'I cut my hair every day': confessions of a (very) vain man (2023)

I once had an argument with a girlfriend about the lyrics of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, a song I had long felt dogging me. “Its doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Why would a vain man want to imagine that that song was about him? If he truly was vain, wouldn’t he choose something much more flattering – Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover, say? Or Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out For A Hero? Not a song accusing him of vanity.”

She thought about it. “Maybe it’s like the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about?” she said finally. “He’s so egocentric, that even a song accusing him of vanity flatters him.”

I shook my head. “No. Being vain is the most unflattering thing imaginable. And being a vain man – that’s the worst. Nobody could possibly find that appealing.”

A sore topic, obviously. I didn’t really find out how vain I was until I got married – an event in my life rather like that moment in political revolutions when the people rush into the deposed kleptocrat’s palace, to find gold-leaf karaoke machines and drains blocked with Pez dispensers: what has been going on in this place? All my strange little habits, routines and rituals, kept half-hidden while we were dating and allowed out for the occasional frolic during our engagement, have, as the years have gone by, abandoned all shame and now sit primping and preening in full view like Liberace at his piano stool. The fact that I know my good side from my bad, good lighting from bad, and make a smoldering-frown face in the bathroom mirror, like Zoolander. That I edit pictures of myself so automatically that every time my wife takes any, she knows to hand over her iPhone almost immediately for vetting. She says that living with me is “like living with a teenage girl”.

'I cut my hair every day': confessions of a (very) vain man (1)

Then there is the hair-cutting – a trim every morning like George Clooney, except that no matter how many articles I read with titles like, “People who cut their own hair are real winners”, I can’t deny the little playlet of fear and control being acted out here. I’ve been known to cut my hair to alleviate anxiety – to calm myself. Since Trump’s election, it’s got very short again. The conversations in our house go something like this:

“Have you been cutting your hair again?”

“Possibly. Did you see on Fox News today he forgot which country he was bombing? He said he and President Xi were enjoying ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake’ when the generals called, and he turned to Xi and said, ‘Mr President, we’ve just fired 59 missiles – all of which hit by the way – heading to Iraq…’ He can remember the dessert he ate but not the country he’s bombing!”

“Could you do it in the bathroom?”

My wife – whose nickname for me is “Diva” or sometimes “Mariah” – heads the PR department of a well-known fashion brand, which means I get a lot of freebie moisturisers. It’s a bit like Augustus Gloop moving in with Willy Wonka. She tells me that during a recent online chat with their firm’s star dermatologist, they got “a lot more men than we expected. They want to know product recommendations for their skin type.” She adds: “I think we got them because it was anonymous.”

That’s us: members of Vain Men Anonymous, making furtive calls to beauty hotlines, fighting for bathroom time with our wives and daughters, stealing their creams and lotions. In my limited but vivid experience, a man’s relationship with his looks is just as fraught, personal, obsessive and at times downright weird as a woman’s is traditionally supposed to be. With one important difference: we do it in secret. There are very few forums for us to discuss beauty regimens. Our fathers don’t sit us down to take us through their exfoliation routines. And we certainly don’t talk about it with one another.

This lends male toilette its peculiarly florid, ingrown, underground flavour. Flourishing in the dark, without the stabilising effect or accountability that comes with advice from sisters or mothers, we are amateur-hour beauticians, DIY fashionistas, bodge-jobbing it when no one is looking. My favourite hair product, for instance, is an eczema moisturising cream for three-year-olds. Don’t ask how I found that out. My three-year-old daughter doesn’t suffer from eczema.

I’m sure things are changing. I’m delighted that David Beckham feels no self-consciousness about his seven-minute beauty regimen, “(I cleanse, I moisturise. I’m in and out in seven minutes”) but every time I read about manscaping or moisturising, I have the same mixed feelings that Quentin Crisp felt towards the gay liberation movement: the revolution came too late for me. My cake got baked in the pre-metrosexual, pre-selfie, pre-social media 1980s, where the only male peacocks were on Top Of The Pops – Rod Stewart, say, cavorting around in leopardskin trousers with his shag-pile haircut. My dad’s big party trick was to get tanked up on homebrew, put on some Rod Stewart and get dressed up in women’s clothes, his beard and belly protruding, to much drunken hilarity – part of that indelible tradition of closet exhibitionism that peeks out from behind British masculinity like a garter belt.

