all is not vanity

I remember the first time I used hand lotion. I was five years old. My mother told me to hold out my hands, and she squirted a little bit of this cold pink stuff onto each of my palms. Then she mimed how to rub it into my skin, and I copied her. I remember that it smelled like roses. It was wonderful. My mother told me that I couldn't have a bottle for myself, because it was expensive and I was too little, but once ever day or two she would give me more.

What were we doing? Was it an initiation into the beauty cult? A lesson in vanity? Not at all. The truth was right there on my hands for all to see. My cuticles were ragged and bloody, more raw wounds and scabs than regular skin. I didn't want to learn to tie my shoelaces, or write for long periods of time, because it hurt. Scales of loose skin hung off the ends of my fingers as if they were trying to molt.

In high school, one of my guy friends teased me about always having a tube of lotion in my purse, and came up with some suitably adolescent and filthy excuse as to why I'd always have "lube" on me. I told him I'd quit using it for a week to show him what would happen. After three days alone, the knuckles on my right hand were ready. I went up to him before study hall started, said "Watch," and clenched my fist in front of his face.

The middle knuckle cracked into a hundred tiny cuts, as if it had been attacked with a wire brush. The cuts started to bleed.

My classmate never teased me about carrying around hand lotion again, but there are plenty of people out there who are confused about the dividing lines between comfort and vanity, health and indulgence.

A massage can be a treat to someone who is fairly relaxed anyhow, but to someone who is suffering a lot of stress, it can be the difference between being able to turn their neck enough to drive — or not. As I tried to point out above, it's a similar thing with skin moisturisers. One person's "can't be bothered" is another person's bout of eczema.

Recently I decided to try to do something about my nails again. Like my cuticles, they're dry, and they tend to split and break off in chunks once they reach a certain length. I got this stuff that looks, feels, and smells like clear nail polish, but claims to do a better-than-average job of protecting and strengthening the nails. I've only been wearing it for a day, but it's already outlasted every other product I've tried.

Understand, I don't even want long nails — they'd get in the way of all the typing and needlework I do. I just want nails that don't end at irregular angles with tender spots where the quick has been exposed.

The one aesthetic thing the nail protector chemical does is make my nails look unnaturally shiny. I don't especially like it, but it's not a big deal either. On the other hand, it reminds me of a man who was a friend of my high school drama teacher. She said he had a disease that made his nails yellow and blistering. She was mentioning him because we were talking about gendered costume, and she said he often wished that it was socially acceptable for men to wear nail polish. It wouldn't have made his condition any worse, and it would have looked better than how his nails were by themselves. His nails weren't painful per se, but because they looked so bad people often thought he was in more discomfort than he actually was. He just wanted his fingernails to be a non-issue.

For all these examples and more, though, it's amazing how many people will tell people with these medical realities that they are being "vain" if they do something about their pain and discomfort. I've even had people try to have it both ways with my dry skin situation: if I mention how strict I am about applying cream, I'm "vain," but if they notice that I have scratches on my legs that make it look like I've been attacked by a cat (except I wasn't — I just didn't wake up enough to moisturise the itchy spot and scratched myself in my sleep) then I'm "self-destructive."

It's not the means that define the vain and conceited from the simply afflicted. It's the ends. Those who are truly suffering from vanity will make themselves known by more than what's on their fingernails.