Monday, March 16, 2015

The Discontent of Authenticity

Death to the Stock Photo

Almost every time I scroll through Instagram, a question dances on the periphery of my screen. It’s one I find myself asking frequently when I sit down for a binge on lifestyle blogs:

When did sharing discontent become a requirement for proving authenticity?

A few years ago, we all decried the artifice displayed on social media. We were stuck in the hamster wheel of keeping up with the Jones but the Joneses weren’t just next door anymore – they were everywhere. Moreover, we realized that we were at fault for this, we in the blogging community. By posting only the inspirational and the aspirational, we were holding ourselves and our followers to a Sisyphean standard, a standard that was neither satisfying to work towards nor sustainable when (if) achieved.

(This was the era in which a new “comparison is the thief of joy” graphic would appear every time we opened up Pinterest. Remember that? I blogged about it in 2012 and again in 2013, as I’m sure many of us did then.)

We started posting anecdotes from real life - #wokeuplikethis selfies, Christmas decorations left up until February, coffee spilled across breakfast tables. We started being honest about the messier side of things, about leaving freshly laundered clothes in a pile because we hate folding, about making repeated dinners out of chips and hummus, about choosing Law and Order marathons over lacing up our sneakers for trail runs. And, for a brief moment, we found genuine humor in reality and didn’t try to make it anything more.

Somehow, though, that morphed into the commercial comedy of relatability. “Your life isn’t perfect,” we captioned our photos, “and neither is mine! Look how busy I am, a Must Have planner and a Cult Brand coffee angled just so on my desk next to a pile of Best Seller books topped by artfully scattered Expensive Designer bangles with an Etsy Famous print hanging on the wall. How normal I am, like you! How crazy is life!” Honesty (or at least something calling itself that) became a commodity on social media, and suddenly though perhaps not surprisingly we tumbled from there into authenticity, the buzzword that’s been batted around blogland for the past year or so.

Here’s what disturbs me: we stopped sharing simple moments of unstyled reality when we started being “authentic” and we started weighting everything that isn’t perfect with metaphysical malaise. Authenticity became a trope through which to communicate not just literal but existential mess; now to be truly authentic online, it seems, we have to be dissatisfied with where we are in life.

Of course, it’s impossible for bloggers to avoid examining who we are and why and how. Blogging is, at its core, a navel-gazing activity, and very few if any still claim to blog only for themselves at this point in the game, which means that our introspection is part of what draws our readers in and keeps them captivated. Our authenticity – how genuine and transparent we are, or at least seem – is a key component of forming relationships with our readers and we therefore egg each other on to discover ever more profound things about ourselves and to challenge ourselves to be even more fundamentally us.

It’s all too easy for us to slide from there into discontent. After all, we need to keep our readers interested in what we have to say; introspection is useless as an engagement tactic if we’re not finding aspects of ourselves to improve.

That’s why, I think, we hear so much about bloggers feeling lost in their own lives and we read so many pieces on how to “craft” and “design” and “curate” our futures. Bloggers are constantly declaring they want to intentionally – that’s another word that crops up repeatedly – find themselves and the path they’re meant to be on. (You often get a sense of faith in fate, either directly or indirectly, from these posts and captions and comments, regardless of how much hard work and overcoming obstacles is understood to be a part of the discovery of true north.) It's hard to admit we’re not where we want to be in our lives and I give the women who are honest about their struggles a lot of credit for sharing them in such a public way. But sometimes I get the feeling that we’re mining our lives for largely surmountable complications to coat in a rosy gloss of deeper meaning just so we can work ourselves up into a lather of “authenticity”.

That’s why I wonder: how much introspection is too much?   At what point does exploring who you are and why and how and where stop being productive?  When do you realize that you're going in circles or, worse, creating more identity crises than you're resolving?

I don’t know that I have answers to these questions. What do you think?


  1. Super interesting read! I've been tossing the same thoughts around lately. In the past month, your observations have become apparent to me as well. Most recently, I stumbled upon a podcast that I thought would be helpful because it dealt with other women who are small business owners like myself. However, I quickly learned a few episode in that the recurring theme was going to be "nobody's life is perfect and we struggle daily so let's come together based on that aspect of life." I quit listening. Just like the way "busy" is cool, "I'm not perfect" is now cool. We seem to be overthinking and analyzing too much. I find that I'm surrounded by people that are trying to fit in with regard to the way they're supposed to talk about or do things in their lives. And quite frankly, just as I'm getting tired of hearing about essential oils and Stitch Fix, I'm also getting tired of the "authenticity"/introspection for deeper meanings in life.

