelligence, creativity, and kindness more important, but for God’s sake please stop looking at the gaps between my teeth, my obscenely large pores, my frown lines, and all the gray hairs that have sprouted in the past year?”
I am turning 40 this year. When I told my therapist this, she gasped and said, “Oh dear.” Apparently, some people have issues with 40. This seems silly. To cite a cliché, 40 is just a number. I don’t feel 40, whatever that’s supposed to mean, and 40-year-olds rock anyway: just try to run against them in a race. And don’t get me started on 40-year-old men and their brand of sexy (see http://www.listal.com/list/hottest-male-actors-their-40s). Being forty is fine. It doesn’t bother me a bit.
Did you call bullshit yet?
Does anyone else really believe it’s a coincidence that I just happened to do a triathlon the year I turned 40? That I am considering (my first) marathon in September (the MONTH I turn 40)? That I did my first half-marathon just two years ago? Hmm.
I had some idea, way in the back of my mind, that the triathlon and I had a complicated relationship. I certainly wasn’t doing it “just for fun” (double bleh). Nor had I dreamed about it since I was a little girl. If I’m honest with myself (and with you), I think I did it partly to prove that I’m not getting boring, feeble, and predictable.
How did I realize this?
Well, for one, I was too worried about how I looked in my tri suit. Lordy, they leave so little to the imagination. And my tri suit is black and white and called an ORCA.
Seriously? Did no one at the board meeting question the idea of giving a skin-tight outfit the colors and name of a WHALE?
And I was a little too pleased that the people running the race insisted on writing my race number on my left arm and left calf in black marker. I took pictures of it before showering. Why? It made me feel badass.
I have a feeling that they do it for exactly this reason. I can’t figure out any other practical purpose for it: in addition to an electronic chip around your ankle, a number attached to your bike, and the bib you wear during the run, markered numbers seem excessive. Writing the number on your swim cap—that makes sense. But the only times your arm or leg will be showing is during the bike and swim when there are other numbers to rely on.
But if you feel badass, you’re more likely to buy pictures from the professionals who (sometimes) know how to make you look especially badass (unlike your boyfriend who insists on taking all your pictures from the side, the angle at which that tri suit is LEAST flattering). And if you feel badass, you’re more likely to return next year and bring friends. See how it’s in everyone’s best to increase the badass factor? It’s no different from brightly colored knee-high compression socks or mud runs. In our Facebook age, we need not just the events but the photos of the events. It saves us the embarrassment of having to announce the things we’re proud of.
More evidence: though I liked having my race number markered on me, I was less pleased that they wrote my AGE on my right calf and really displeased that they ROUNDED up. (Triathlons routinely place you in age brackets based on the age you will be on December 31 of that year.) Though everyone working the race knew this, I insisted on explaining. The volunteer with the marker said, “How old are you?” and I said, “I’m 39, but I’m in the 40-44 category because they round up” and she looked at me like she wanted to say, “No shit, Sherlock. I’ve been working this race for a decade. You clearly have a case of the forties.”
After reflecting on the experience, I realized that I did it to feel badass, and if you read my post about The Thing, then you know that made me too self-conscious to “lose myself” in the experience. I needed the pingback, and that’s never good.