Today a friend of mine informed me that she had just purchased a year’s supply of tanning from a local tanning salon. I didn’t even know you could do such a thing, so she proceeded to explain to me the ins and outs of tanning culture. (Apparently in Texas, where she’s from, it’s pretty popular, so being from North Carolina, I’m totally out of the loop!) In the course of telling me all about it, she explained to me that last summer she went kinda crazy and went tanning every day for an extended period of time.
As a result, she pretty much changed ethnicities–she was super dark. But the funny thing about it is that she didn’t realize just how dark she had gotten until she looked back at her pictures later.
That’s the thing about tanning–the change is so slow that you have no point of reference to compare it to, no way of knowing when you should stop, because you’re not all that darker than the day before. And as a result, you just keep on tanning, and keep on thinking you could be tanner.
What was interesting to me about her story was how strikingly similar this behavior sounded to that of eating disorders–you lose a healthy point of reference for your weight, so you just keep on going further and further. What’s more, the change is often so gradual that you don’t realize how extreme you have become. All you’re focused on is getting thinner, so there is no point at which you reach the end. I can even see this in my habit of shopping for clothes.
I’ll begin to think, “if I can just get this one pair of shoes then it will complete my wardrobe. I’ll have everything I need!” Then, as soon as I purchase those shoes, a couple weeks later I find myself fixated on something else–if I can just have that little black dress, or that perfect pair of jeans, then my wardrobe will be complete. *Then* I will he content. But *then* never comes.
I think that all of these examples (over-tanning, under-eating and forever shopping) are good examples of what vanity does to us. It deceives us into believing the lie that perfection is an attainable goal. And once we believe this lie, we fixate on one thing about ourselves, thinking, “If I can just take care of this one aspect of myself, then I’ll feel secure.”
Unfortunately, one of two things happen when we believe this lie. On the one hand, we can trap ourselves into constantly pursuing that one single goal, such as being skinny, or getting tan. This tendency is much like an addiction because there is one particular focus that consumes us. We establish one specific standard as the measure of our perfection and as the source of our contentment, but because we never quite seem to reach that point at which it fully satisfies us, we keep feeding it. Eventually, it becomes the center of our lives. It becomes the final determinant of whether or not we are happy.
On the other hand, not all of us have this addictive tendency in ourselves, so once we reach that perfect weight, we are able to move on. However, that does not mean we are free of vanity’s insatiable appetite. We may not get stuck on one particular part of ourselves, but we will instead move on to something else, and then something else, in the same way I do with new clothes.
We always find something new to fixate on, because we realize that while we might have attained one goal, it did not, in fact, give us the self-esteem we were looking for, so we turn instead to having perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect make-up, or perfect grades or the perfect career. The cycle goes on and on.
That being said, just because you don’t specifically struggle with a compulsive behavior like an eating disorder doesn’t mean you’re free from the downward spiral of vanity. As soon as you give in to the lie that anything will fill you but Christ, you begin to play the vanity game.
Why? Because feeding the your self-esteem with worldly means does feel good for awhile. The feeling will eventually wear off, but you’ll still remember that feeling, and you’ll want it again…and again, and again. Instead of doing the hard work of addressing why it is you have low self-esteem, you take the instant gratification route. And nothing ever changes. The source of your self-esteem remains unaddressed.
It is for this reason that we have GOT to identify those things in our lives that are trapping up in this cycle. For me, that cycle was shopping–I was tying a lot of my self-confidence in to how I looked, so i was constantly looking for something new and cute to wear. I therefore decided to give up buying anything related to how I look for Lent.
It hasn’t been long, but I’ve already noticed a difference! I don’t feel like such a slave to the way I look anymore. Whenever I’m at the mall and I’m tempted to buy something, and I think how good it would feel to strut around in in those stylin new cords, I instead force myself to turn to the one thing that does give me worth and does give me self-confidence: Christ. And it’s so liberating! I’m no longer constantly thinking about the next thing I can buy to add on to my wardrobe. I don’t have to anymore, because there isn’t a void of self-confidence to fill. I have taken myself out of the cycle.
So I encourage you–figure out what it is you’re serving, what it is that’s got its claws wrapped around you so tightly that your self-worth is dependent on it, and begin to determine how you can let it go. Vanity is insatiable, so it’s time we give up up the hopeless battle of satisfying it. Otherwise, the cycle will never end.