Many tales have been told of Narcissus, the son of a god who fell to his peril due to his own vanity and love for himself. The story is told according to The Mythology Guide, and this is how it goes:
Narcissus was cruel not in the case of Echo alone. He shunned all the rest of the nymphs as he had done poor Echo. One day a maiden, who had in vain endeavored to attract him, uttered a prayer that he might some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and granted the prayer.
There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the shepherds never drove their flocks. Nor did the mountain goats resort to it, nor any of the beasts of the forest; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came one day the youth fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water; he thought it was some beautiful water spirit living in the fountain. He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes, those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of health and exercise over all. He fell in love with himself. He brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest, while he hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image.
He talked with the supposed spirit: “Why, beautiful being, do you shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me. When I stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and answer my beckonings with the like.” His tears fell into the water and disturbed the image. As he saw it depart, he exclaimed, “Stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you.” With this, and much more of the same kind, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost his color, his vigor, and the beauty which formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo.
She kept near him, however, and when he exclaimed, “Alas! Alas!” she answered him with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts, Echo smote hers also. They prepared a funeral pile, and would have burned the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus.(paraphrased from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, Narcissus and Echo, lines 477-745)
Vanity and the need for outward beauty must have always been an issue in the lives of men and women for this story of Narcissus to ring true even today. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines beauty as, “The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.” Interesting definition in light of what men and women strive for in what they believe to be beautiful. The internet, magazines, television and the movies tell us what we should look like and what we should be striving for.
What all the hysteria toward perfection has meant is billions of dollars spent with in the world of plastic surgery. A person that is dissatisfied with their outward appearance can easily have any part operated on, or filled with fat, or injected with silicon or collagen and viola, perfection! Well not exactly, in fact most people that have plastic surgery want more. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, “43% of all patients have two and three procedures done within the first three years of their first procedure.”
The number one procedure in the Unites States in 2003 was Rhinoplasty, which is the reshaping of the nose. Three hundred thousand Americans had this type of surgery, with Liposuction running a close second taking three hundred thousand twenty people having their fat sucked out from different areas of their bodies. Leaving breast implants, tummy tucks and eye lid lifts coming in next with over eight hundred thousand surgeries done a year. A quarter of all breast implants are later removed because of complications or concern of future complications. Many of the people interviewed state that they want these surgeries so that they can feel better about themselves, but really more often then not it seems that it is more about what others think.
This brings us to media and the pressure for beauty that is beamed into our living rooms daily. Television shows such as The Swan, supposedly takes, self-proclaimed “ugly ducklings” and they are given the unique opportunity to realize their dreams on an unscripted series that turns a fairy tale into reality. In its first season, THE SWAN became the No. 1 makeover show on television among Adults 18-49. THE SWAN promises to take women who are stuck in a rut and revitalizes them by revealing their beauty and confidence. It offers them an incredible opportunity to undergo physical, mental and emotional transformations and follows them through the process. This series culminates in a spectacular pageant in which one woman ultimately is crowned “The Swan.” Each contestant is assigned a team of specialists – a coach, therapist, trainer, cosmetic surgeon, and dentist – who work together to design the ideal individually tailored program for her. The team assists the contestants in an overall transformation that is not just about physical change.
Two contestants, who compete for a place in the pageant finale, are featured in every episode. The reveals of their individual transformations are especially dramatic because the women are not permitted to see themselves in a mirror during the three-month process. Thus, not only do they find out who has been selected to compete in the Swan Pageant and who will go home to her family, but they see themselves anew for the first time. This sounds so harmless while being life changing. Are these women really ugly ducklings and according to who? The description of the show sounds like it might be actually helping people feel better about themselves.
It is the process and competition that makes the whole idea rather unappealing to so many not to mention narcissistic, for in the end of each show the women finally get to see themselves after three months of dieting, exercise, plastic surgery from head to toe, tooth bleaching or veneers, hair coloring, cutting, and make-up, to reveal, “I’m so pretty” and then many of them say to the host of the show that they can not stop looking at themselves. They are admiring the outside appearance that has just taken a huge transformation. Then in the end there can only be one Swan and of course the other sixteen finalists are left to feel like they were not good enough or beautiful enough to be chosen, and all though they reinvented themselves they have been lowered back down to be losers yet again.
Similar to The Swan is a makeover show on MTV called I Want a Famous Face, where people have plastic surgery to look like their favorite celebrity. Shows such as these inadvertently train people that it is acceptable to change their bodies so other will be happier with the way they look, and so that they can love themselves for the first times in their lives.
In these days of plastic surgery to redefine ourselves there would not be a balance in the universe without a psychological diagnosis for these kinds of behaviors. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary describes Narcissism as, “excessive love or admiration of oneself, or a psychological condition characterized by self-preoccupation, lack of empathy, and unconscious deficits in self-esteem. Some narcissism could be healthy, “an individual’s existence would be in jeopardy if some narcissistic traits were not present.
These traits protect the ego from severe damage inflicted by others.”(7,Vankin) In this case it can be protective to have some self love and overall it is important to have a healthy self image. Vankin goes on to further explain what true narcissism is, a pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition. According to Vankin, most narcissists (75%) are men. Sam Vankin, Ph.D. has written a book on the subject of Narcissim, entitiled, Magnificent Self Love, in this book he describes narcissism as a personality disorder with distinguishable traits.
Feels grandiose and self-important (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents to the point of lying, demands to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
Is obsessed with fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance (the cerebral narcissist), bodily beauty or sexual performance (the somatic narcissist), or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering love or passion
Firmly convinced that he or she is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status people (or institutions)
Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation – or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (narcissistic supply)
Feels entitled. Expects unreasonable or special and favorable priority treatment. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her expectations
Is “interpersonally exploitative”, i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends
Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others
Constantly envious of others or believes that they feel the same about him or her
Arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, or confronted
Obviously it is fair to say that there are people in this world that could be so in love with themselves that it could be to their own demise. It is also good to know that although there is not a tremendous amount of research on the disorder that there is help out there for these individuals.
The story does not end here, there is more to our hero Narcissus. The author goes on to say that when Narcissus dies, the goddess of the forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.
“Why do you weep?” the goddess asked.
“I weep for Narcissus,” the lake replied.
“Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,” they said, “for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.”
“But… was Narcissus beautiful?” the lake asked.
“Who better than you to know that?” the goddesses said in wonder. “After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!”
The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said:
“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”
This story contains the essence of the impact we can have on others without even knowing it. People should remember that the reflection of ourselves, in the eyes of others during our communication with them, is usually the one that we put there ourselves.
Perhaps Thoreau said it best:
What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate” – Henry David Thoreau