The Psychology of Vanity

What we really talk about when we talk about plastic surgery.

Posted Nov 20, 2014

We can pretend that we pity celebrities like Renee Zellweger for falling prey to society's expectations about women and aging, and condemn her for being so vain, but studies show that more, not fewer, people are undergoing plastic surgery. Botox is up. Fillers are up. And women—and men—are starting younger, too, not even willing to wait and see how well or not they age, but encouraged by doctors who promise better results if such work is done "preventatively." In the best cases, the argument often goes, no one will even know you've done anything at all.

And that, of course, is key to the discussion about plastic surgery, Zellweger's or anyone else's. More than ever, as a culture, we accept it. We just don't want to know about it.

Consider that some of the most obvious examples of plastic surgery are also the ones that land on the lists of the most egregious: Bruce Jenner. Melanie Griffith. Lara Flynn Boyle. Such examples often signify the end of a celebrity's career. Dirty Dancing star Jennifer Grey has been cited for years as the poster child for bad plastic surgery after undergoing a nose job that altered her appearance so drastically that it removed any sense of her character. Every time a new example (or a new face) pops up, we lament society's expectations regarding aging and beauty, before then condemning the celebrity in question for falling prey to those very expectations.

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But because we're reluctant to talk about our own vanity-driven alterations, we tend to want to dismiss and condemn those of others. The real objection to Zellweger's new face isn't that she has one; the objection is that we can't pretend it didn't happen. Indeed, to cite just one example of this thinking, one assessment of the film Die Hard 4 by Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke credited star Bruce Willis for the fact that he had "no obviously discernible plastic surgery to mess up his face like Sly Stallone or Michael Douglas." It's hard to tell what Finke found worse: the other actors' "messed up faces" or that their procedures were so obvious.

Here's the truth: Celebrities are vain. And so are millions of the rest of us.

This isn't even a particularly difficult truth, because there is nothing inherently wrong with vanity. Vanity is healthy. It's natural. It doesn't necessarily signify a culture overrun by superficiality. In fact, it is a fundamental part of developing positive self-esteem, which, as we know, is important.

And yet every time a celebrity, or perhaps a friend, displays an overt sense of vanity, we lash out: Why did you do that to yourself? You looked great as you were. We pretend we're appalled. But if we're honest, it's more that we're just judgmental, picking and choosing which sort of superficiality is acceptable to us on any given day. And we're scared of looking vanity in the face. For example: Bruce Jenner is very definitely not celebrated, but I can't help but wonder: If the work he's plainly had done had made him better-looking, would someone like Jimmy Fallon comment on Jenner's "100 percent recyclable" goods?

Therein lies the hypocrisy of all the backlash directed at Zellweger (or Jenner or Meg Ryan or Pamela Anderson) and the real trouble with all the talk surrounding anyone's new or different appearance. We make it about them, when it's really all about us. When we react to a celebrity's new face, we're reacting to its obviousness, its unavoidability. Changes that are "too obvious" make us uncomfortable in their display of vanity, because it's the exact sort of vanity we try to keep to ourselves. When someone like, say, Sandra Bullock turns up looking, at 50, remarkably refreshed, it's easier to turn the other cheek. But why? "Good" plastic surgery doesn't erase the vanity involved. It does, however, make it easier to ignore our own.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at