Why I’m Letting Go Of Authenticity
By Laura Taylor
In 2017, journalist Rachel Monroe embarked on a road-trip with a young, beautiful insta-famous couple to understand the #vanlife phenomenon. During their time on the living off-the-grid, she juxtaposed the preconceived, logistical nightmare that is planning out every post (‘Smith had a particular image in mind: King sprawled in the back of the van, reading a book, and an “Outsiders” decal featured prominently on her laptop. As Smith shot from the front seat, King tried a few different positions—knees bent; legs propped up against the window—and pretended to read the book. “Sometimes it’s more spontaneous,” King said apologetically. “Lift your head up a little bit more, look like you’re reading” Smith said’) against the vocal followers who openly envied the ‘freedom’ the couple has.
She bitterly summed up the experience; “Scrolling through their feed in chronological order... I had the disconcerting sense of watching a life become a lifestyle brand.”
One study estimates that the influencer market was worth five hundred million dollars in 2015 - expected to increase to at least five billion dollars by 2020. Commodifying authenticity is not at all new, but it’s never been as profitable. We are reminded daily to ‘just be yourself’ – but as a means to be categorized, optimised and sold.
Authenticity is something we can make bank on, but ultimately lose in the process of displaying a simulacrum of ourselves to the world. I can’t help but be reminded of the Greek story of Narcissus, who falls for his own reflection; “Narcissus was in love with his idealized picture, but neither the grandiose nor the depressive Narcissus can really love himself. His passion for his false self makes impossible not only love for others but also, despite all appearances, love for the one person who is entrusted to his care - himself.”
Not to mention, in practice being authentic isn’t exactly pleasant. Do we really call for authenticity from the person who believes that vocalising their sexist ideologies is them practicing their most ‘authentic self’, or who thinks that insulting their entire peer group is simply an expression of their truest being? Is authenticity ranked above our ethical responsibility to just not be an asshole to people?
Leah Finnigan puts this perfectly in one of her articles: “I emailed William Swann, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, to ask if he could offer a better saying than “be yourself,” his response; ‘A nice piece of advice for someone who thinks it is a good thing to ‘be yourself’ is to watch the speech given by the leader of the free world last weekend. Giving some people license to be themselves can encourage performances that are painful to watch.”
I recently went on a bit of an (unintentional) reconciliation crusade - seeking to make amends with the few people in my life I felt at odds with. And the hardest part of it wasn’t showing up to the cafe, or the breaking-the-ice chat, it was realising how much easier it would be to rework the narrative and write this person off as someone I never cared about anyway. To sit across from them and reconcile the heavy, surmountable past we shared, the hurt, and the love that really existed there, together, is much harder to process because it contains multitudes.
We hold many ideas within ourselves, fluid and ever-changing. And using ‘just be yourself’ as the measuring stick can become a prison as opposed to inviting freedom. I have felt paralysed writing posts on here, petrified they won’t come across as inherently me (ironically this piece has taken weeks), or laid awake replaying events after doing something that I fear doesn’t align with my somewhat aspirational idea of who I am. And probably in the most irritating manifestation; I can feel compelled, especially during hard conversations, to express every damn thought in my mind prompted by a need to honour my ‘honest’ self - even if several days later those thoughts or views have changed.
Pandora Sykes puts this best in her essay The Authentic Lie: “I am sure I am not the only person made anxious by the widely held philosophical idea of a collective self*, constantly shedding and re-shaping… the idea of a collective self can feel scattered; incomplete; somehow not able to be whole. I can literally feel myself unraveling at the seams and separating off into alien individuals I cannot regulate.”
(*collective self here refers to the concept of perceiving the self as an interchangeable exemplar of some social category rather than a perception of self as a unique person.)
This idea is dissonant - it suggests that quite rarely are we completely integrated, so it is hard to remain authentically true to one idea. It means admitting that while you were outwardly happy, your engagement party was actually one of your lowest days because you were still struggling with depression, or that it took you five years to get over that guy you knew gave you no reason to love him as deeply as you did, or even explains how that the person you thought was truly safe actually behaved in a way that you just can’t bring yourself to believe.
Which is hard to hear. But as Alice Miller describes in one of her studies: “It’s not only the ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’ feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence and give us crucial insight, but often precisely the ones from which we would prefer to escape. Helplessness, shame, envy, rage, grief, confusion - when these feelings are understood they open the door for our inner world that is much richer than ‘beautiful countenance’.
So, what do we ask for if not to be authentic? I think we start with placing more value on other ideals (self-knowledge, wisdom, kindness) that have power to affect change. Putting our efforts into creating safe spaces of relationship and understanding in an anxious age that has made it so much harder to open up to each other. A place to present our shittiness and shortcomings where they can be challenged or reasoned with. The removal of expectation to present an ‘authentic’ yet cultivated self to each other.
Because just like Narcissus, we get so good at piecing together our pretty shining images, that we can often disillusion ourselves. But if we can let go of ‘authenticity’ we can allow more room for more self-knowledge and actual growth in our lives - authentic really in no way at all, but definitely powerful.