In Praise of Vanity

In Classical Greco-Roman thought vainglory was epitomized by Narcissus. Vainglory is where we get the word ‘vanity.’ Excessive self-regard was condemned by the Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians; certainly by the Buddha and Confucius.

The reason I sketch this brief etymology of the word ‘vanity’ is to show how our culture has loaded the notion of self regard with the strong negatives we associate with Narcissus. Now most of us don’t even know who Narcissus was or his place in Greek mythology; nor do we care. Still the words, concepts, thoughts and avoidance are buried in our minds.

Well I’ve come to praise what we live in opposition to: Vanity. And of course my praise is tempered with the caution of ‘excessive’ self regard. I am not advocating narcissism. Narcissus died looking at his own reflection. Healthily done, looking at your own reflection will lead away from death.

Without some degree of healthy vanity you will be ill too soon, more helpless for those who love you too soon, more likely to be a burden to yourself and others and, quite frankly, more likely to be unhappy and more toxic to those around you.

A healthy self regard is one of the virtues that empowers all others.

Now, I am not a psychiatrist, do not play one on television nor especially care about theories of the structure of personality so the kind of vanity I am advocating is the physical kind. What you look like, how you walk, stand and sit. The quality of your skin, your gut, your heart, your mind. The tone of your biceps, the range of your gait and the vigor of your stride.

Do strangers meeting you for the first time feel relaxed, hopeful, trusting, reassured? Do they feel threatened, anxious, confused, finally able to see your hastily put together armor of self-denial covering a downcast gaze of defeat or burning eyes too focused on a hateful and trivial thing in your own imagination?

What the heck am I talking about? From ‘tone of your biceps’ to ‘downcast gaze of defeat;’ the connection is one and it is health. Your health speaks in all of these ways.

Here is how to do it. Here is how to measure it. Here is how to be healthily vain. Get naked. Yes, I said, naked. Do this in front of a full length mirror and preferably a tripartite one. Try not to affect a posture but stand as you normally do. Is your head down and you behold the world through the tops of your eyes; as if you were looking over your reading glasses? Are your buttocks tucked under and glutes flat? Are your quadriceps much larger and more prominent than your hamstrings? The first case leads to occipital headaches and low back pain while the latter two cases can lead to spasms and pain in the hip flexors and low back pain and knee injury.

You will remember my endorsement of Gray Cook’s book Movement: such a book and approach is part of this assessment. His book and model is to empower physical therapists and trainers to be capable of proper movement analysis and correction; this is a good thing. But there is the aesthetic part he touches on but I want to push further. An older woman can improve her physical carriage, gait and, now I am in trouble, her desirability by frankly facing the mirror and deciding what needs changing and having the knowledge that plastic surgery won’t fix anything but only cover it up when fundamental structural change can be achieved by work derived from what the mirror reveals. A young man can make changes that will protect him from later shoulder injury, that rounded shoulder carriage needs to be fixed, and from knee injury, strengthen and balance the vectors across the knee.

Now I want to expand the definition of ‘mirror’ to include the reflection of blood test values. By this I mean to expand what should count as a healthy self regard. I know a 90 year old woman who smoked three packs a day for most of her life, would rather live on candy bars than meat or vegetables and has had cholesterol levels greater than 300; mentally intact.

I bring her up to make this point: simply knowing her cholesterol number would not have helped anyone predict her long and vigorous life. In the wrong hands she would have been on Lipitor since its invention and with no benefit and likely very real and unnecessary side effects. On the other hand as a young physician I had a 36 year old man, slim, fit and with a cholesterol of 130; he had a  massive, nearly fatal heart attack. Make sure which mirror you use and how you interpret the man standing in front of you.

The path to health must begin with a broad data-gathering phase. Look in the mirror with a merciless eye and be vain enough to change for the better the things you see there; your posture, your insulin level, how you carry your shoulders and head, your inflammation markers, toe strike or heal strike when you walk, HDL maturation rate, hip carriage, not guess work but precise imaging of your coronary arteries because you might be the 36 year old ready to have a heart attack with a cholesterol of 130 or you might be the 60 year old likely to live to 90 with a cholesterol of 300. What is your heart rate variability like; your baseline blood pressure but more importantly what is it during peak exercise? Make sure your data gathering phase is thorough and properly interpreted. Warning: THIS IS OPERATOR DEPENDENT.

Look deeply into that mirror. But not too deeply; you must smile and remember you are doing this for others. Remember Narcissus.

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