Does Authenticity Matter Anymore?
How we are blurring the line between what is "real" versus "enhanced."
Posted Jul 06, 2011
Does anyone else question authenticity the way I do these days? Does doubt about what is "real" versus "enhanced" interfere with the trust we once had in the people we admire and applaud?
I was thinking about this while watching a recent Yankees game. An enthusiastic fan whenever the Yankees play, I found myself unusually excited as Bartolo Colon was three outs from pitching his first complete game shutout since 2006. You see, Colon is 38, not a young guy in baseball years. A Cy Young winner a while back, he is enjoying a renaissance of sorts this season, returning from ligament damage and a torn rotator cuff -- injuries I could relate to at age 57. I was rooting for him, one aging fan to one aging player. But there, in the ninth inning, a flicker of doubt crossed my mind, that lurking feeling I've been having a lot these days. It wasn't about his pitching, but about the authenticity of his performance. I thought, "Is it real?" Could I trust that his 92-mile-per-hour fastball was all his own doing?
I was annoyed that my doubts interfered with the pure pleasure of watching a great performance. I was aware that Colon's reconstructed shoulder had been under scrutiny regarding the possible use of Human Growth Hormone (one of the many substances banned from professional sports). His doctors described using a novel stem cell approach during the surgery, which had raised some suspicion about the legality of the results. I had also been following all the media attention around illegal doping by other elite athletes -- McGuire, Armstrong and Pacquiao, to name just a few. So while Colon was found free of performance-enhancing drugs, it was hard to allay my mistrust.
What really bothered me was that my struggle with authenticity was spreading way beyond sports. It hit me during my son's college graduation. I watched thousands of students receive their diplomas; one by one making that proud walk to the podium with huge smiles, handshakes and hugs. As their honors were called -- Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, Summa Cum Laude -- I applauded their accomplishments, just as I had each of Colon's strikeouts. Yet again, I found myself doubting: Were these achievements real? How many of these kids used study enhancers -- like Adderall and Ritalin -- to attain these honors?
I work with college-aged patients in my psychotherapy practice, so I know that many are using their friends' prescription drugs for study purposes. High school and college students tell me they rely on ADHD medications to work on their papers and cram for exams. Recent studies show that there is rampant abuse by students between ages 18 and 22 today, with one out of every 10 saying they have tried or depend on ADHD medications to get through their college course work. These "study buddies" (as these meds are casually called) are used by students with or without a learning disability diagnosis, a fact I found hard to ignore at my son's graduation. How many of those Summa Cum Laudes would have gotten their awards had they not been aided by stimulants? We may never know.
And what about the issue of authenticity in the looks department? With airbrushing, Photoshop and plastic surgery, it's hard to believe anyone's appearance is real anymore -- on screen or off. I remember watching the Golden Globes earlier this year trying to stay focused on the work for which each actor was being honored. Instead, I found myself scrutinizing the "work" that had possibly been done on their faces. I was excited to see Annette Bening receive Best Actress for "The Kids Are All Right," not only for her achievement in the film, but for how gorgeous she looked at age 55. Yet there it was, my lurking doubt: Was Bening's beauty authentic? Had she miraculously managed to avoid the radical anti-aging efforts that had destroyed the faces of her peers? Or had she simply gone about it more subtly?
I have men in my practice who tell me that upon meeting women these days, one of their first thoughts is, "Are her breasts real?" The younger the guy, the more often they assume their girlfriends will have implants. Sometimes they say they don't like the plastic look, but big breasts are beginning to be an expected female asset. One woman I worked with told me she was given a gift from her fiancé -- a visit to a cosmetic surgeon for breast enhancement. He wanted double Ds. They settled for Ds. They were happy with the results, but I won't be surprised if I hear from them for some marital therapy in the future.
Doubts about men's appearance exist, too. Women tell me they wonder if their mates would be bald if Propecia or Rogaine weren't at work. Others question their date's sexual prowess. They speculate whether it's their own sex appeal providing the arousal or Viagra and Cialis that are helping them "last through the night."
The list sadly goes on: people wondering if their friends look great because of restful vacations or recent face lifts? If improved bodies result from diet and exercise or liposuction? Great hair styles or hair extensions? Blue eyes or blue contacts? Thick lashes or drug induced eyelash growth? Where do we draw the line? Will the next generation even know the difference? And does it matter?
Imagine receiving a jeweled watch that turns out to be a knock-off of the real thing; perhaps presented in a Cartier box as if it was an original piece from the reknowned jewelry line. Would we be turned off by the chicanery, annoyed by the lack of integrity? Might we have enjoyed a more flawed but genuine gift over one that looks perfect but isn't real? Why are we not more incensed about the growing lack of authenticity all around us?
Bill James, a sports historian and statistician, thought he had the answer to this question, as least in terms of how he saw this trend going in baseball. He waid, "If we look into the future, then, we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of these drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them. Once that happens, people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to be 200 or 300 or 1,000. If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day. How, then, are those people of the future -- who are taking steroids every day -- going to look back on baseball players who used steroids? They're going to look back on them as pioneers. They're going to look back at it and say 'So what?'"
I would like to believe that there are areas of life that will remain free from the growing trend described by James above. As a therapist, my work is focused on helping people discover and enjoy their authentic selves. I take comfort in the idea that modern medicine cannot truly alter our character or personalities -- at least not yet. Innovative procedures may prolong our health. Pills may ease emotional issues along the way. But in the end, it's not really possible to enrich or enhance who we are as individuals without working on ourselves from the inside out, or without authentic hard work.
Authenticity is a word being thrown around a lot these days; some say it's even coming back in vogue. But its value may be thrown out as passé in years to come unless we learn to appreciate it now.
Is there something authentic that you care about? How do you suggest we retain its value?