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The humanity of vanity

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JUNE 23, 2022

I’ve always been, as my grandma calls it, a ham. I started doing theater before my voice or my balls dropped, successfully capitalizing on that for years. I was also drawn to student government, despite losing a heartbreaking fifth-grade presidential election to someone who was better than me at kickball.

My obsession with how I was perceived led to some insidious consequences. I idolized the arrogant intelligence of Tony Stark and started correcting my friends’ spelling over Kik Messenger. It created an unquenchable need to turn every head in a room, to win by a supermajority, to be the apple of everyone’s eye.

I’ve dealt with accusations of vanity since before I knew what it meant. Self-obsession is the currency of high school in Southern California. Growing up with the children of actors and producers has a way of spotlighting beauty and wealth until everything else fades into obscurity.

I don’t believe that people in the Bay are less self-involved than those in Southern California — just that the difference in culture means people are aimed at different things. In the Bay, the belief that beauty and intelligence are somehow in competition is alive and well. We hear about the power of Berkeley goggles and look down on people who wear makeup to their 8 a.m. lectures, asking ourselves what they’re trying to prove or what academic deficit they’re trying to compensate for.

It’s easier to see beauty as a happy accident, something thrown together in the passenger seat of a Gig car halfway to the pregame. It’s only acceptable as an afterthought, never an end in and of itself. I remember using a communal bathroom to put on eyeshadow before a party and, when someone walked in, feeling ashamed — as if my parents had caught me playing Nintendo DS after bedtime. Not because it didn’t look good (which it did), but because I was publicly, intentionally spending time on my appearance.

We are no strangers to academic validation — we’ve been spoon-fed a steady diet of it since grade school. Intellectual vanity is a common response to the world telling you that you’ve made it, and on your own merit. It becomes easier for us to post a LinkedIn update telling everyone we go to the best school than it is for us to post a picture where we think we look cute. We see the desire to physically present ourselves as in conflict with this image of Berkeley students as intelligent, worldly and detached from bodily desire.

Because, of course, smart people aren’t supposed to be preoccupied with eyeshadow. There are communities on campus that challenge this belief — BARE, Garb and Superb all affirm our desire to create and appreciate beauty — but that’s the minority. Somehow, intelligence is still seen as something we earned, something we worked for, while confidence and beauty remain a genetic crapshoot.

Staring at live, airbrushed versions of ourselves in the corner of our Zoom screens for over a year didn’t help. The danger is not the delusion that we actually look like that, but that when our class, meeting or happy hour ends and we catch our reflection in the black computer screen or the bathroom mirror, our brain automatically fixates on those features that had been smoothed over.

Our own self-image is not something to be scared of or obsess over, but to celebrate. One of my family’s earliest home videos features four-year-old Luke in a fuzzy red onesie dancing in front of the camera for a second and immediately running over to ask to see it. “We can’t see you if you’re over here!” my mom says, and I run back in front of the camera, strike a few poses, and return to see what I looked like.

I try to view my desire to be seen not as a self-obsessed ego kick, but as the childlike desire to play and perform, like yelling “Look, ma!” across the playground. I mean, why do we see Instagram posts as so far removed from the choreographed skits my cousins and I performed on Thanksgiving? Aren’t we all just hoping to recapture that feeling of our grandparents applauding and rewarding us with extra ice cream?

I’m still working on forgiving myself for wanting to be beautiful, for wanting to perform. It’s not a waste of time, it’s a very real instinct to put your best foot forward. There is a certain level of guilt that comes with dressing your best or playing a role or writing a column, because it betrays the fact that you spent effort on it. But no one should be ashamed of the desire to be celebrated.

After all the lyrical pirouettes and look-at-mes comes my least favorite part. I have to let go of the audience, keep a straight face and say that’s all, folks. I’d love to ensnare you in my thoughts for a lifetime, but it doesn’t work that way. Sentences have a way of drifting toward punctuation. So please, don’t leave so quickly. Linger in the doorway. I know I wouldn’t want to miss the roar of a standing ovation.


Luke Stiles writes the Thursday column on unqualified advice and unpopular opinions. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter

JULY 21, 2022