  2. You have hit on the central problem with post modernist discourse and i'm afraid there is no resolution because the discourse itself it fundamentally floored. The more you try and reach for something outside the status quo it will necessarily become inauthentic. In the past I too often struggled with my own authenticity. It was something that really bothers me. I don't believe I or anyone else has ever had a profound experience of art all I felt when looking at the Uffizi gallery was a profound experience of the absence of profundity. However I think real meaning can only be found through purpose and relationships with others that is all really. There is really nothing else to say. Oh and also I returned to fishing, which I had always missed since the Aral sea dried up! really long story! I moved from Kazakstan to Cape Cod where I own a part share in a trawller and I could not be happier! I never feel discontented. Everything makes sense. Just me, the ocean and my pet shark Sammy!

  3. I wrote a post about this last year ( and it is something that passes through my mind when I post online still. I feel at times I need to justify that no I really do like the things I do and therefore it is authentic to my true life not just my online life.
    In some ways though I think it is naive to think this is a new problem, I think that it is merely easier to see it on a large scale but I liken it to how towards the end of the beat generation people were being paid to attend parties and make the hosts look cool and part of the current trend.

  4. I try my best to be authentic and 'fess up when a blog post idea for a recipe or cocktail doesn't turn out the way I wanted it to, most recently when my Bailey's Popsicles didn't fully freeze. But the big roadblock to full authenticity is because of a 9-5 job, which leads to self-censorship and drawing a line in the sand when it comes to sharing. I wonder how true this is across the board for other "part-time bloggers"?

  5. Yes!! I loved reading this post and agree with so many points that you discussed. One other thing that I've noticed, or perhaps just feel, is that all these "authenticity posts" are not authentic at all. It seems that so many of them are staged and meant only to receive comments or likes, etc. To me, it's one thing if it's sincere, but more often than not, it is blatantly obvious that it's not. I understand that in today's world, it can sometimes be difficult to post completely original content, but when everybody begins posting the same things, with the same set up, the same details and the same phrases as everybody else, how is that authentic at all? The very thing they say they are doing, they are only doing the opposite of. Anyway, that's just my thoughts. I'm not saying I'm not guilty of doing this myself at some point or another, but it is definitely something I've noticed. Really enjoyed your post - very thought provoking.

  6. I've noticed this trend, although you put it far more articulately than I could, and I find myself bristling when people post comments on my blog about how I'm being "real" about one thing or another. There's absolutely an emphasis to share the messy, the fights, the clutter.. but here's the thing: if you (you being metaphorical reader at large) NEED me to tell you about fights with my husband or clutter in order to make you feel better about yourself, there's something deeper within you that needs to be analyzed. The absence of either of these things in my online life doesn't mean anything other than the fact that I respect my marriage and my husband enough to not lambaste it on the internet- other than a casual joke/disagreement in passing regarding, for example, home decor (;-)) and that I have a physical allergic-like reaction to clutter, so no, it really doesn't exist in my life (except for in my closets..woof). If people lack critical thinking and truly believe I think my life is perfect or that my life is in FACT, perfect, based on what I post, that's not my fault or my duty to correct.

    wow, that comment got angrier than I anticipated. haha. I just find so much of this blogging phenomenon fascinating and irksome at times.

  7. Interesting food for thought, as always! I definitely see the trend you're talking about where it became almost cool to share the "real life" stuff. I don't have the answers either, but I think it's all about the way you share. I like what Bailie said about it being okay to like the stuff I do. Sometimes it feels like we're looking for validation that sleeping in really isn't something to feel guilty about (when really we DO, in fact, feel guilty). There's a line to being *too* real, however. Like, I posted that "Elbow in the Face" post about our Valentine's Day card exchange, and that was absolutely real life. But I probably don't need to post about how sometimes I see the flowers and candy other people get from their SOs and feel bad. Posting a picture of an empty table with the caption "I feel sad that Jordan didn't get me any flowers" is not something that is good for me to share, even though maybe it is real life. So, yeah. I feel like I have a good mix of real life and other stuff on my blog. What kills me is when people post dramatically about "this is real life" and it includes things like eating pb&j sandwiches for lunch and having chipped nail polish as though it's a huge deal. Um... I eat pb&j every single day! And doesn't everyone have chipped nail polish? But maybe not having an Instagram-worthy lunch is a big deal for some people. I don't know. (I sound like I'm judging, but really I'm just aghast that more people don't rock the classic elementary school lunch like I do!)

