Man, Superman, and MS: Has the Self-Improvement Meme Gone Bonkers?

Let’s assume you are reading articles on this site not only for disease and treatment information, but also to seek some measure of inspiration. Maybe you feel you are less of a person now that you have some disabilities and can’t do what you once did; maybe you are now retired and feeling a creeping sense of worthlessness and unworthiness nagging at the back of your brain. You want to recapture the old pre-MS outlook you had that you can achieve anything you set your mind to in that peculiarly American rah-rah way. It’s what we do in this country. Self-improvement—the flip-side of which might be self-loathing—is the anthem we chant as though it is a religion unto itself. It seems that any creature that is plugged into pop culture feels inadequate and must discover some method to elevate her or himself from ordinary to sublime.

On its face, this concept seems innocuous and positive. Encouraging one’s personal growth, realizing one’s potential no matter how latent, is certainly an admirable set of goals. But we must be wary of the pitfalls. Media promotes self-improvement and good health, but because it is largely visual, it is presented in a way that hooks our vanity. Without even realizing it, we can distort that value and give it more importance than it deserves. We all own mirrors. And most of us don’t live “unplugged,” so we are often painfully aware of others. Soon we have lingering fantasies of being not oneself, but some blend of self and the other, better alternative. The most extreme example would be Clark Kent and Superman. Together they complete the fantasy. But they will never meld. Superman cannot walk among ordinary humans without being a constant target. He is, essentially, a monster. He would be much too conspicuous, unlike his alter ego, mild-mannered boring Clark Kent, who, by blending into the woodwork, would live a long life, grow old, and die in the arms of his loved ones.

There are people who fancy themselves as being role models who do not think through these issues. Recently I stumbled across an episode of “Botched,” a reality television show about plastic surgeons who fix botched cosmetic surgeries and consult with people who desire unconventional cosmetic procedures. A 37-year-old man named Herbert Chavez, who has had numerous procedures to make himself resemble Superman, asked the doctors to surgically give him abs of steel—which they refused to do after discovering he’d been injecting his abdomen with an illegal filler that had caused some disfigurement and which could not safely be removed. Upon exposing his torso to the cameras, Chavez appeared overweight and out of shape, about which the doctors unequivocally remarked that he’ll have to get abs of steel the old-fashioned way by working out and eating healthy.

I’m not out to condemn cosmetic surgery as a misguided vanity, far from it. I’ve had some procedures myself and have been pleased with the results. My beef is with what Chavez ostensibly stated as his reason for having these surgeries. It goes to the heart of how we can twist the concept of self-improvement.

In “Botched,” Chavez, who was born into poverty in the Philippines, poses with young boys under a marquee that spells out his name in large letters as the Guinness world record holder of Superman memorabilia, autographing their programs and striking familiar poses from the Superman franchise. “I want them [poor Filipino boys] to know that I’m here, that Superman is real,” he says. “I want them to have hope. I don’t have a lot of pesos to donate and help poor youth, but I can inspire them.” (Chavez reportedly has spent about 300,000 pesos—around $7,000 US dollars--on his surgeries. There are no reports that he plans to auction off even a portion of his Superman collection for philanthropic purposes.)

The confused, mixed messages and the obvious hypocrisy in his statements need not be enumerated. In a nutshell, the sum of his actions seems to illustrate a person of color who feels better about himself the more he resembles an idealized physical image of a white Anglo-Saxon male. His real accomplishment is that of a world class collector of memorabilia. But he isn’t content to be just an ordinary collector. He wants to become part of the collection itself. There is no altruism in this, but there might be a whole lot of self-loathing. He has reduced himself to a version of a Saturday Night Live parody: It is better to look good than to feel good—or to actually experience pride and self-esteem through hard work and self-discipline. Even Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas must be turning in his grave over this man. It is not a message that Fernando would send to pre-teens. At Fernando’s Hideaway, you must be 18 years or older to enter.

How does this resonate with our own struggle for self-improvement as people with multiple sclerosis?  My main thought is that we all should remain vigilant about our own motivations for self-improvement. There are no wrong decisions, only flawed motives and expectations.

Check yourself the next time you look at the cover photo of an MS magazine. Is it a blow-up of yet another fit person with MS who is astride a bike and looks ready to enter the next Tour de France? How does that make you feel about yourself? Do you read the article inside—or do you not want to bother because a picture is worth a thousand words? Do you watch television and get mesmerized by infomercials about yet another diet plan that throws a barrage of images at you of thin, super-fit young people with six-pack abs? The narration is talking losing weight for health, but the imagery says something else entirely: It’s more about HOW YOU WILL LOOK. A diet plan is not a weight-training plan, and yet that diet pill will clearly do all the work for you. And that fit biker on the MS magazine cover? We are seeing the outcome of years of training this person went through. She was likely an athlete long before she developed MS. Do we really want to compare ourselves—or to think we could accomplish something similar without all that history?

What is missing in this “unwitting” vanity display is context, the substance of which cannot be fully communicated because of the limitations of visual media. The person with multiple sclerosis who is a critical thinker will see past the hype. And the person with MS who earnestly searches for a more realistic workout will find the gems, such as the yoga sessions on video led by a post-menopausal woman with a middle-aged post-childbirth belly spilling over the top of her yoga pants, an ordinary woman that can bend and move in ways we can only dream about. The look on her face is utter serenity itself. I have to remind myself that she spent years getting there. It's no accident that I was drawn to her video as my favorite because she looks more like me than Jillian Michaels does. I don't long to look like her, I already do. I only want to move the way she moves.

The path to better health isn’t easy and we with multiple sclerosis are no sissies. I’m still working on the physical vanity thing, though. I do want to look good no matter what age I am. But the point isn’t to find some kind of reductive solution to it all. It’s really about slogging through with my eyes wide open.1,2

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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