Last night, at midnight, I couldn’t sleep because the metal posts on the back of my earrings were poking into the side of my head. I had only had my ears pierced for 31 hours, but the discomfort of those posts pressed up against the skin behind my ears, as I tried to lay in my favorite side sleeping position, was so meddlesome that I finally caved, got up, went to the bathroom, and did exactly what the woman at the piercing pagoda the day before told me NOT to do: removed my earrings. I knew this meant the holes would close up and I would not be able to wear earrings again. But the way I saw it, I had no choice. Either I slept poorly for the next 364 days ( the woman also told me I needed to keep earrings in the holes for a whole year, especially while I slept, if I didn’t want them to close up), or I removed the source of my discomfort and slept well. After nursing four newborns in four years and dealing with the nightly wake-ups of toddlers and preschoolers during the eight years to follow, the idea that a tiny pair of inanimate objects — $35 fake diamond studs — could be the source of another year of consecutive sleepless nights was unacceptable. The earrings had to go.
Within five minutes of returning to bed after the tiny offenders were removed, I was nestled happily with my favorite pillow wedged under my ear and neck, ready to drift off into uninterrupted slumber.
But there was a problem. My mind was churning with a multitude of unsettling emotions. I felt a sense of loss and, dare I say, grief. I felt guilt as well. Huge guilt. And a sense of failure. But the loss — that feeling of having lost out on something — was the greatest.
What the hell?! Over a pair of earrings? I had to figure out why I was feeling this way.
I tossed and turned, trying to sort things through in my head. I felt like I had thrown away something important and special when I removed those earrings. But that made no sense! For twenty-five years, I hadn’t worn earrings (I’d had them pierced for a brief time when i was a youngster), and never once had I felt like I was lacking. But now, after barely a day had gone by with earrings in my ears, I was mourning the loss of these material objects as if an old friend had moved away.
MY EGO faced me. You were prettier the day before, wearing those earrings, it said. With those fake diamonds on either side of your head, you appeared more feminine, more polished, and as your 10 year-old daughter told you when she saw you with them in for the first time,”Mom, they are that final detail that you needed!”
I considered, too, that my fantasy of wearing real diamond studs from Tiffany on next Spring’s fifteenth wedding anniversary trip to Paris, the one my husband and I were in the preliminary stages of planning, was now kaput. What a wuss. What a wimp. Really, Rosanna? You couldn’t sleep with them like every other little girl whose had her ears pierced can? Like your own 8, 10, and 12 year-old can? I felt like a failure, imagining what my three daughters would think when they came down to breakfast the next morning to find my ears unadorned–the very daughters whose responsibility it was, I had sternly reminded them, to do exactly what the lady at the piercing pagoda had instructed them to do: twist the earrings once a day, apply the sanitizing solution twice a day, and never, ever — under any circumstances — let more than 12 hours go without wearing earrings in their holes for the whole first year.
So the source of guilt was clear to me now. But what about that feeling that I had lost something? What was that about?
VANITY, I realized. The loss was about feeling that, without earrings, I would be less attractive than I could have been. The moment I made the impulsive, middle-of-the-night decision to remove the earrings, I also took away the opportunity to improve upon the way I looked to the world. Old women look wrinkled and plain when they’re not wearing earrings, the voice pointed out to me, recalling an observation I had made over the Christmas holiday that my sixty-eight year-old mother-in-law looked instantly more attractive when she put on her pearl earrings after the breakfast dishes had been put away. You are going to end up looking older and plainer than you could have looked. Nice job, Rosanna.
I was mortified by the breadth of my superficiality. Was I really that vain?
Plagued by this humiliation, yet convinced by the truth of my EGO’s vanity, I got out of bed and went into the kitchen, where there was a pile of catalogs and fashion magazines on the counter. I began to flip through them like a crazed lunatic, desperate to find proof that my EGO’s voice was wrong or right.
There, there, and there! My EGO pointed out. All these beautiful women photographed on these pages are wearing earrings! See how much better they look with earrings on? The more visual evidence I discovered that earringed-clad women looked better for having earrings on, the more morose I grew, and the more triumphant the voice of my EGO became. It wanted me to feel really bad about what I had done. I slunk back to bed, the weight of defeat on my shoulders. Sure, I had reclaimed my ability to sleep for the next year, but in the process, I had doomed myself to be uglier than I had to be.
Then other voice of my EGO — the guilt monster — entered my head again, remembering that just the night before, I had sat on my twelve-year old’s bed and told her that beauty comes from within, that a person can be attractive on the outside, but if their heart is not warm and compassionate, then the beauty on the outside is diminished. ”Well I think you are pretty, Mom,” she’d said, shrugging her shoulders. ”You have a nice nose and good skin.” The warmth of this unsolicited gesture had touched my heart, making me smile, but the feminist in me had immediately checked herself, resolute to return the conversation to the subject of what constitutes real beauty in a woman, to combat the media’s overwhelming message to young girls that a skinny body, perfect skin, and big boobs are what make a woman beautiful. ”Thank you, Jules,” I’d said. ”But the most beautiful part of me is my heart –not my nose and skin.” To which my firstborn stammered, “I know that, Mom, but I didn’t say you didn’t have a good heart, I just said you had a good nose and nice skin. What’s wrong with that?”
