The aphorist Mason Cooley, whom I quote in my profile, had this to say about the vice of vanity: "Vanity well fed is benevolent. Vanity hungry is spiteful."
I've been reflecting a bit about vanity, due to my own posts on appropriate dress for Mass and the Ugly Babushka test, but also because of this thoughtful post from a blogger mom I admire. Any person, male or female, who believes he or she has never suffered from vanity is only proving that he/she has, indeed.
Vanity is a separate issue from modesty, but I think they are often confused. We may, for instance, call a well-dressed woman "immodest" because her well-coiffed head catches the eye, and her expensive tailored outfit outlines (but doesn't place undue emphasis on) her slender figure and defined curves; but what we are really upset about is that we think she must be vain to spend so much money on her hair and clothing. And maybe she is, but the Mason Cooley quote quite sufficiently points out that the only known vanity in such an experience is our own, which engenders such spiteful thoughts about someone else.
And though vanity is often identified with one's pride in one's physical appearance, there are many, many other things people can be vain about. One is vain about his motorcycle; another is vain about her garden. One is vain about his leather briefcase; another is vain about her jewelry. One is vain about his boat; another is vain about her living room furniture.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to look nice, or with enjoying one's boat or one's jewelry properly, as gifts from God which He might require back at any moment. But vanity reflects the world in a dark glass, a poisoned mirror that makes everyone else and their possessions a threat. Like Snow White's evil stepmother, we hiss, "Art we not still fairest?" and very like that old witch, we harbor deadly anger when the answer is "No."
And we act on it, encouraging a friend to wear an outfit we know will not flatter her, questioning another on the purchase of a new car, raising our eyebrows in surprise at the furniture a relative has just bought, stealing from them the momentary and honest happiness they had in the enjoyment of these things, dulling their joy, casting a cloud of dissatisfaction over their pleasure. We stand there in the ruins of their confidence or their gladness, feeding off of their confusion or unhappiness like the vampires we become at those moments.
We do this for ourselves, so that we will be able to climb ever higher on those ruins of our friends' or family's enjoyment of the simple things in life. We must be the best, or the brightest, or the most beautiful; or we must be the most frumpy, the most humble, the most demonstratively pious. We must have the newest home or flashiest car or nicest clothes; or we must have the most humble yet artistic hut, the oldest clunker, and the dowdiest skirt in Church.
The dark glass reflects a world of horror, where our own worth is constantly measured against everyone else's: appearance, ideas, possessions, even our way of doing things must measure up to the distorted images cast outward by the mirror of vanity. If we can't be perfectly confident at every moment that we are the most superior, we twist our features into an expression of tantrum not unlike that of the toddler who demands cookies we don't actually have in the house five minutes before dinner, and who won't listen to reason on the subject. We are attractive, and everyone else is not; we are dumpy, and therefore morally superior to the attractive people; our house is the perfect retreat from the world, and everyone else's is either too expensive/too large/too showy or too decrepit/too tiny/too cluttered; we are Right, and everyone else is Wrong.
Vanity is closely related to pride, the deadliest of sins. What begins as vanity will often become full-blown pride, if we let it grow unchecked in our souls. But we can fight it, with humility and honesty and charity; we can shatter the dark mirror that distorts everyone and everything around us into a source of spite and anger and fear, and instead begin to treat them as if they were as worthy of praise and happiness and even a nice outfit or two as we ourselves are.