Real Talk on Authenticity
There’s a lot of talk about authenticity these days. There always has been, really. The ancient Greeks inscribed “Know Thyself” over the door to the Temple of Delphi. One of Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet proclaimed, “To Thine Own Self Be True”. Playwright Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.” In a more contemporary take, the urban dictionary defines authenticity as “being who you are, listening to yourself and making your own decisions, rather than buying all the crap society foists on you.”
What does it really mean to be authentic? To be true to yourself, certainly, and not to pretend to be someone or something you are not. To accept your strengths and weaknesses, absolutely, and value yourself for what you are rather than belittling yourself for failure to be something you were not destined to be. To stand up for your rights, most definitely, and not be persuaded by subservience to suffer abuse or undertake things that are not right for you. The concept is, however, a double-edged sword. A sociopath is authentic.
Psychologists agree that there are two levels of authenticity, inner and outer. It’s not always possible or desireable to be 100% authentic in your public persona. There are laws, courtesies and pecking orders to be observed. You want to project your best self to others and, sometimes, the mask you wear to do this helps you gain strength and subdue inner demons. Who hasn’t pasted on a smile and gone off to an obligatory function they’re not in the mood to attend, only to find that the fake smile becomes genuine as the day wears on? You can’t boycott housework in the name of being true to yourself, no matter how much you may hate doing it.
If you are by nature a compassionate, responsible, law-abiding individual, your authenticity is not likely to harm society or wound others. Authenticity is not and should never be an excuse for cruel or inappropriate behavior. It’s important to recognize the ways in which authenticity sometimes has to be trumped to serve your own best interests or the well-being of others. If, however, you consistently find yourself in situations where you are martyring yourself to the wants, needs or dictates of someone other than yourself, you may want to think about making some changes to your environment or your attitude so you can be more truthful more often in your daily life.
Inner authenticity is another matter altogether. You can’t be authentic unless you know who you are. If your vision of self has been formed by the influence of others or compromised by experience, you may need to invest some time in getting to know yourself and your true values a little better. Do you do 'X' because you’ve always done it, or because it’s expected of you, regardless of whether or not it still serves you well? Are your opinions likely the views of the last person who shared theirs with you?
The late Steve Jobs, the American entrepreneur who brought the personal computer to the forefront of society and co-founded Apple Inc., is quoted as saying: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Although there may be a vaguely amusing logical disconnect in someone dying their hair a shocking, cerulean blue in order to express their authenticity, there is a valid message here. Should you feel that blue hair reflects your inner blue goddess or, more likely, the decision to do it is a radical and courageous departure from the norm for you, go for it. It’s an outward expression of an inner decision to take charge, and that’s a good thing.
The Skinny on Body Positivity
Body positivity can be a double edged sword as well. We all understand that we needn’t aspire to look like the 20-year-old photoshopped models we see on the covers of magazines, nor should we beat ourselves up for our failure to do so. The unrealistic images of womanly perfection are, thankfully, changing.
France, the long-time industry leader in the fashion world, passed new laws in 2017 regulating the weight of runway models to ensure that the bodies presenting the high fashion looks of the season to the world are not, in fact, anorexics who deprive themselves of adequate nutrition in order to maintain the otherworldly long limbed elegance previously thought to be the height of female chic. The fitness industry has been a major player in this revolution as well. It’s no longer considered unfeminine for women to show off muscles.
Society’s preferences for the size and shape of the ideal female form have been fluid since early times. From the voluptuous women depicted in Renaissance paintings to the stick-thin 1920’s flappers, the curvaceous early film stars of the 1940’s to the waif-like coltishness of Twiggy in the 60’s, the picture of perfection has changed with every generation. Thankfully, such horrors as whalebone corsets have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today, big booties are ‘in’ thanks to the likes of Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez.
Not surprisingly, the incidence of eating disorders in women has paralleled these trends with both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa being recognized as mainstream disorders in the 1970’s. Although understood by psychologists to be a product of much deeper control and self-subjugation issues than aspiring to an unrealistic body image, the disorders are certainly fanned by the steady barrage of misleading imagery in the media and in advertising.
Large women, the current vernacular is “curvy”, are accepted more readily by society than they’ve been for generations. Witness Ashley Graham, an advocate for body positivity and inclusion, gracing the covers of the past few Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, a spot previously reserved for the long-waisted classic bikini body super model.
It’s wonderful that heavier folks are being encouraged to accept themselves as they are without recrimination, and it’s great that society is now recognizing that it’s not cool to discriminate against larger people simply because of their size. It’s now widely recognized that folks with a larger Body Mass Index (BMI) can indeed be healthy and fit. They run marathons, teach yoga, do pole dancing and dance ballet. Kudos to them, trailblazers that they are.
Body positivity is also a double-edged sword. No matter how accepting you may be of your body, there are some realities to consider. If you are significantly overweight and sedentary, you are setting yourself up for a host of diseases and reduced quality of life. You might remind yourself every day that every inch of you is beautiful, and we applaud you for your personal victory in embracing this, but you’re still increasing your chances of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, osteoarthritis, some cancers and premature death through an unhealthy lifestyle. The body positivity movement is not and should not be a license to do yourself harm. There is absolutely nothing positive about that. There has to be a sensible middle ground on this issue.
The bottom line is that both of these initiatives, authenticity and body positivity, are hugely important in defining the female role in modern society. We should embrace them with joy. At the same time, we need to recognize that moderation and balance are the keys to owning them.