Tim Lott: Bald or not, we spend our lives with one eye on the mirror

Men spending vast amounts on their hair is no surprise. But there's grooming, and there's vanity...

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The news that Gordon Ramsay has spent £30,000 on sorting his rug out – coming only weeks after photos of the regenerated follicles of James Nesbitt – holds up a brightly polished mirror to the perennial shadow that haunts the male psyche, vanity.

There among the rows and stalks of the wilting male thatch, there is more potential for pride and preening than any other part of male physiognomy I can imagine – willy size included. The other news last week that scientists are now not far off a cure for male-pattern baldness will be translated by many men as the promise of endlessly prolonged youth. Indestructible self-esteem may be only a generation – and a course of pills – away.

It is easy to mock these male affectations, but I cannot entirely deny or mock the power of hair. When I was a teenager, I cared more about my hair than I did my parents or my collection of platform shoes. In those days, a shock of something long, sleek and yet naturally groomed (think Neil Young, James Taylor or Gram Parsons), big and bubbly (Robert Plant, Arlo Guthrie) or wild and untamed (Roy Wood, Arthur Brown) seemed like the way to a girl's affections or, failing that, her pants, providing as it did a source of glamour and unimpeachable cool.

Good hair – and I can say, without a scintilla of vanity, that I once had great hair, long and golden and wavy – was the holy grail. It mattered. I am embarrassed to recount this, but I can actually remember a single day in my early twenties when I looked in the mirror and my hair was perfect. It lay down flat; it slipped nicely behind my ears; it sat elegantly on my shoulders shining, dandruff free. I never got it that way again – but the feeling lives with me. Tragic, I know, but that's hair for you.

Hair is merely the most visible and obvious symbol of male vanity. Its loss for many is more inevitable than the expansion of the waistline, and more significant than the multiplication of wrinkles. As far back as Samson, it betokened weakness and a lack of virility.

Male vanity itself is often considered a recent phenomenon, but in fact a Cambridge University study only a few years back discovered that Viking men spent more time grooming themselves than raping and pillaging. There is even a theory that they invented Oxford bags. It was no accident that Narcissus was a classical invention – was there ever such a cultural monument to male physical vanity as Greek and Roman sculpture? And certainly, in this country since the days of the Regency era and Beau Brummel, the concern with one's appearance has been a prime concern for at least the upper sectors of society, barring the odd outbreak of modish indifference.

As democratisation has come, this obsession has moved down from the aristocracy to commoners and peasants like myself. But it is here we must make an important distinction. People often elide pride in one's appearance with vanity. Ugly fat men can be vain, and handsome well-dressed men can be humble.

As Jane Austen pointed out 200 years ago, in Pride and Prejudice: "Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously.... Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us."

Pride in your appearance is an excellent trait, and I am glad that men, in the space of a few generations, are definitely getting the hang of it at last. It's easy to knock Nesbitt and Ramsay for taking it to an excessive and extensive extreme, and I intend to do so, but it wasn't so long ago most men above a certain age, 30 perhaps, very quickly became not merely balding, but balding fat slobs wearing artificial fibres and trousers with droopy arses.

No longer. Most men care about their appearance now and that is a good thing – for their own self-esteem and out of concern for the opposite sex, who do not want their men using Benny Hill or Ernie Wise as their stylistic role models any more.

Vanity however, is a different matter – and it is not at all the same as taking trouble over how you look.

My dictionary goes to great lengths to define vanity as "want of substance to satisfy desire; emptiness; unsubstantialness; unrealness; falsity"; "an inflation of mind upon slight grounds; empty pride inspired by an overweening conceit of one's personal attainments or decorations; an excessive desire for notice or approval; pride; ostentation; conceit, anything empty, visionary, unreal, or unsubstantial; fruitless desire or effort; trifling labour productive of no good; empty pleasure; vain pursuit; idle show; unsubstantial enjoyment".

Phew. Clearly there's more to vanity than an appointment at the hair clinic.

Nietzsche had something to say about this subject (as he did about pretty much every subject). He described vanity as an "atavism", a condition dating back to the days of slavery in which "the ordinary man was only that which he passed for... he did not assign even to himself any other value than that which his master assigned to him".

Nietzsche noted that, by and large, vain men define themselves by the opinion of others. "The vain person rejoices over every good opinion which he hears about himself... just as he suffers from every bad opinion; for he subjects himself to both, he feels himself subjected to both, by that oldest instinct of subjections which breaks forth in him. It is 'the slave' in the vain man's blood, the remains of the slave's craftiness which seeks to seduce to good opinions of itself."

This seems to me exactly right. The vain man is a slave. I myself suffer from vanity, because I am insecure about my appearance. (Since a child I have had scars on my face which have made me feel ugly.) Vanity stands in relation to confidence as arrogance stands to self-esteem. It is not caring about how you look that matters – it is worrying about the judgement of others that is the key issue.

The style commentator Glenn O'Brien, in an article for GQ last year, provided a contemporary coda to Austen's observation. He observed that "the self-defined man who delights in himself and what he can do, he's not a slave to his press clippings and the tweets of the twits; he does his thing to make the world a more fantastically personal place. He dresses as he thinks, dangerously".

It's clear enough – vanity is an interior, not an exterior thing. However, I think it has to be said that vanity also has something to do with the degree of self-concern that a man displays. As far as I'm concerned, whether you are a slave or "free", if you are spending £30K on a hair weave, you are probably vain. There are limits.

It is easy to treat all this as a trivial or minor matter, and in many ways it is. The comb-over and the bad hair weave are intrinsically absurd. But since we're back on to hair, again, it's worth considering that it really can have a severe effect on your sense of who you are, even if you are a humble person.

My mother, for instance, suffered alopecia, and was bald by the time she was 30. This caused her great and genuine mental distress. Admittedly, the taboo is far greater for women than it is for men, but to be concerned about the trappings of your body is not necessarily foolish or risible.

On the other hand, it would take a heart of stone not to have a giggle at Nesbitt and Ramsay's desperate attempts keep themselves looking gorgeous – especially since, in the aftermath, Ramsay looks like a potato that's just had an encounter with a splinter bomb.

Whether they are vain or just silly, only they will know. But in the meantime, whatever the case, we have come a long way since the comb-over. After all, now huge numbers of men take the dignified solution to hair loss – shaving it all off. Then again, given the sizeable increase in the numbers of men choosing Botox injections or pec implants nowadays, perhaps we've come no way at all.

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