Vanity and Improvement: An Ethical Evaluation of the Gym-Selfie

Pride may be a sin, but its true nature isn’t how we’re used to thinking about it:

She says ‘I’ve come of age as a writer in a time when it’s no longer possible just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote her herself as a person of interest. I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminists and pop-culture bloggers; the easy outrage, the clubby comraderie.’ So that was the age she came of age in and where she learned how to write to an audience, and always aware of herself as a kind of media personality, right? Now, what happened to her?

What happened to her was she became a mother. She had this viscerally real experience of becoming a mother, and she said one day, she was with her infant child on the front porch of her house and it suddenly dawned on her that she had no interest in snark. She had not interest in an audience that might want to comment on her experience. She wanted to get utterly into her experience, and let it simply wash over her. It’s as though the dense reality of this baby blew away her preoccupation with with an audience, and with being a personality.

Here’s  something else I want to just read directly from the article. Listen: “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer type could ever be taken seriously, were she to cave in to conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” It’s very interesting, isn’t it? It’s as though her baby just kind of broke through this carapace of self-regard, this sort of knowing, snarky distanciation from reality. This always playing to an audience. And she found herself immersed in the reality of the experience.

Now here’s what I find interesting. It’s a cool commentary on the generation today coming of age with social media, but it also points to a very ancient spiritual distinction between what is classically called humility and pride.

Pride is not simple self-aggrandizement, or self-affirmation. It is a kind of superiority derived from a perceived separation from reality, or at least from other mortals. The moral opprobrium derived from the sin of hubris doesn’t come from the quality achieved by the individual, or even their awareness of it, but from the separation — the distanciation — from other people and from the world.

It isn’t a coincidence that the self-proclaimed nihilists you know think that they are better than everyone else. It’s a short walk from distanciation from reality and distanciation from distinctions, from value, and from the ability to derive enjoyment from value.

In my opinion, the greatest application of the distinction between pride, as theologically understood, and pride as contemporarily, culturally understood, is the much-maligned gym-selfie.

Fundamentally what is wrong with taking pictures of yourself while working out?

A possible criticism is the distanciation that the camera itself tends to create (what Davis Aurini calls “the electric eye“). Such a phenomenon can be easily seen in the horrendous case of Fitbit, where the emphasis on metrics has in some cases so dramatically separated its users from the end goal — fitness — that they believe themselves to be “succeeding” if their numbers look good, even if their health and fitness are observably flat-lining or deteriorating.

If a gym-rat is simply taking photos every time they go to the gym, that’s obviously a concern. The photos, and not the work-out, become the goal, and their health can actually suffer from this shift in focus.

But to listen to the mocking and satirizing of photographer gym-goers, usually by people who rarely or never work out themselves, you’d think that the fitness aficionado had committed some sort of felony against common decency. The degree of contempt and caustic snark behind the criticism of the “vanity” of gym-bros ‘n hoes speaks to a different motive than generous concern.

Which side smacks more of “pride?” The people trying to improve themselves, taking pictures of themselves for encouragement, documentation, and personal enjoyment? Or the people who, from a cultural high ground, distance themselves from the reality of physical pain and struggle, pointing and mocking those arrogant pricks who go to the gym and aren’t ashamed to show it?

The watch you see above belongs to one Jocko Willinck. Willinck is a former Navy SEAL, an author, an expert on business leadership, and an avid athlete. He is regularly mocked on Instagram for regularly posting pictures of his watch, which shows what time in the God-forsaken morning he begins his workout. His response, of course, is to tell them to unsubscribe. Joe Rogan, for one, likes seeing what time Willinck is up and killing it in the gym. It motivates him, and it also motivates me. I want to be more like Willinck, and those watch-pictures remind me both of the distance between me and Willinck and of what I have to do to close that distance.

And I do close that distance.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that any drive towards self-improvement is fundamentally motivated by an awareness of distance between your self and your idealized Self. “Humility,” in the colloquial sense, is the tacit motivation behind any attempt at improving a skill or working out.

What people normally call “pride” is simply a joy in yourself and your accomplishments. This is a good thing, especially when that pride overflows and inspires others to emulate or even surpass you in accomplishment. Vanity in the theological form — the distanciation and separation from this joy, perhaps for viewing it as naive, immature, or “uncomplicated” — is a bad thing. People looking to get in better shape should not let a confusion of these two meanings get in the way of working out, or in participating in the encouraging culture of fitness.


