Many Christians struggle with thoughts about their appearance in the same way and for similar reasons. The Bible makes it clear that vanity is to be shunned, but the reality is that most people, Christians included, want to see themselves as beautiful. No one wants to be ugly. Aside from the lucky few who won the genetic lottery, people have to work at being attractive. Some people have to put more work in than others, but being attractive takes at least a little effort for most people. There are precious few who can truly roll out of bed and look like something off a magazine cover when they have not even combed their hair or brushed their teeth. The rest of humanity has to battle the birds nest their hair became overnight and scrub the fuzz off their teeth before stepping outside will not frighten the neighbors.
An attractive appearance takes work, but how much work should Christians be willing to do? Obviously, health related actions are a must. People need to brush their teeth to avoid cavities, and they need to shower regularly. No one is doubting these basics. The problem comes with more purely cosmetic efforts. Should a person brush their hair and leave it down? That takes the least amount of work, but does showing off the shine or length of a person’s hair count as showing off? Should men keep their hair cropped short and women keep it pulled back in a simple, modest bun? What about scented soaps and shampoos? The basic cleanser is necessary for hygienic purposes, but do the delicious smells add a forbidden element of decadence? When does basic hygiene cross the line into vanity?
The Bible does not have a handy verse that answers that question. There is no statement that defines the line between “I want to take care of myself” and “I am the most beautiful ever.” Humans are left to figure that one out on their own.
When it comes to Christians and their appearance, there is not necessarily a one size fits all answer. Basic concern over how they look is more or less intrinsic to humans. Thousands of years ago, appearance played a role in how mates were selected. Those who looked weak or diseased did not find a mate and so did not have offspring. This basic instinctive equation of “healthy appearance equals strong genes equals good mate” has not changed much. What has changed is how “healthy appearance” is defined.
So, caring at least a little about appearances is natural for Christians. The best way to draw the line between “want to look nice” and “sin of vanity” is the Christian’s motivation and the lengths to which they will go to look attractive. The sin of vanity in a Christian sense is not merely any interest in looking nice. It involves an excessive amount of admiration for one’s own appearance and is often associated with the idea that beauty makes a person better than those around them. As such, a person who puts on a bit of make-up in order to improve their appearance is not necessarily vain. The person who wears the same amount of make-up but thinks that they are better than those who are not as attractive is someone who is vain. Similarly, someone who spends all their money on their appearance or will try and cheat someone else out of something in the name of aesthetic appeal is vain. The person who does not flip out when their old jeans no longer fit has likely not crossed the border into true vanity yet.
Vanity often has an air of deceitfulness surrounding it. People normally picture those who are vain as being “pretty on the outside and ugly on the inside.” Given the excessive pride that goes with vanity, this is not an inaccurate sense.
There is no one size fits all definition for vanity and no hard line that can be drawn in the sand to separate Christians who have a healthy interest in their looks from those who are cheerfully treading the path to vanity. For those who are concerned that they might be edging into vanity, take a deliberate break from worrying about appearances. Make it a point to wear older clothing instead of new, fashionable items. Stop spending so long creating a perfectly tousled hairstyle. Ditch the perfume or aftershave and go au natural for a week. Wait and see what emotions arise. For those who feel less confident or a lesser person when they are less attractive, this is a good reality check that shows they were inching into vain territory. For those who do not feel any more than a bit of disorientation from the change in routine, vanity is probably not a concern. Humans are flawed, but unfortunately, this is one where each person has to make a judgement call and answer honestly the question, “How much do I care about my appearance and why?” The answers might be surprising.