'I cut my hair every day': confessions of a (very) vain man (2)

Most of my influences growing up – in terms of grooming, fashion, appearance – were female, not male. After my parents’ divorce, I was raised in a house of mostly women. I shopped like my mother, in big splurges, and I occupied the bathroom like my sister, neurotically fixated on my skinny body and disobedient hair. Periodically, my uncle Bob would come to stay – not really my uncle, but a pilot friend of my parents’, very handsome, with a year-round tan from his work in Abu Dhabi and the Virgin Islands, who would fly into our lives occasionally, dropping me off at school in his Reliant Scimitar with personalised numberplates. His narcissism had something of the generosity of Kirk Douglas’s: go ahead, he seemed to say, drink me in. Once we crossed paths at the bathroom, him in his towelling bathrobe, his evenly tanned legs extending below, me gazing on him in with the frank awe of Anne Baxter first clapping her eyes on Bette Davis in All About Eve. “One day, Tom, all this will be yours,” he said. I adored him, as a fledgling peacock chick adores an adult in all his full-feathered prime.

The New Romantics were my first godsend, and a sign that Uncle Bob’s prophecy would be realised. I bought a billowy Byronic shirt with string-tie flounced cuffs and joined a band, plonking away on a synthesizer at car-boot sales in and around the suburbs of Brighton in fey imitation of Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes. There aren’t that many photographs: I was remarkably camera-shy in my early teens. When Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert documentary, Stop Making Sense, came to our local cinema, a friend and I dressed up in our biggest, creamiest, floppiest suits and found seats near the front, whipping out into the aisle to cavort in silhouette for each song, before returning meekly to our seats. Afterwards, a gang of skinheads chased us all the way home.

It’s a tough juggling act to pull off, being a closet exhibitionist – giving the impression of not giving a fuck when you are, in fact, a complete pussycat. Half of your time is spent fleeing the attention you’ve spent the other half trying to attract.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I liked the way I looked — and by “liked” I mean the following: through the dysmorphic haze, with the help of a lot of gel and expensive suits and squinting, I could occasionally coax an image in the mirror that dispelled for a few moments the unrelenting, haggard self-criticism that otherwise ruled my head 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Narcissists, therapists tell us, suffer not from excessive self-esteem but from its absence, the dominant voice in their heads not flattery, but relentless, withering self-critique. “Vanity is often the consequence of a fragile self-esteem,” philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote recently, “a fear of falling short in the eyes of others that results in a constant demand for reassurance. As such, it is often a better target for sympathy or pity than for censure.”

Deep down, I think I wanted to smash the image I spent the rest of the time cultivating. Every vain person feels ruined by it at some point. We’re like smokers: we all want to quit. I had two looks: dressed to the nines and trashed. Sometimes, it seemed I got dressed up at the beginning of the evening only in order to get undressed at the end of it. My father’s penchant for putting on women’s clothes while drunk finally surfaced towards the end of my 20s, at a party in west London where all my boy friends and girl friends swapped clothes. This was at the height of Britpop. Blur had released Girls & Boys, Jarvis Cocker was doing his Wildean rake thing and Keanu Reeves was ripping it up at the box office. Skinny men were finally in. All my male friends emerged to the same hoots of hilarity that had once greeted my father. When I slipped out, the girls all cocked their heads to one side, as if considering: hmm, not bad. I took a victory lap of oedipal pride: I guess I looked better in leopardskin than my dad. We didn’t have much in common, me and my pa, but we did have that – drunken transvestitism.

'I cut my hair every day': confessions of a (very) vain man (3)

Marriage, middle age and fatherhood have worked their usual mellow magic. It’s something of an irony that after all this time, I have finally come out of the exhibitionist closet now that I have a little less to exhibit – my hair thinning, my belly finally making itself known. At 49, my guiding lights are not Clooney or Beckham, so much as Norma Desmond, Emma Bovary and Brigitte Bardot in her nutty, cat-hostelry period. But as much as I complain about ageing to my wife (I think it makes her feel better that she is married to someone who worries about wrinkles more than she does), it’s also true that coming out of the closet about my vanity has been my way of escaping it.

For Christmas my mother gave me a pair of plaid pyjama bottoms, which I have recently taken to wearing during the day, even for trips into Manhattan. They mean a lot to me, as a fashion statement (I don’t care), social statement (I am a hibernating father) and political statement (the world outside my door doesn’t seem worth getting dressed for). My wife doesn’t like them.

“You can’t wear those into town.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re pyjamas.”

“They’re pyjama pants.”

“Doesn’t stop them being pyjamas.”

“They say that I have reached a certain age, a certain point in life, and am comfortable in my own skin.”

“Yeah, a little too comfortable. You look like Nick Nolte…”

“Nick Nolte is a movie star of some stature and 48 Hrs one of the great films of the 80s.”

“After his arrest.”

The truth, it seems, will set you free. The absurdity of the figure I now cut – this middle-aged, slightly queeny British male, fretting over his receding hair and ever more nebulous chin – offers me release. The pyjamas are staying. The emperor is happy to have no clothes.

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