Male vanity. This popular vice can take many forms. Perhaps the image that springs to mind first is that of a young man checking himself out in a mirror, possibly applying moisturiser to his temples.
Yes, the way we look can be steeped in self-obsession. Male preening is big business and has become so normal that no one really talks about ‘new men’ or ‘metrosexuality’ anymore.
I’m not just talking about combing your hair or shaving; I’m talking about daily routines or beauty regimes that take up more than a few minutes. There’s the mass of products that can be found on many a man’s bathroom shelf, the creams, hair gums, exfoliators, tweezers, maybe even fake tans. There’s never been so much pressure from popular culture to fine-tune one’s appearance. Just look at MTV or magazine covers.
Let’s talk about fitness. Here’s a whole other route to make vanity, and I’ve noticed this increasing in church circles. Some may want to blame the popularity of very masculine preachers – hammering home how ‘men should be men’ etc. This teaching is popular with guys because it gives them a God-given right to be macho and hit the gym for a ‘hussle’. I’m not at all against looking after our bodies and being healthy – that’s a good thing. I have, however, watched Christian young men who struggled with anorexia transform their eating disorder into compulsive body-building. I wonder if the root of insecurity about body image has really been dealt with in that man?
I am slightly bemused by the claims of some men that ‘men aren’t men anymore’ and that the Church has been ‘feminised’. I wonder if, mixed in with these sentiments, there is actually an insecurity about what ‘being a man’ is all about. I believe it’s not just having a penis, but there is wonderful, beautiful diversity within maleness. Bearded and smooth, tough and tender, sporty and arty – you can be all and none and still be a man made in God’s image.
I would argue that male vanity, whether placed in appearance, macho-ness or at worst a sense of male superiority to females – is all an illusion.
Jesus didn’t really talk about ‘manliness’. He didn’t ask us to be butch, beautiful or dominating. He asked us to pick up our cross and follow him. I know this is a familiar truth to most of us, but let’s think about it.
What are we really trying to address when we place our identity in amplifying our gender? What are we cultivating when we spend too long worrying about receding hairlines or, in my case, wiry grey hairs taking over my head? What are we seeking when we lord our ‘male headship’ in the church or family?
I would argue that we are nurturing an identity Jesus came to kill. I don’t believe he’s that bothered about whether a man prefers hunting, shooting and fishing or doing a cross-stitch. Jesus is after killing our self-importance because it’s out of that self-importance that vanity grows. If I’m vain, it’s because I’ve made myself too important.
I, like many who want to follow Jesus, have to be careful. I can find my male vanity manifesting in wishing I was better at sport, slimmer and that the little patch in my beard wasn’t there! I can also cultivate my self by wanting more attention and approval from men I look up to.
I am learning to die to all of that, to let go and just be. It’s both hard to do – it involves pain in my flesh – and easy as I let Jesus take over more and more of me. This isn’t just about men, but about people – all people. As Galatians 3 says, gender isn’t a big deal when we are all one in Christ. It’s his identity in us that kills off vanity. I hope I am dying well today.