Arts and Entertainment

The Woman in the Mirror: How Representations of Female Vanity Have (Not) Evolved

In modern times, the idea of female vanity continues to align with the path set by men centuries ago, growing more demeaning and provocative with time. The concept of vanity has evolved over time, but the continued emphasis on women’s obsession with their looks remains unaltered.

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By Karina Huang

The perception of a woman’s value and her ability to be recognized as a “true woman” are constantly thrust into the spotlight. When a woman does not conform to the male gaze, she is often stripped of her feminine identity. Whether it’s due to muscularity, hairiness, a chiseled bone structure, outspokenness, or career ambition, women face relentless scrutiny. In society’s eyes, a woman’s value is erroneously believed to reside solely in her perceived feminine virtue. Despite being expected to conform with aesthetic expectations, women are often criticized for putting effort into their appearances and are labeled as vain. The concept of vanity has evolved over time, but the continued emphasis on women’s obsession with their looks remains unaltered.

During the rise of the middle class in Europe from the 17th to 19th centuries, those with money to spare commissioned portraits of themselves in all their grandiosity. As the number of affluent Europeans grew with the shift from a mercantilist to a capitalist economy, women were still expected to uphold social conventions for appropriate ladylike behavior, including homemaking, child rearing, and—most significantly—shopping. Women bought clothes and gloriously adorned themselves with their increasing access to consumer fashion novelties—one of the few acceptable leisure activities for a woman with newfound free time and money to spend. Interpretations of these new societal norms for women began to take center stage in works of art, such as Auguste Toulmouche’s painting Vanity (1870). The artwork depicts a pale, chestnut-haired Parisian woman wearing a flowing pink dress as she gazes at her reflection in an intricate, gold-framed, full-length mirror. With her hand on her hip, she leans over her reflection, an allusion to Narcissus—a beautiful hunter in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and eventually killed himself because he could never have that which he most desired: his reflection. Though the painting aims to convey the self-absorption of the rich, the centerpiece is a financially dependent woman whose societal role was heavily limited by social convention. Her perceived self-absorption is a result of having limited agency, not an inherently female nature like paintings of this genre perpetuate. Narcissus’s tale never reflected poorly on men as a whole because there was no power structure in place to paint him as a warning for men not to succumb to their urges of self-obsession. Yet, because women had no role in creating the power structures of these times, their behaviors were critiqued and demonized by a system upholding the cult of domesticity.

Other works from the same time period, such as Young Woman Looking in a Mirror (1588–1667) by Nicholas Reginer and Girl Looking in the Mirror (1867) by Alfred Stevens, have a similar focus on women as objects of vanity, but without any kind of political commentary. These paintings depict women with ditsy and flirtatious expressions, suggesting stupidity and a fixation on their own appearances. The aim is to paint women as foolish, superficial beings preoccupied with trivial things, perpetuating the narrative that women are inept and unable to grasp concepts of higher intellectual value, like science and mathematics. The painters of artworks like these are consistently male as well, which is important to note for two reasons: one being the influence of the male gaze, and the other being the underlying motive to keep women subjugated to men. These paintings were a sort of ritualistic shaming of women for becoming more financially independent and self-reliant, something by which men at the time were horrified. The idea of a sexually deviant “New Woman” whose characterization centered around a desire to leave traditional roles behind was discussed by men around the continent in such an influential way that this perception influenced paintings, novels, and even personal correspondence between husbands and their wives. This trend in art was driven by the oppressors’ fear that they would lose the power they held over a group traditionally forced to submit.

Though it manifests differently, this idea persists in the modern age, as evidenced by contemporary works depicting the female relationship with beauty and vanity in a similar light. Earlier this year, sculptural artist Greg Lansky, sometimes called the “Spielberg of pornography,” reimagined the iconic statue Venus De Milo (~130 BC) as a modern woman. His piece is titled Algorithmic Beauty and is captioned “How much pain would you take to feel loved?” The stark contrast between the original and the modern interpretation is undeniable: Lansky’s version has engorged breasts covered in plastic surgery scars; a tummy tuck; evidence of a Brazilian butt lift; and, to top it off, she’s clutching an iPhone 13. Lansky makes an unsubstantiated reference to AI’s control over humanity in an Instagram caption, presumably referencing Venus’s iPhone, characterizing Aphrodite as a “perfect metaphor for the social media era”—a baffling interpretation at best. The misguided concern he expresses stems from his belief that women uglify themselves by chasing modern beauty standards rather than a place of concern for the physical and emotional consequences for the human being. This interpretation surrounds men’s fear of women being superficial or “unnatural,” while they benefit from perpetuating the idea that women are instinctually vain. Lansky has created a perversion of a timeless masterpiece founded on an entirely nonsensical backstory.

This is accentuated by the fact that Lansky is also a pornographer, working in a profession that commodifies women’s bodies. His job is to sell the ideal female sexual fantasy that would appeal to as many heterosexual men as possible. He exploited the women who worked for him for years, pressuring them to get plastic surgery and distorting the idea of what sexuality looks like for women. Yet, in his mind, the reason society is flawed is because women care about their appearances too much, ignoring the way he and his industry contribute to the aforementioned misinformed narrative. The piece can be interpreted as Lansky’s view of women: selfish, overly sexual, greedy, self-obsessed, and plastic.

In modern times, the idea of female vanity continues to align with the path set by men centuries ago, growing more demeaning and provocative with time. Artworks like Algorithmic Beauty do not push a feminist narrative; they intend to instill fear in men that the “naturally beautiful” woman is a relic of the past and that women value the superficial over “what really matters,” pushing the misogynistic narrative even further. The danger of works like this is that they are masked under the illusion of wanting to protect women or promote other political messages. Women are not the problem with society because they don’t always conform to societal expectations, yet they are on the receiving end of endless scrutiny while the perpetrators of damaging norms rarely receive backlash. This issue will persist as long as blame falls back onto women.