Like many hormonally charged, semi-desperate male teenagers out there, I took a nice, hourlong study break a few Tuesdays back to scout out the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. It was a fair amount of fun, mostly because it gave me and some of my dude friends a socially acceptable excuse to sit around and communally “ooh” and “aah” at girls we have no chance with.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have a good time watching Miranda Kerr go up and down the runway — it was a hell of a lot better than studying — but to be honest, my favorite moment didn’t involve any million-dollar bra or sexy European demigod. No, my favorite part involved the models talking behind the scenes, in one of those between-runway takes, with each model offering her thoughts on men and dating. There were cute little lines about how much certain girls loved flowers or men with broad shoulders (as if all it would take is a bouquet of roses and some good posture for me to land a date with any of these ladies). And then there was one model’s “top tips” for guys: “being yourself, and being cool with yourself, is probably the best thing you could ever do.”
I had a hard time keeping a straight face.
Now, I’ve always been suspicious of the “be yourself” mantra: I’ve heard the hallowed phrase countless times before — in school, in church, from parents, friends, therapists, Boy Scout leaders, neighbors, cousins, roommates, during NSO — and every time I’ve walked away thinking, how the hell am I supposed to just be myself? I have a hard time picking out which flannel to wear each day, let alone trying to figure who I really am, and then having to act accordingly. I mean, people spend years trying to figure out who they are — an obviously difficult task given the fact that we are always changing, growing, evolving, “maturing” (maybe).
How you are ever supposed to fully understand yourself when “yourself” is constantly being influenced by the various social forces around you — friends, family, age, that band that changed your life in the ninth grade (the Gaslight Anthem!), first kiss, first beer, whatever you had for breakfast — is beyond me. So much of “you” is informed by forces outside of you; knowing yourself would seem to entail knowing all of these external factors. I mean, the whole idea of encapsulating an individual person into a single idea — himself, herself, yourself, myself — seems to me an abuse of the English language, an oversimplification of existence, of the ways in which individuals interact with and impress upon each other.
So yes, I’ve always had a bit of a gag reaction when I’ve heard someone tell me to just “be myself.” But this time, being told to be myself by a women whose professional existence is a constant circus of makeup artists, hairstylists, dieticians, photo shoots, runway etiquette, magazine spreads — who works in an industry well versed in its extensive use of self-changing photo brushing and editing — I think I may have hit my breaking point.
Sure, maybe I shouldn’t have been looking for life advice from an underwear model who’s just trying to cut a 15-second take on dating, but she’s not alone. I mean, I’ve sat through discussions on “Catcher in the Rye,” I’ve seen “Good Will Hunting” (gagggg) and “Fight Club” (half gag) and I’ve taken philosophy classes and English classes and stayed up late splitting drinks and “deep” talk with friends and strangers alike, and I’d put that model right up there with all of that. It’s a message that is constantly being tossed about, in both high and low art, of individuals breaking away from crowds and norms as if such clear-cut separation is possible. Dr. Pepper wants you to be yourself. So does John Lennon. Good God, it’s freakin’ everywhere.
The fact that this lady was addressing the audience through a television only added to the comedy of the situation. TV, perhaps the primary medium of information exchange in the modern age, is a mostly fictional medium, one that rarely deals in capturing the natural “self” of any one of its characters. I’m not just talking “NCIS” or “Full House” here, I’m talking, like, most shows — yes, even talk shows or reality TV shows. All you have to do is put a camera in someone’s face and notice how differently they act while being recorded to understand that very little of what you see on TV is natural. Those who seem “natural” — actors and hosts and veteran politicians — are those who have developed the innate ability to discipline their self-conscious to the point that they can block out any sense that they are being watched, when they obviously know they are.
Everyone you saw during the Victoria’s Secret show was performing, from the models, to Justin Bieber, to the audience members dressed in the latest high-end fashions, firing off complimentary applause and well-rehearsed smiles every time the camera panned over them.
If being true to “yourself” was hard before, the daily presence of TV doesn’t seem to be helping. (Neither, I would guess, is the increasingly important presence of social networking in our day-to-day existence; it’s a medium that essentially requires us to constantly be putting together and editing and beautifying various versions of who we wish we are, the line between any true self we may possess and our digital self we create becoming increasingly blurry with each post, tweet, filter.)
Just “being yourself” has never been simple — and it certainly isn’t getting any easier. I don’t have an obvious alternative, but I sure as hell know that the answer to all your identity problems, and the key to landing a date with a fashion model babe, isn’t found in two simple words, no matter how many times they get thrown about.