“Out, damned spot; out I say.”
This dramatic line was spoken by the character Lady MacBeth after she and her husband conspired and assassinated their King. Though her “spot” was the imaginary stain of King Duncan’s blood, a symbol of guilt over the traitorous deed, the words and actions resonate well with other obsessive thoughts and actions.
There are two things that can be said about mirrors – they are completely accurate, and people often hate them for that. Well, I guess there are carnival mirrors that can make you super-tall and skinny, or short and rotund. It is amazing that many adolescents and young adults are captivated by mirrors; whereas others tend to avoid them like the plague. People don’t seem to get comfortable with their image until they have reached a certain age. In the mid-1990s, consultants began to tell health clubs to take mirrors out of the gym and aerobics area because people did not like to see their reflections. How sad is that? Not casting shame on those that feel that way, but an empathic sorrow over being disappointed or even repulsed by one’s own self-image.
It is equally disturbing to see those that constantly preen in front of the mirror, too. “Self-love” was the road to ruin for many of Shakespeare’s characters. [I didn’t even like Shakespeare in high school, but later you learn the value of the classics] I try not to criticize the self-adoring, as we all have degrees of vanity – be it clothes, physique, possessions, occupation, or social standing. However, every gym has its share (and more) of those who could be diagnosed with narcissism.
One thing that is common for many people is to look into the mirror and fail to see all that is good and wonderful. Instead, they often focus on one flaw, real or perceived. Ever glance in the mirror and say to yourself, “my nose is too big” or “I hate these freckles,” something like that? Oh, sure, not you but a “friend.” Nobody passed through adolescence without thinking if one trait was different, life would be better; guys/girls would find us attractive instead of physically odd. Funny thing is, if that trait was fixed, there would be another. This leads to a trap for some, and as adults it can develop into a pursuit of physical, pharmaceutical, or surgical alterations of one’s appearance. I can’t help but to have mixed emotions about Michael Jackson, who with all his talents and wealth, never found happiness with his image. Clearly, he had other torments he dealt with, and caused, prior to his premature death, but I recall my shocked reaction to an article that showed the progression of his plastic surgeries. I used to watch the Jackson 5 on television when I was young.
I am very fortunate to have a small circle of people that I interact with frequently, in that it gives me time to spend with each and get to know them well. Have you ever met someone that, let’s be honest, is not blessed with good looks? Yet, as you get to know him/her well, that person suddenly is more pleasant to look upon. This doesn’t mean the relationship becomes romantic, but instead you stop seeing the flaws and instead see the beauty of that person. Why don’t we give ourselves the same concession?
Over time, we all change. The image we create is not solely the looks we have. My wife is more beautiful to me today than the day we married – our tenth anniversary is this year, though we have been together nearly twice that. It is an easy comment in regards to my wife, as she actually has become increasingly beautiful every year. I certainly am seeing things in myself that would have been unwanted when I was younger – some lines in my face, reading glasses, and a few scars. Thankfully, I know that what I can control is kept well-maintained, and I am blessed with a wife and friends who would see the person they know and care about even if something traumatic would occur.
This is not to say there isn’t always pressure to improve something. If I had access to money that I could freely spend to deal with issues that are cosmetic, I would get invisalign to straighten my teeth; I’d love to just have a plastic surgeon suck out the fat that wants to establish a beach head on my hips. I constantly struggle to keep my taper, as that area is last to go and first to return.
After I had surgery September of last year (a spinal fusion of my L4-L5), I developed swelling above the scar on my lower abdomen. For months, I had fluid build-up above my rectus muscles which I privately agonized about. I have always tried to maintain a tight physique, and that area looked like I had spent the last year drinking pints at a pub when it got bad. Eight months later, it is not bad, but still not back to where I was, though I know it will eventually get there. My wife and I traveled to a resort in the Caribbean in January, four months after that surgery and about eight weeks after my rotator cuff surgery. I felt very “average” which is a critical expression I use about myself. Yet, my wife and I both received several compliments from fellow guests. It was a nice reminder that they see the person in front of them, not how you were when you were younger or healthier. Most of “us” look and function better physically, and hopefully mentally and emotionally as well, on our bad days than “they” do on their best days.