#Dadbod is Poison

In case you hadn’t heard, “Dad bod” is the word. Major publications like Slate, the AtlanticGQ, and Business Insider have all had their say on the matter in the last few days, though the trend has apparently been stewing and growing in followers for quite some time prior to 2015.

Their “say,” of course, is unanimous approval. It’s in, and therefore good.

Form follows function. What then is the function of the #Dadbod?

First, an explanation brought to us by the mainstream media.

Whatever would we do without ABC.

So there it is; the #Dadbod is working out… but not “too much.” It’s letting go with your diet, eating what you want, when you want it, and yet not growing outright obese. And there are dozens of women coming to tell you, on behalf of all other women, that this (not this) is what is actually attractive to the ladies.

The original attractiveness of the #Dadbod was not the look itself, of course. It was the lifestyle and personality of the type of man who would acquire it; a man who is too busy being successful and attractive in non-physical ways to worry himself with chiseled abs, but doesn’t let himself go completely either. This is actually quite reasonable, but it is not in this way that the articles are praising the new physique. By commending the #Dadbod itself, they are putting the cart before the horse, and praising the mediocrity that comes from excellence elsewhere rather than excellence itself.

We may as well write odes to the intellect of MMA fighters, or the cleanliness of construction crewmen. There are many ways to be excellent, but these articles target the mediocre opportunity cost of excellence elsewhere as the good itself. The #Dadbod hashtag is, in essence, the idealization of the average.

The observer might point out–as the articles variously did–that the average is not new. Socrates sported something like the #Dadbod, and countless male icons between then and now. But though the body type is not new, the rejection of the old ideal male forms–David, the Spartans, the Olympic Athletesis new. Instead of acknowledging our own inferiority to an ideal that we nonetheless strive towards, #Dadbod says that the ideal is not worth striving for. Be a little lazy! Relax… and embrace being average.

Commercials like this come to mind:

This is the simply the next logical step of the self-esteem movement. When your sense of identity is built around other people’s subjective judgments of you, rather than around your relationship to an objective standard, then it is natural for you to be more defensive, and more aggressive, whenever those positive judgments begin to fade away or become outright hostile. It pays to be average, to encourage a culture that praises mediocrity, and to bring those who make you feel comparatively inferior and insecure about yourself down a notch or two.

There is no room for admiration or emulation when we’re supposed to believe we’re already as good as we have to be. As good as we’ll ever be.

So if form follows function, what is the function of the #Dadbod?

As an idea, it is an attack on ideals. It is powerful because many women are serious when they say they prefer the #Dadbod… but not because it’s “attractive.” Women have already been fed the self-esteem poison, and many accepted an unattractive body shape–one that is by no means beyond improvement–as a core part of their identity.

“I am a ‘plus-sized’ woman.”

When they say things like:

Few things are worse than taking a picture in a bathing suit, one being taking a picture in a bathing suit with a guy who is crazy fit. We don’t want a guy that makes us feel insecure about our body[…]But we still like being the center of attention.

then you know that the attraction they claim is probably less than genuine. More likely, it is a compensatory excuse for their own feelings of insecurity about their body, feelings that they would rather fix by having other people lower their standards than by rising to achieve something beautiful themselves. The coddling self-esteem movement has carefully built an elaborate structure for them on the whimsical foundation of other people’s praise and acceptance, and the idea of other people building their identity cathedral upon a more solid foundation–an ideal, a principal, anything objective, rather than subjective–threatens to undermine their own foundation. Those with objective foundations for their own worth feel no need for undue praise and adulation, and so feel no reciprocally-motivated desire to assist in the self-delusion of others.

It is worth remembering that there is a reason that the ideals exist as they are. Being “curvy” (read “fat”), or rocking the “dad body” (read “overweight”), are not just sexually unattractive, but unhealthy, and unhelpful for tasks like moving things, climbing stairs, and generally feeling good about yourself. Nothing helps your self-esteem–chemically–like a good workout and the beautiful body shape that comes from making that a habit.

As summer comes around, the ads will come out about preparing for the good weather.

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Aside from not caring, there are basically two options you can take:

1. Get angry

Drag yourself and others down to preserve an identity others built for you on their own praise and subjective judgment.

2. Get motivated

Uplift both yourself and others while actively building an identity based on your own values, goals, and genuine preferences.

Whichever option you choose, recognize that you are choosing it, and that day by day, what you do is who you become. You are the captain of your ship. Choose your course wisely.