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You Can’t Buy an Authentic Self

We should be wary of teaching the next generation that identity is something that can be bought.

· 7 min read
You Can’t Buy an Authentic Self
Dylan Mulvaney's Instagram.

Everywhere I look, it seems that someone is selling me my authentic self. Through cosmetic surgeries, through therapy, after downloading an app, I can discover who I really am. Coming of age isn’t about fulfilling duties, assuming responsibilities, or achieving milestones anymore. Instead, it’s about finding your true self—or rather, buying it.

The beauty industry is at the forefront of this trend. Take the Beverly Hills breast enhancement surgeon Dr Cat Begovic, who believes that a “breast makeover is about more than resculpting your figure—it’s about resculpting your confidence with a body that finally resonates with your true self.” Or take these descriptions of a Brazilian butt lift—the cosmetic surgery with the highest death rate—as a “life changing and empowering experience,” which will help you become “Your Most Authentic Self.” And this phenomenon isn’t restricted to cosmetic surgery; it’s everywhere—in all the beauty marketing girls are growing up with. You can “radiate your authentic self with fake tan; buy some “SELF LOVE EYELASHES” to “express your true self”; or try some butt-enlarging gummies to “let your authentic self shine.”

Screenshot: @ohitsemmarose, TikTok.

Other industries have got in on the act, too. The pharmaceutical industry promises to help you “feel like you again” with mental health medication. The wellness industry invites you to "connect with your inner self" for €350 a month. But the worst examples of this marketing always seem to target trans people. I know this is a sensitive subject for many of us Zoomers, but if you find the messaging of the beauty and pharmaceutical industries objectionable, please hear me out—because the same industries are telling trans people the same message: that you need clothes, cosmetics, and surgeries to discover who you really are. Beauty brands like Dove are relating how “hair and beauty routines” help form trans people’s identities. Surgeons are urging trans people to embrace their true selves with gender reassignment surgery. Maybelline is teaching trans people how to “find their true selves” through make-up. Even FaceTune, the editing app used to distort your face and body, has become a way for trans women “to see their true selves.” All over the internet, trans people are sharing how much effort it takes to be authentic, how expensive it is, how they had to get 10 Hours Of Transgender Facial Surgery to reflect who they really are (this last video is part of an online series called Get Real).

Screenshot from @zayaperysian How much did yall guess the cost was? 😭 #trans #bottomsurgery #mtf

I think this is why more and more trans people are being sponsored by beauty brands and featured on the covers of fashion magazines. These companies aren’t doing this because they care about inclusivity, but because it expands their customer base when someone like Dylan Mulvaney says “I'm embracing my true self using these incredible Mac products! I’m sure it’s painful to feel misaligned with who you truly are. But that doesn’t mean that companies should be able to get away with the kind of marketing that portrays transgender breast augmentation as “one step closer to living as your most authentic self.” These companies are manipulating vulnerable people: trying to convince them that it will cost them a great deal—both emotionally and financially—to become their true selves. We should be wary of teaching the next generation that identity is something that can be bought—as, for example, yet this is what media like in this “30 second trailer to becoming your true self” on TikTok, which k does—essentially , it shows a dad giving his trans child new clothes, a wig, and some make-up. The word “trailer” is also interesting here. It’s as if our lives were adverts. 

@jonathanjoly 30 second trailer to becoming your true self #sacconejolys #trans #lgbtq #30secondtrailer

It is those on the left who have fallen hardest for this marketing strategy. I’m not the first person to have noticed the irony of so many self-proclaimed anticapitalists becoming convinced that they can buy an authentic self. Some of the people who express most scepticism about billionaires and big corporations seem to believe that Maybelline and Pfizer actually care. And sometimes they derive their entire identity and sense of self from the products and services that these industries are selling them.

My guess is that we Zoomers fall for this stuff because we grew up with social media. Nobody is authentic online. You can’t be. Authenticity is the opposite of the performance, pretence, and constant curation these platforms demand. Anyone who says that they can sell you your authentic self is lying, but that sort of marketing speaks to us because so many of us have lost touch with our true selves. Of course, we don’t feel aligned. We are trapped in a constant struggle between alternately curating an artificial self online and grappling to rediscover an authentic one offline.

I’m not convinced there even is such thing as a self in complete isolation from other people—let alone an authentic one. We are our relationships with others. If you were left alone with all your products and clothes and aesthetic enhancements and never spoke to another person, you would not be your true self: you’d be nothing. When people make finding themselves their ultimate goal—especially when it comes at the expense of others—they often end up losing touch with reality: derailing their lives or becoming more confused than before. The belief that life is a constant search to find yourself is corrupting.

If a true self exists, it is the version of you that is independent of any retail marketplace. It is you stripped of all your products and procedures. Of course, we all rely on what we buy to express ourselves to some extent, but you shouldn’t let your identity completely depend on your purchases. Your authentic self surely has nothing to do with anything that can be bought. 

Back in the day, when people described someone as authentic, as true to themselves, they were talking about that person’s character. Being true to yourself meant living a life aligned with your values, matching your actions to your words, doing the right thing, being sincere and honest. Now we’ve convinced a generation to seek self-expression through products and self-esteem through surgeries.

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Being comfortable in your body isn’t expensive—even though it’s lucrative for companies to pretend it is—it’s difficult. It’s extremely difficult to learn to accept yourself. Perhaps it’s even impossible—because the only way to achieve self-acceptance is to become someone who deserves to be accepted. And for that, you’ll need to put your ego aside and focus on how you feel internally, rather than how you present yourself externally. I sympathise with all the people who are struggling with insecurities and anxieties. But you will not find your true self by setting up a GoFundMe for your facial surgery. Nor will any amount of Maybelline makeup ever ‘make you your most authentic self.’

I think it’s a dangerous message, a cynical marketing ploy to tell people that they can purchase their way to self-esteem. They have found a way to sell my generation an ersatz version of everything that used to be free of charge—community; friendship; romantic love; even a moment of peace. And now they’ve found a way to sell us self-love and authenticity, too. 

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You are more than the products you buy. Your identity should not come with a shopping guide. You are how you act. You are how loyal and humble you are, or how self-absorbed, and self-righteous. You are how you treat people when you’re stressed or short of time,  how you treat people when there’s nothing in it for you; how often you complain to others rather than thank them; how often you think about your own needs and wants rather than the needs of those around you. You are your vanity, your jealousy—you are all those ugly but real parts of yourself. You can’t change the person you are by slathering on products—no matter how many aesthetic goals you fulfil. Your authentic self will only reveal itself once you face up to all this honestly, and try to be better—privately, sincerely, ruthlessly. 

So, stop trying to live your truth and start trying to live your values. Stop trying to be your true self and start being true to other people. Don’t devote your life to discovering your authentic self. Devote it to being as honest and authentic as you can, in your words and actions. And then you might actually find yourself. 


On Instagram @quillette