In Makeover Culture, Authenticity Doesn’t Come Cheap

What is behind the contemporary obsession with makeovers? At Aeon, writer and scholar Michael Lovelock examines the cultural and economic forces that drive millions to Instagram hashtags like #transformationtuesday and shows like How to Look Good Naked.

The idea that we have an authentic self — a set of innate personality traits, desires, emotional and intellectual dispositions unique to us — emerged in the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau tried to move away from religion as a means of making sense of the world. Instead, they claimed that the purpose of life was to be true to an essential nature that defined who we are.

In the 21st century, the notion of the authentic self has solidified into common sense, with the routine demands to “be yourself” or to “be real.” This is partly a response to the perceived breakdown of collective structures that traditionally gave life meaning: religion, local community, extended family ties. The late philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has called this state of affairs “liquid modernity” — a description of how reliable anchors of group identity have given way to fluidity, insecurity, and individualism. The makeover offers an apparent solution to these social and cultural transformations. It encourages us to look inwards, to the very fabric of the self for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment.

Paradoxically, the logic of the makeover positions the external body as the site upon which inner authenticity is to be displayed — right before the market steps in to help us achieve this self-realization. Of course, there‚Äôs nothing magnanimous about the self-confidence sold to us in the form of a bottle of shampoo, a new dress, or a subscription to a gym.

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