Do I want to be a pinup model? That’s what some random stranger asked me a few months ago. He stopped me on a campus sidewalk, not far from my office. At first I thought he was a student. Maybe he was: youngish, early twenties, wandering around as if lost. The guy introduced himself as a photographer-slash-artist who was looking for models. “No thanks,” I said and fondled my phone in my pocket, pretending to amble away. Instead, I ducked behind a pillar and watched him until he left. You never know about some people. Maybe he was a serial killer.
From the safety of my office, I tweeted some joke about it being the upteenth time some creep had asked me to pose for them. I mean, if he was a killer then this might be my last chance to go viral on the Internet. That’s me, master of the humble brag. I’m humble bragging right now, in fact.
Vanity confuses me. People don’t mind the occasional humble brag from ordinary citizens. They expect them from celebrities. But if you’re not careful, people will dub you a narcissist, a reputation hard to live down.
Some people suck at the humble brag. For example, some poor guy started a thread on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s discussion forums a while back about his appearance. It was causing him problems on the job market. Apparently, he’d interviewed at a campus where the faculty and staff ogled him incessantly, before proceeding to warn him about dating undergraduates. If I remember, the department chair even chided the guy because students had been flirting with him all day. Surprise! He didn’t get the job.
Adding insult to injury, dozens of other professors mocked this poor guy on his own thread. He was only asking for advice. He honestly wanted to know if attractive people have those kinds of problems on the job market. Instead of discussing the issue, professors bullied him until he gave up and stopped responding. Who knows? Maybe he left academia for good.
Our culture has a strangely fucked-up attitude toward intelligence, beauty, charm, or any other positive personal attribute. People can compliment you on those things, but the second you even suggest you might be smart, funny, or attractive? You get roasted hard.
That part doesn’t bother me too much. What does, though, is the double standard. Look at our fucking president. He and his kind have made entire careers out of bragging and self promotion. Nobody comes close to the level of this man’s vanity. How many people have the gall to get angry at a news show for busting them on fake Time Magazine covers lauding their success. Who else has gotten away with gloating about their dick size and how many pussies they’ve grabbed?
We live in a post-vanity world now. And it’s getting worse. Trump may win the contest, but lots of people are competing. These fuck-wits don’t even try to sound humble when they brag. Somehow, we’ve started to accept shameless self-promotion as the new norm. Every day almost, I get direct messages and emails from people asking me to shout them out on Twitter, or read and review their book.
Everyone enjoys a little humble-bragging now and then, and we all like compliments. I try to give as many as I get. True, I love putting on makeup and posting selfies. It’s fun, in moderation. Part of me wonders why a grown woman should get a thrill out of that, but I do. And I try to give as many compliments as I get.
Here’s who I don’t want to become: this friend of mine from grad school. Let’s call her Amanda. She’s pretty, and reasonably smart. But I don’t know anyone who can stand her, at least not for longer than 15 minutes. Every conversation with Amanda somehow leads to indirect solicitations of praise. One time, she showed up to a pub crawl in a tight red dress and immediately started complaining. She said shit like, “I’m sooo going to get raped walking to my car in this thing. Guys were already leering at me.”
Amanda smoothed her hands over her dress and looked around at us. Me and two friends secretly rolled our eyes. Meanwhile, a handful of erections bloomed in the vicinity.
For a moment, I felt deep irritation. Normal people used to just slip on a club dress and show off their assets. Nowadays, they want to look like they’re not seeking attention. They want to make their beauty, intelligence, or charm seem like a burden so they can also enjoy the pleasures of sympathy. There’s a difference between people who legitimately criticize the practice of cat-calling, and those who casually complain about it for attention.
And if you’re wondering, yes it’s true. Some women compete with each other over high likely they are to get raped, as if how attractive they are has any impact on that. Watch the news, my fellow selfie sluts. Plenty of normal looking people get raped. It’s not fun when that actually happens.
When she’s not soliciting catcalls, Amanda posts photos of herself every day. She posts about her meals, her workouts, and even when she needs “a break from Facebook” to write or grade papers. Five hours later, she’ll post something like “I’m back!” and a celebratory selfie. Sometimes, Amanda also posts pictures of herself doing laundry.
The photos themselves don’t bother me. It’s the text. For example, one workout photo shows Amanda doing a sit-up. She writes, “Number 25. Only 25 more to go.” Seriously? I can understand selfies before or after your workout. I’m polyamorous, and I appreciate yoga pants pics as much as anyone. But Amanda can’t even get through one workout without posting on social media. It’s sadly funny.
I’ve recently started fucking with Amanda. Every time she posts, I like and reply with some kind of exaggerated compliment. “OMG, that washing machine really sets off your eyes.” I’m feeding the beast now. When she least expects it, I’m going to stop liking and watch her starve.
Vanity, pride, and self-confidence are good things. We should all care about what other people think about us, because humans are social animals. Looking healthy, dare I say attractive, is a good thing. Taking pride in how other people perceive you is also a good thing. If I truly didn’t care what other people thought, I probably wouldn’t make much effort in my appearance, my education, my writing, my teaching, or anything really. In fact, I would probably split my time between hiking and computer games. That’s not a bad life, per se, but it’s a diminished one for sure. That’s basically what my brother does, and I wouldn’t care to be him. In fact, the best thing that’s happened in his life has been his girlfriend — someone whose opinion of him matters. Because of her, he’s managed to hold down a job, and he’s gone back to school. He wants to impress her, show her he’s a grown up.
Social media has probably fucked up our alignment with self-confidence, pride, vanity, and narcissism. It may take us a while to return to normal, but I’m confident we’ll get there. Sooner or later, people will keep upping the pressure until we either get bored or start dying off from Instagram-induced panic attacks.