It wasn’t skyrocketing blood pressure or the warning from his doctor to lose seventy pounds before his heart gave out that pushed David out of the fast-food line and onto the treadmill. Instead, it was a little white envelope that held an invitation to his high school reunion. Then there was Sandra, a committed smoker despite losing her father to lung cancer. She finally quit when she noticed extra lines around her eyes and mouth from the constant squint and pucker.
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Since our youth, we have been taught that vanity isn’t a quality that others find attractive. It’s ironic, really, because attractiveness is what vanity is all about. Truth be told, there is a certain amount of self-preservation inherent in our vanity. Our looks help to attract a mate so we can pass on our genes. It’s an instinct that thrives in humans and in many other species. Female birds, for example, are often attracted to males with the brightest plumage. Human studies show that women respond to a male physique that is narrow at the waist and broad across the shoulders because these are signs of strength and a good immune system. Men instinctively look for the narrow waist and wide hips that signal fertility in a potential mate. Research also indicates that men prefer women with smooth skin and glossy hair, which are often associated with high levels of estrogen and, not surprisingly, youth. It’s hardly shocking, then, when we work to achieve those ideals. You might call it instinct.
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Vanity also helps build self-esteem. A powerful motivator, self-esteem is essential to our success with career, relationships, and our health. Studies show that low self-esteem leads to health problems such as anxiety and eating disorders. Even trying to prevent the telltale signs of aging when we are long past attracting a mate or reproducing is not simply a superficial pursuit. A 1997 study concluded that those who looked older than their chronological age had lower self-esteem, less confidence, and were less healthy than those who had aged well. The researchers went so far as to recommend that doctors teach their patients about a lifestyle that prevents a prematurely aged appearance.
This would include regular exercise that, when combined with a healthy diet, reduces risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, and depression – while improving sleep quality, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It appears that vanity and health go hand-in-hand.
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Being so wrapped up in your appearance that a new pimple sends you into a tailspin is an indication of a problem that’s more than skin-deep. But if caring about your appearance gets you off the couch and walking to the market for fresh fruits and vegetables, it can’t be all bad.
By Lisa Petty
Originally published in Alive magazine.