Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds: A Roman Recommendation

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How do we express outwardly to the world our inner sense of identity, and how do we feed the body, mind and spirit that makes us rounded and healthy human beings? The Roman poet Juvenal recommended “a healthy mind in a healthy body” as the only blessing worth praying for, but how easy is that to achieve in the wake of the festive season?

“You are what you eat”, or so the saying goes. And as Christmas and New Year recede into what already feels like the dim and distant past, that might well be something that a lot of us (myself included) have spent some time reflecting on recently.

But then in between thinking longingly about the cream liqueurs and the packets of savoury snacks, I started wondering about that whole “You are what you…” thing: is there any reason why it should just be limited to you are what you eat? Couldn’t we also be thinking about “You are what you wear”, or “You are what you read” or “You are what films you watch”? I think that all of those statements are really pointing towards important questions of identity, how we feel about ourselves on the inside and how we express it to the outside world. And what does “You are what you eat” mean anyway — that if I eat too many bananas I’ll turn into one?

On a more serious note, I suppose the “You are what you eat” message is trying to tell us that if we eat too much sugar, fat and salt (to name but three), then we’ll end up with unhealthy bodies which won’t allow us to make the most of our lives.

But what about “You are what you read” or “You are what films you watch”? These are food for the mind and the spirit, rather than the body, but are they any less important for that? As the Roman poet Juvenal put it: “Mens sana in corpore sano” — “A healthy mind in a healthy body” — and that’s surely something worth striving for. After all, without the inner resources of good health (in all its forms) we’re in danger of being stretched too thin whenever we’re called upon to deal with something unexpected. Eating a healthy diet — with not too much of the cream liqueurs and the savoury snacks — helps me to feel that I can take on the world, as does feeding my mind and spirit: a good film, an absorbing novel, a walk along the seafront, coffee with friends, time spent with family away from home. It all builds towards an inwardly and outwardly healthy being.

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So how shall we dress this healthy being? What clothes shall I choose to show off this healthy being to the world? And what do I want those clothes to say about me? If we’re reflecting on the idea that “you are what you wear”, then how might I express my sense of myself in the clothes that I choose each day?

Of course not everyone has a choice about what they wear; if you have to wear a uniform to work, then you’re likely to be limited in how far you can express your individual identity during those hours. I remember I had a summer job as a waitress in a cafe when I was a teenager, and I was given the most hideous, ill-fitting uniform to wear. I hated it so much that I’d find any excuse not to wear it for as many days as possible. It just wasn’t me. In the end, the cafe owner — for whom the uniforms were an important part of his corporate image — gave me my marching orders. Hurrah, I had my identity back!

Let’s look at that concept of identity for a minute; that dreadful uniform ‘wasn’t me’ — the colour, the fit, the way it made me feel when I put it on. There was no congruence between the person I felt myself to be and the person I saw in the mirror with that uniform on. There have been many shows on television over the last few years where women (mostly) with self-esteem and self-confidence issues have been encouraged or cajoled into changing their appearance and their dress style in order to change the way they feel about themselves on the inside. To be fair, there’s no real way of telling whether the transformations endure after the cameras have gone, but certainly the effect on the inner self of changing the outward appearance can be quite dramatic — and moving — by the time the credits roll.

But clothes are also context-specific: I would not wear the same sorts of clothes for a night out with my husband as I would for seeing clients — or dog-walking for that matter. Yet they all reflect an aspect of who I am and how I feel about myself on that particular day, doing those particular things.

Our clothes are indicative of our sense of identity, just as our physical appearance is a sign of our body’s health. And I think maybe the way we come across to others, the way we engage in conversation, how open we are to other people’s lives and opinions is indicative of our mental or ‘spirit’ health too.

How will you follow Juvenal and strive for a “healthy body and a healthy mind” this week? And how will you show it off to the world?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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