Gendered vanity: How a woman is only considered art when she is painted
Paint a woman and she’s art, take a selfie and she’s vain
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing
John Berger beautifully sums up the gendered bias in regards to vanity, beauty, nakedness and women. For centuries, a woman has been an object of attraction for men. They exist to be perceived by men — to be judged, rated, and admired by men. So, how come when a woman takes some power back in the form of selfies, she is considered vain?
The global phenomenon of the selfie
When researching into the wild world of selfies, you’ll come across moments in history where “selfies” occurred — even dating right back to 1839, with Robert Cornelius. Vintage looking selfies with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian also appear, presumedly being taken on a pink flip phone. However, it was the introduction of the first front-facing camera that made selfies a global phenomenon. Pew Research Centre found that 91% of teenagers had posted a photo of themselves online.
Often, selfies are considered an indication of a society that is becoming increasingly more narcissistic — with people placing a higher value on the way that they look, as a result of millions of people being able to cast a judgement on this within seconds posting.
While there is definitely a discussion to be had regarding our need for online approval — is the selfie really indicative of a society that is becoming vainer, is this necessarily a bad thing, and why is this often a gendered issue?
Is the very fact that women are increasingly becoming more in control of their own bodies, how they are shared with the world, and who gets to see them the real issue? Is this an issue of power and control rather than vanity and narcissism?
Is vanity really a sin?
According to the Christian teachings, vanity is included as a side of pride — a deadly sin in many texts. Vanity refers to the idea that somebody has an inflated self-assessment of their own virtues.
Just like with anything, vanity (or too much of it) can be negative. It can lead to an unfair diminution of others and people being overly concerned with the opinions of others.
However, the idea of self-love and self-obsession being a “sin”, can be seen as a way to keep the population passive and humble. A society that feels guilty when they are confident in their appearance and abilities, is a society that will be submissive to these unexplained greater powers.
This combined with the patriarchal nuances of various religious texts can be pointed to as the beginning of women being “humbled” and shamed for having body confidence in society.
Over time, with the dismantling of archaic standards set on women, women have begun to claim more power in their appearances and independence away from their fathers and husbands. Often, this is met with harassment both on the street and online.
Furthermore, fourth-wave feminism has seen a shift in the way women are told to view themselves. Young girls are being taught to be the love of their own lives by Florence Given, they sing songs about how they look Flawless, and superstars like Lizzo are preaching about being in love with yourself.
“I’m doing this for myself. I love creating shapes with my body, and I love normalizing the dimples in my butt or the lumps in my thighs or my back fat or my stretch marks. I love normalising my black-ass elbows. I think it’s beautiful.”
We cannot ignore the fact that the issue of vanity falls onto women much more than men. Historically, men have always been the more egotistical gender. This is no secret. Take trips around the world and acknowledge the statues of hundreds of self-proclaimed “amazing” men. In fact, in the U.K only 2.7% of statues are of non-royal women. The very concept of patriarchal society was only able to thrive under the power of men who unequivocally believed they were stronger, smarter, and better than women.
Recent studies have even shown that men are vainer than women. Which begs the question regarding gendered vanity: is vanity only a problem when men see their grip on a woman’s body loosening?
Take Kim Kardashian as a prime example. While criticisms about her wealth hoarding and exploitation are very valid — the constant scrutinisation of her “vanity” when she shows self-love, in conjunction with the constant slut-shaming she endures as a result of illegal revenge-porn and nonconsensual nude leaks is indicative of a society that wants to control a woman’s autonomy and body.
The same can be said about countless female celebrities and online personalities. Men, online, get voyeuristic pleasure when women’s naked bodies are non-consensually leaked into the world. When those same women decide to post similar photos or start an OnlyFans, they are shamed. Is this really about “respect” and not more about power and control?
The male gaze
Something that most women struggle with is this male gaze. This, in my opinion, takes form in two different ways.
The first way is the constant exploitation that comes hand-in-hand with it. It’s the objectifying, the slut-shaming, the patriarchal comments. It’s being seen as an extension of our dads and partners, it’s the constant judgement about dressing too masculine or having too much skin showing.
The second form is the internalised male gaze — which can be more troubling to deal with as it points to how women have subconsciously absorbed patriarchal messages. In order to not perform for a male audience, women have to actively unlearn years of societal conditioning.
It’s a battle mentally to decipher whether you are acting, dressing, or performing a certain way in order to impress a heterosexual male society.
I was once interviewed for somebody’s dissertation regarding Megan The Stallion and Cardi B’s WAP — throughout I argued that women should be able to sing about whatever they want while wearing whatever they want. I stated that women should be able to modify their bodies in whatever way they want, while still being critical that this might be for the male gaze.
I remember feeling conflicted that many women are playing into exactly what men want, but are women really to blame for this if it is the case? The steps women take to be more accepted/make their lives easier in a patriarchal society is not the fault of women. Who can blame us for trying to make our lives more permissive?
Art and vanity
Something that perfectly depicts the contradiction of art and vanity is “The Rokeby Venus “ by Diego Velazquez. A woman, completely enamoured with her own reflection, surrounded by metaphorical images that define feminity.
The woman in the artwork would be considered vain, but the painting itself is considered a beautiful piece of art. This could be seen as a symbol of how an object of a man’s perception often gains more respect than a woman who chooses to post their own body online.
Society as a whole need to move past the idea that women are spectacles. The archaic idea is that women are to be spectated as men are the spectators, which encourages the idea that everything a woman does is for male attention — a cornerstone in rape culture.
The policing of vanity and obsession with beauty will only end with the end of the male gaze.