Several months ago, I temporarily transfered from a place where personal vanity is refreshingly low (Vermont) to a place where it is remarkably high (Northern Virginia) and it has caused me to ponder the following question: is there such a thing as righteous vanity?
I should mention that I grew up in NoVA so what I found should not have been a total shock, but somehow it was. I noticed that other folk didn’t wear stained t-shirts and 10 year old jeans to pick up their well-heeled darlings from school in the afternoon. The other parents- and nannies- generally looked as though they have been to a business meeting or two before arriving at the playground. I could go on for hours about the beauty on display at church each Sunday. There is no age or gender restriction, either; everybody is dressed to the nines. Even the Relief Society room itself is decked out in fancy wallpaper, a mirror, crystal chandeliers and blue velvet chairs.
Despite knowing better, within a week of the move I felt an urgent need to run to the nearest clothing shop to update my wardrobe. I tried not to get sucked into the vortex of fashion even though anything I could possibly want to buy is now within a half hour’s drive. I went to the world’s most awesome second-hand store with my mom and sister. Amazing deals! But did I really need three skirts? Yes. And no. Maybe….
Back in Vermont, I could go to our branch in my finest attire or in my favorite “vintage” dress from college and they wouldn’t bat an eyelash but love me just the same. That environment provided a wonderful sense of freedom to let go of what the eye sees and get on with the business of the gospel. Here in Virginia, I stand before the Relief Society sisters once a month to facilitate a lesson. Does it matter how I look? During my first lesson, I brought an old hand-made sun bonnet as a prop. I joked, “If you knew me better, I’d put this on.” A friend called out, “We’d get to know you better if you did!” But I didn’t. Vanity kept me from donning it. I use church as one example, but this dilemma is an everyday event. Neither is this issue constrained to women. Upon our arrival, my husband acquired a fashionable new suit and a fistful of new ties in the name of his work wardrobe. It’s always been universal.
As I continued to struggle with the one-two punch of the piquing of my own vanity and sudden “material availability shock”, the mantra of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes kept going through my mind: ALL IS VANITY. In the scriptures, vanity often means “in vain” or “not worth the effort”. In fact, the footnote for vanity in the second verse of Ecclesiastes is “empty, fleeting, unsubstantial”, so the relationship to beauty-vanity is not exactly direct but still there. Could I turn to the scriptures when pondering the spiritual value of personal good looks?
I wandered through the Old Testament, where beauty is given both good and evil roles. The word beauty is barely mentioned in the New Testament, and the Book of Mormon’s and Doctrine and Covenants’ uses of the word beauty mirror its use in the Old Testament. When one looks at occurrences of the words raiment, clothing, and apparel, again they are on both sides of the line and the directions are not clear.
On the side for modesty and comeliness: Timothy 2:9 says “In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array” (Paul had no problem being specific); likewise, D&C 42:40 reads “And again, thou shalt not be proud in thy heart; let all thy garments be plain, and their beauty the beauty of the work of thine own hands”, among other examples. From these I gather that our manner of dress is to be nothing special.
On the side for wearing nice things: in Proverbs 31:21-22 the virtuous woman wears tapestry, silk and purple while her household wears scarlet, D&C 49:19 talks about how we obtain raiment from the natural world in abundance, and D&C 133:46 reads “And it shall be said: Who is this that cometh down from God in heaven with dyed garments; yea, from the regions which are not known, clothed in his glorious apparel, traveling in the greatness of his strength?” (emphasis added).
Alma 1: 27-30 is a bit vague on whether silk and fine-twined linen are extra-fancy or can be categorized as “good homely cloth”. Even Matthew 6: 28-29 seems to take the side of modesty and yet extols the grand beauty of the lily.
However, it was the re-reading of Proverbs 31:10-31 that really surprised me. I had always read it as a superb model of how to be a virtuous woman, but suddenly I was aware of the fact that she and her household were all wearing luxury items. She may have made these herself and even sold them, but I’m not sure that’s a valid justification. Then a verse later it said that strength and honor are her clothing. What does that mean? Verse 30 put me in my place: favor is deceitful and beauty is vain so if you want praise then honor the Lord. However, it was not quite the clear direction for which I had been searching.
It’s tricky. One might argue that there’s a valid place for personal beautification while dating- and there’s certainly evidence elsewhere in God’s natural world to support that. All kinds of creatures use attractiveness to their benefit. But is that the sole purpose? I hope not. In the church we have a cultural norm of looking nice or dressing up and I have nothing against that per se. But what is allowable? What is modest (meaning not excessive)? What is righteous? Are pearls and gold, purple, silk and tapestry, and glorious apparel too much? Elder Holland’s and Sister Tanner’s October 2005 General Conference addresses were somewhat helpful even though I wasn’t part of the main target audience, but they didn’t spell it out. I suppose that’s for the best.
Perhaps the line should be drawn at happiness. “If you’re truly joyful and can feel the Spirit, then your appearance doesn’t really matter- in either direction.” With a few exceptions, maybe this is the answer- similar to our position on riches. We are fond of saying that it’s only the love of money- not money itself- that corrupts and is evil. So maybe it is only the love of looking good- and not beauty itself- that corrupts and causes pride. That’s a delicate distinction and it would be difficult to be consistent. Also, this kind of beauty is visible by definition while money is not necessarily so, making it harder to hide and remain humble about should one have an over-abundance thereof.
Sometimes I envy Buddhist monks. What a life, free from such troubles! And yet, I value my individuality and agency. Like most people, I want to feel special but not too conspicuous. I have choices to make in this life and I want to make good ones in order to show Heavenly Father my faithfulness. Where is the line?
It may be that this struggle lasts my whole life. When I return to Him, I wonder which of these three praises my choices will inspire, if any: “Congratulations, you appreciated and sought great beauty and did good to others because of it” or “Congratulations, your modest life was a balance of good things” or “Congratulations, you cared not for your appearance nor the glory of the world but only for righteousness”?
What is the purpose and value of personal vanity?