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How personal branding became an American religion

Social critic Tara Isabella Burton on the quest for 'authenticity' 

a woman looking in a mirror
Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original image by Elisa Photography (CC0).

In January 2020, Equinox launched an ad campaign with the zeitgeist-capturing slogan, “Make Yourself a Gift to the World.” The message wasn’t just for devotees of luxury gyms. 

In the digital age, branding yourself, or actively defining a unique and “authentic” personal identity, is the new norm.

Writer and social critic Tara Isabella Burton explores how we got here in her new book, “Self- Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to Kardashian.”

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Burton’s background is in history and theology. To her mind, our current obsession with personal identity and self-creation has deeply religious roots, as she tells “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Anne Strainchamps: How far back do you trace our obsession with the self? 

Tara Isabella Burton: My book starts in the Renaissance, with Albrecht Dürer’s self-portrait — often considered the first selfie — where he sort of portrays himself as Jesus. The story that I trace is the development of this idea that certain people who are able to create their own destinies or their own public personae are kind of demigods.

And this goes from an idea that a few lucky people might be selected by God to have this opportunity — to the present day, where everyone is expected to create their own identity and shape their own destiny. And if you don’t do that, it means you failed as a human being. 

Albrecht Dürer posing for the “original selfie.” CC0

AS: You talk about this as an underlying belief in our innate divinity. Can you explain that? Because I don’t think that the average person trying to represent their best self or come up with a personal brand online would say their goal is to become godlike. 

TIB: I do think this is a story about religion as much as anything else. This idea of self- making and self-creation is not specific to the U.S., but it’s in the United States, particularly in the second half of the 19th century, that it gets fused with what I often think is one of the most underrated religious movements in world history. And that is the self-help spiritualist movement known as New Thought, a mix of pseudoscience and spiritualism. It’s the idea that there’s this force, this energy, these vibes out there in the universe. And if you focus on what you want hard enough, you can get in touch with this electrical undercurrent of the universe. You can harness it. In the 19th century, this spawned a real cottage industry of self-help books. 

AS: You’re talking about motivational classics like Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” or “The Power of Positive Thinking,” by Norman Vincent Peale? Some of those are still best-sellers. 

TIB: Absolutely. The underlying message is: “If you dream it, you can have it.” It intensifies the idea that what it means to be human is to create ourselves, and that we are the closest thing to gods in the universe. 

Sometimes people talk about this very explicitly. For example, in the counterculture of the 1960s and in the California tech world that ultimately became Silicon Valley, Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, wrote in his manifesto, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” We see this exact same message today in wellness ads, like “find the goddess within you” or “harness your divine power.” It’s so normal now that we don’t think, “Wow, a few hundred years ago, this would have been a really, really controversial statement.”

AS: Yeah, you could have been burned at the stake for it.

TIB: And now it’s just advertising jargon. 

AS: But there’s a chilling side to this, too. You draw a connection between the doctrine of self-creation and the rise of fascist leaders like Hitler and Mussolini. 

TIB: Right. We’ve been talking about how in America, the idea develops that the good news is, anyone can get rich. But if you don’t, it’s your own fault.

In Europe, the idea of the self-creator is a little more fraught. Obviously, we’re working against the backdrop of a hereditary aristocracy in decline, and there’s this obsession with the idea that some people have an innate specialness. It’s not money and it’s not birth; it’s this secret third thing, some special godlike quality.

Tara Isabella Burton. Photo courtesy of Burton

People like Nietzsche take this idea up and give it a more explicitly theological cast: God is dead. The old order, including old values, is gone. And what we need, in Nietzsche’s view, is a new kind of power and strength. 

AS: Nietzsche’s superman, the Ubermensch? 

TIB: Exactly. The Ubermensch is the ultimate natural aristocrat. So the idea is that some people are just better than others, and if you are better, the way to express it is to wield power over others. And if you aren’t, the next best thing is to attach yourself to someone who can sell you the fantasy of being a part of it. You know, if you can’t be Mussolini, the next best thing is to become a follower of Mussolini. 

That became a powerful political force in early 20th century Europe, in the same way it became a powerful economic force in the heyday of American advertising. What unites these two seemingly disparate worldviews is a sense that there are three kinds of people: the sheep who don’t know they’re sheep; the specials; and the sheep who maybe would buy products that would make them feel special. 

AS: So this is why you call capitalist consumption in America “a warped mirror image of the fascist cult of personality.” I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever look at a copy of Vogue magazine in quite the same way. 