Typing this, it sounds silly, vain, and trivial – but hopefully honest. Spend some time today thinking about what you agonize over, then write about it briefly. In black and white, the issues might take on a more realistic relevance. Granted, men are not judged as cruelly about their looks or build, society grants us a pass if we reach social or financial success. Nonetheless, many men are uncomfortable with their own body. Clothing styles hide much of that, explaining why all training shorts are either “basketball” length, or butt crease revealing running shorts. Many people flaunting their bodies are actually insecure and seeking a response, rather than the arrogant expressionist he/she appears to be. Loose bottoms are topped either by baggy t-shirts, or the unfortunate choice of sausage-skin compression shirts. I lived during the spandex days, but there are limits to the tensile strength of these fabrics. Tank tops are rare anymore, perhaps due to their lack of cover.
Ladies have it much worse, and much of the pain comes from comments from other women. So much time is spent on make-up, hair styles, dressing, and mannerism to conceal the person beneath. I try not to criticize people for feeling good about him/her self, but I don’t feel that presenting someone other than who you are is healthy or honest.
I do not want to give the impression that people should show up to the gym, work, or mall looking like they just rolled out of bed. It is good to clean up and wear an outfit that shows you weren’t getting dressed in the dark. I had worn a black tank top during my workouts for the last nine years, I bought nine of them on clearance for two dollars each – didn’t want you to think I was wearing the same one day after day. In my brain, I know I am being frugal like my Depression-era grandparents always demonstrated. In my mind, I am tired of the same shirts. Well, I have recently received new tank tops, some with color, and it does look different in the mirror. Am I comfortable out of my “old skin?” Yes, and no. I never try to stand out or draw attention, and bright red or aqua-blue looks like a beacon. I’ll get used to it, and in nine years, try a new set – LOL.
We are all people inside, and that is where the truth lies. I can sympathize with those who avoid the mirror, or spend long moments agonizing over a feature that they conceal from others. For most of us, this is an issue that is given greater significance than it deserves. I remember patients from my medical training who had suffered debilitating and disfiguring injuries; were born with genetic or fetal malformations; or had conditions that caused them to be shunned socially. Unless this has occurred to you, you never realize how fortunate you are.
If there is a feature you agonize over, stop making that the central focus of your self-image. It may be something you can change with effort (e.g. tightening the abs, building the arms up), or it may be something that requires you to consider getting professional service, (e.g. cosmetic surgery, cosmetic dermatology, or speech therapy). Many people scoff at cosmetic surgery, but reasonably and skillfully performed, it can do wonders for a mentally healthy individual as long as the expectations are realistic. However, there is cost and risk to measure against the reward, so never enter into such procedures hastily.
We all have flaws, and even the most beautiful person will look less lovely caught off-guard. For some reason the tabloids thrive on this, making “normal” people even more self-conscious about being comfortable with themselves. In our lives, we have people who are not “lookers,” but become beautiful in our eyes. It may be Grandma with her white hair and wrinkles, but always smiling and ready with a hug; the yoga instructor who gives you an hour of tranquility and thanks you for coming to class; or the deli server who shares recipes and “just happens” to scoop a larger portion into your container. If you are the sort of person who cares for others, that makes you more beautiful in their eyes. A few moments focusing on others will do more for your looks than hours spent focusing on yourself.
About the Author
Daniel Gwartney, M.D. took the path less traveled and combined his passion for health, fitness, and bodybuilding with the knowledge and experience learned during his medical training. A former world-ranked natural bodybuilder, appearing on the covers of Muscle Media 2000 and Ironman Magazine, and a regular contributor to several of the top bodybuilding and fitness magazines, he provides unique insight into the application of fitness into medicine and medicine into fitness.