  8. It's interesting how we've danced around the concept of "authentic" over time, and how it's come to be associated both with negative things and then with a perfectly styled un-styled look that says, look, look how perfect my un-perfect-ness looks. If I followed life according to the Internet, I would believe that being authentic meant alternately bitching about the things that went wrong in my life and showing pictures of just how beautiful even that wrongness was.

    Instead, I think that we tend to overanalyze things. I don't think there's anyone on this thread who doesn't know what authenticity is and what's authentic for them. Jumping onto someone else's trend is like trying to stuff yourself into a pair of trendy new pants that just won't fit. It's uncomfortable, you don't like it, you don't feel good doing it - and you'd feel so much better abandoning that trend and pulling on, in my case, the comfortable jeans that probably have paint and red Hawaii dirt on them, or in your case, probably an awesome dress, and going with what works.

  9. I think genuine authenticity depends on the individual blogger. If we all do authenticity the same, then how are we being authentic? For me, it's important that I write honestly about the struggles of Crohn's Disease, because it's such a huge part of my life and I want to spread awareness. But on the other side of things, I'm very careful about what I share regarding my own feelings on my mom's cancer. Yes, they're my feelings, but it's not my illness.

    I think it's easy to think that a blogger is being inauthentic just because she thinks twice before sharing the hard parts of her life that affect other people equally or more. I know that I run anything I write about Dan by him first, just to make sure he's okay with what I've chosen to share.

    I think as long as you include the occasional reference to your real life--this post is late because I had a long week at work, or please pray for some family stuff I'm dealing with--then you don't come off as pretending to live a perfect life. But, again, there's more than one way to be authentic, and I try not to assume a blogger is being fake just because I don't agree with what she does or does not share.

  10. Yeah - an important component of authenticity is honesty, which I do think we need, but that doesn't have to always mean admitting failures, faults, or confusions. It's wonderful to have a community in which to share those things, but sometimes it's most productive for both you AND your community when you internalize some of the feelings and work through them with those closest to you before broadcasting them. Analyzing is great, but there are different times, places, and audiences for different kinds/levels of analysis!

  11. AH your post - YES. (Sorry I missed it the first time around!) You hit the nail on the head about why all of those "don't go to tourist spots" posts on travel blogs bother me. "You go and make your choices based on what you like and want to do." Let people be who they want to be! That's how they are authentic.

  12. But I don't think self-censorship and authenticity are mutually exclusive! (This is something I've struggled with when it comes to blogging about Jon, who isn't comfortable sharing as much online as I am.) I don't think authenticity means you have to share EVERYTHING - but 'fessing up to the "oops" moments as well as the successes shows you're human!

  13. Yeah, I agree with that. A friend from real life commented the other week that my IG is half Martha Stewart and half making fun of my husband - she meant it light-heartedly, but it really made me pause! Poking gentle fun at Jon might be authentic, but is it fair when the majority of my followers don't know us or our relationship beyond what I put online?

  14. Kristin, I like your metaphor. I was trying to formulate a response to this idea of authenticity, and the feeling that we might get when we read a post or see an image that doesn't resonate as "authentic" to us individually. The issue I keep coming to is - how do I know what a person's best version of authenticity is, or at least was in that exact moment? Just because it seems inauthentic to me, or seems like oversharing or undersharing or posing, doesn't mean it feels like it to that person. Or, to use your metaphor, just because someone is wearing a trendy dress doesn't mean that isn't her version of authenticity, just because I'd rather pull on my comfy jeans. It's all just different perspectives.

    I think the most important thing is feeling like I am living authentically and presenting myself as authentically as possible. I mean, obviously on the internet we aren't going to get a full understanding of a person, but nor will we get that understanding with even our closest loved ones. It's great that we can use the internet as a space to find people who resonate with us and identify with them, and set aside those that we feel don't match our interests without really needing to judge whether they are presenting themselves authentically. We can just let them wear their trendy dress and continue being who we are.

    Thanks for the metaphor!

  15. Glad you liked my little metaphor! I like your take on it as well - just because someone is trying something else on for size doesn't mean they're not being authentic. We have to give ourselves the latitude to have layers. But if something just plain doesn't fit, we shouldn't feel like we have to force it because otherwise, we won't be accepted somehow.


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