TIB: Oh, yeah. You can see it in advertising today, but it’s even more explicit earlier. My favorite ad that gets at the heart of what we’re talking about is from around 1928, for a correspondence course called Personal Magnetism. The advertisement reads, “You have it. Everyone has it. But not 1 person in 1,000 knows how to use it.” In other words, everybody has the capacity to unlock some inner power, but only people who want it badly enough and are willing to buy this book or this correspondence course have what it takes to get ahead. 

So whether your goal is to become a Hollywood star or a successful businessman, it’s all about cultivating your innate you-ness by wanting it badly enough. That’s what makes you one of the specials.

Self-creation is no longer just something we do — it’s something we sell.

Tara Isabella Burton

AS: And so this is where I think we’ve arrived today — at a point where the tension between authenticity and inauthenticity, fantasy and reality, is the substrate we all swim in. Donald Trump is the apotheosis of it, but this question of what’s real and what’s not is everywhere today.

TIB: Absolutely. There’s a deep nihilism in it that’s only intensified by the fact that because of social media and the internet, more and more of us live in realms that do change depending on what we want. The algorithm shows us different news headlines depending on what we click. We see different advertisements, depending on what we already like. And that becomes “the truth,” which in turn affects how people vote and what policies get made.

So in a very real sense, truth is what you make it. Whatever one might think of Donald Trump, he’s very explicit about this. And he was influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Peale was his family pastor.

AS: So Trump is in the direct lineage of New Thought? I didn’t know that. 

TIB: Oh, absolutely. I believe Norman Vincent Peale even officiated at Trump’s second wedding. And Trump himself has spoken explicitly about this, saying in effect, it’s just what you do — you massage the truth a little bit. You say that you’re a zillionaire and then you become a billionaire because everybody gives you money to invest. 

AS: This is what Trump calls “truthful hyperbole.” 

TIB: Exactly. If you convince people of stuff, it becomes real. Trump’s genius is to combine imagery from the Nietzschean tradition of the Ubermensch with a kind of P.T. Barnum humbug. I see him very much as an inheritor of both of these traditions. He is not an anomaly in American culture at all. 

This idea that experiences exist in order to create content, rather than the other way around, is very frightening to me. 

Tara Isabella Burton

AS: Given this historical backdrop, what’s your take on the influencer economy today? 

TIB: It’s a natural extension of the fact that we all have to build our own brands. Self-creation is no longer just something we do — it’s something we sell. Our job today is not just to work hard and be virtuous and make middle class money; it’s to use everything at our disposal to create ourselves as brands, as commodities. 

The influencer whose “authentic” lifestyle is an excuse to sell products is the apotheosis of that. In one recent poll, something like 80 percent of members of Gen Z said they would be willing to post on social media for money. Just last week, I was teaching a college class to 18- to 22-year-olds, and I did a quick show of hands on this. Pretty much everyone in the room said they would post sponcon (sponsored content) for $1,000. 

It’s gotten to the point where, there was an article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago about people who were pretending to be influencers when they weren’t. They were pretending their posts were sponsored content when they weren’t, because they wanted their friends to think that they were cool enough to get brand deals. 

AS: So it’s no longer enough just to have an identity, or just to like the things that you like. Now, you’re not a good enough person if you’re not selling yourself? 

TIB: Absolutely. Because you’re not cultivating or making the most of what you have. Like that personal magnetism ad from the 1920s — you’re not using the power that you have. I think this is very dangerous. Fewer and fewer of us have a really robust concept of a private life, because our lives are reimagined as content. 

I live in New York City and there are so many places, including restaurants and bars, that very obviously exist for social media purposes. You see restaurants that no longer focus on the taste of the food, but on creating a visually exciting meal that will play well on TikTok. This idea that experiences exist in order to create content, rather than the other way around, is very frightening to me. 

AS: What ever happened to having a private life? 

TIB: Sometimes I think that the only people who can be offline anymore are the truly wealthy or the truly successful. Like, I’ll know I’ve made it when I don’t have to have a smartphone. When I don’t need to promote my book or chase reviews, my assistant will read my emails and call me on my flip phone. 

I think privacy and being offline are going to become luxury goods that the wealthiest and most successful among us can afford to have, and the rest of us can’t. So maybe the next ethos of specialness will be the people who unplug. 

This piece also ran on TTBOOK.org.

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