Good question. What is wrong with that?
There I was, no more than three hours after standing up for the women’s movement to my twelve-year old, crying myself to sleep because I wasn’t going to get to wear earrings for the next fifty years. Because I had one less tool in a woman’s beauty arsenal to improve upon her appearance.
Hypocrite. Hypocrisy — when a mother sees it in herself, through the eyes of her children — is a painful reality to gulp down. But it is also exactly why I write this blog: to force myself to be brutally honest with myself.
So I am a vain person. Educated and a feminist, but utterly, undeniably vain.
It wasn’t the first time I’d had this pointed out to me, though. My mother had made it clear to me countless times during my pre-teen and teenage years.
“Giusy, stop being so damn vain,” she would chasten me, smirking with disgust as I meekly preened in the mirror before school. ”Look at the prima donna we are raising, Frank,” she would say to my father loudly. “A self-absorbed little princess, your daughter is.”
Naturally, I felt ashamed for caring about how I looked when I heard my mother say those things. Shame for curling my bangs so they sat up in a poof over my forehead, as was the style in 1987. Shame for lining my eyes with pencil and frosting my lips with gloss. Shame for tying a colorful scarf around my waist to serve as a makeshift accessory for the skirt and tank top I had picked out to wear that day. Shame, shame, and more shame–for being a girl who wanted to look pretty. For being vain.
And so was born that voice in my head who now, at age 38, was beating me up with guilt for caring about my looks. For being sad that I couldn’t wear earrings.
If I believed that voice in my head — the offspring of the voice of my disdainful mother — then I would say that the point of this article is to demonstrate how powerfully destructive and irrational a woman’s vanity can be. I would say that the moral of this story is that it shouldn’t matter to us women how we look. People aren’t going to love me more or less just because I have my ears pierced or my hair colored or wrinkles on my forehead or sagging boobs. And isn’t that what we all ultimately want in life, after all, to feel loved and accepted by others? I would conclude that my grief over not having my ears pierced was based on an erroneous idea of how to gain more love from others. And that vanity is an icky quality.
But I choose not to believe those voices in my head, slamming me for being vain, repeating the berating voice of my critical mother from twenty-odd years ago. Instead, I choose to love myself enough to say there is nothing wrong with being vain about my ears. In fact, I am proud to be vain about my ears. It shows that I love myself and want the best for myself. Why should there be any shame in that?
The things we say to our daughters and sons become the things they say to themselves in the privacy of their minds later on in life. That’s what I learned by hashing out my confusing emotions after removing my earrings last night. We mothers and fathers must choose our words carefully when we comment on the things our kids do. We must ask ourselves how our articulated judgments make them feel? They may vocalize resistance to our opinions, but I promise you their subconscious is absorbing them. What we say to them when they’re twelve becomes the voice in their heads when they’re thirty-eight.
I don’t want my kids to feel badly for wanting to love themselves. For wanting to take care of themselves. For wanting to have poofy bangs like every other seventh grade girl in 1987 wanted. Or a piercing in their nose. Or a tattoo on their midriff. If it is clear that these choices they are making are not out of a desire to self-destruct, but simply as a means for self-expression, then why make them feel guilty for making them?
The truth is, I really did feel prettier for wearing those fake diamond studs all day yesterday. I really did get a boost in self-esteem when I passed by a mirror and caught a glimpse of myself with those sparklers on my lobes. They really did improve my feeling about myself for the short time I wore them. And, yes, that is probably vain of me. But “vain” doesn’t have to have a negative connotation, I now see. The scorn I felt for myself last night for feeling vain was merely a value my mother had inculcated in me that my subconscious was believing to be true. But I now I know — from examining the voices of my EGO from afar — that it is not true.
Obviously, vanity taken to the extreme is self-destructive and narcissistic. If it is at the expense of fulfilling our intellectual potential or in any way sours our relationships those we love, then it is obviously an undesirable trait. But determinedly displaying no vanity at all — as my mother did, boasting on countless occasions that she had never and would never be so vain as to have a manicure or pedicure or color her hair — is no more than self-loathing disguised as martyrdom. And giving in to a voice in your head who tells you you are a better human being for not taking care of your appearance is nothing but a denigration of your own self-worth.
So let your daughters feel free to weep over superficial things like their looks from time to time. It just shows they care about themselves. At the same time, you can teach them where real love comes from. You can model for them that worthiness is intrinsic and self-esteem is built by exhibiting qualities that can’t be seen by the eye — integrity, compassion, hard work, responsibility.
And if you catch them preening in the mirror for what seems like a ridiculous amount of time to you, don’t say a thing. Just smile and remind them that it’s almost time for school.
Have a mindful day.