When it comes to getting in shape, a little narcissism can be a good thing.
“An estimated 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, up from 56 percent in the early 1990s, according to preliminary results of a new government survey just out,” reports the Dec. 15 issue of USA Today. “One big jump: the percentage of adults who are obese. Now, 27 percent of the population is obese, compared with 23 percent in the early 1990s and 15 percent in the late 1970s.”
They must have been doing something right in the 1970s. But what? More people than ever are trying to lead healthy lifestyles. Yet every year, the inevitable report: more people than ever are overweight and obese.
USA Today focuses on the 27 percent who are obese, but the 29 percent of the population who are “just” overweight are interesting, too. Many people who are obese have conditions that can only be controlled with medical treatment. But what about these “overweight” people? The 29 percent who weigh no more than 30 pounds over their healthy body weight?
The beer-gut and love-handle crowd.
They know it would behoove them both physically and mentally to eat better and exercise more often. But the long-term health benefits of working out aren’t carrot enough. They resist, against their better judgment.
There are any number of reasons, of course, including the fact that how you choose to appear in the world is no one’s business but your own. The reason I’d like to consider here, especially for those who want to lose weight and get in shape but can’t ever seem to get it done, is the idea that in our culture, we’re not allowed to love ourselves.
By love, I mean the place where the deadly sin of vanity and Narcissus meet. Narcissus spurns the love of others to pursue his own self-interests, and Nemesis, the goddess who controls the will to excess—curses him to fall in love with his own reflection. Narcissus pays with his life—the ultimate punishment for the ultimate vanity. Mix a little Greek with 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian self-hatred, and you have a culture that views any act that can be construed as self-serving with a suspicious eye.
Such as the act of spending the half-hour to hour a day required to keep your body in fairly tip-top shape. There’s something that’s vain and vaguely sinful about all that pumping and primping going on in front of the mirrors down at the health club. An hour in front of the glass might as well be an eternity.
Indeed, that’s the equation exactly.
To love yourself at all is to love yourself too much.
It is to be narcissistic.
Americans began shedding this attitude in the1970s; hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found that they did have the time to get in better shape. Improving their bodies, just for the sake of improving their bodies. It wasn’t long before the specter of narcissism was raised.
The Me Generation, Tom Wolfe called it.
The tag still causes a twinge of guilt. Millions of people have joined the health and fitness movement since then, but millions more haven’t. A large majority of the country—61 percent!—is classified as overweight and obese. Many of them will say they don’t have the time to get in shape. My wager is that more than a few of those people could easily make the time, but don’t because they feel guilty about making themselves a priority.
To love yourself a little is too love yourself too much.
The good news for anyone who feels that way and still wants to get in shape? I think Narcissus has gotten a bum rap.
It’s OK to love yourself.
A little narcissism can be a good thing.
It’s kept me going to the gym an average of three times a week for the past five years. At first, I felt guilty about the time I spent in the gym. Then it dawned on me: I was performing the perfect selfish act. After that, I stayed longer. I hung out for hours in the sauna and the whirlpool. It became not just a hobby, but a way of life, one that I still follow religiously.
My ideal workout goes something like this:
I wake up at 5:30 a.m. I don’t eat in the morning before I exercise because the body burns more fat that way. I’m at the gym by 6. I do 20 minutes of intense cardio work on the stationary bike. I follow that up with 30 minutes on the weights. I’m done by 8 a.m. and have assured myself that no matter how shitty my day may turn out to be, I’ve already done something for myself, and nothing can change that.
There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction in that.
After five years of working out, I’ve also been able to enjoy some of the longer term benefits. My cholesterol level and my resting pulse rate are remarkably low; I’m able to deal with stress much better than in the past. I’m no Arnold, but I’m in good shape, and it gives me confidence that people notice and respond to.
But one must be careful, of course.
There are those who will say there is no such thing as “a little narcissism.”
It’s true that there does seem to be an innate psychological structure underpinning the myth. Once you start loving yourself, where do you stop?
With shaving your legs?
Wearing tight spandex outfits?
Who sets the limits? Narcissus failed to set any and was punished, and there are those who still continue to make the same mistake.
They flex and preen for their spouses and anyone else who will pay attention. They spend the rent money on 50-gallon tubs of whey protein and illegal steroids. They never stray far from their reflection; the gym becomes the be-all and end-all.
They have a lifestyle.
But no life.
The key to not repeating the error of Narcissus is, as always with the Greeks, moderation. Nemesis can be seen as the goddess of moderation in this situation. Narcissus loved himself too much. In order for us not to do the same, we must listen to Nemesis for guidance, whichever vessel she chooses to speak through.
I’ve learned to listen.
I hear her in my pain, which informs me I shouldn’t exercise that day. I hear her in my wife, who keeps reminding me to stop looking in the mirror so much. I’ve learned to listen, and I’ve come to love myself, at least enough to continue doing this one thing just for me.
There is nothing wrong with that.
It’s about time everybody realized it.
Especially the people who need it the most.