Imagine if a sculptor showed you her new sculpture and said, “It’s my first masterpiece in marble.” And what you saw was a brilliant and sublime piece of representative art, an image of an ideal, a flawless depiction of the human form that elevates humanity to new heights, new aspirations.
“Gosh,” you’d say. “I wish I looked so beautiful and classical and eternal.”
And then, as you stood there with your mouth open and eyes wide, your sculptor friend turned to you—like, twenty seconds later—and said, “Yeah, actually I didn’t make it. I designed it, though. But a bunch of scientists built it in a lab. It’s made of polymer, not marble. I really wanted it to look like that but I couldn’t do it without the help of science.”
You’d feel cheated. Misled. Lied to. You’d be like, “Huh. I guess it’s not that cool after all.”
And then the artist would say, “NO, but look! It’s not cheating! It’s ENHANCED! It gives people something to ASPIRE TO!”
But the doubt has been implanted in your mind. The image is not aligned with the reality. It is not really something people can aspire to because it’s not possible. You might as well aspire to grow antlers.
So where does that leave you? How are you supposed to know what to aspire to and whom to emulate now that you know how easy it is for “results” to be “enhanced”?
It is getting harder and harder to know these days, between doping and body implants in sports and fitness, and steroid use in the movie industry.
Now, let me preface the rest of this article by saying that all people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their own bodies. The problems arise when they deceive the public. I think most people can agree on that.
What is enhancement? In general, it means “improved.” In this context, whether we mean performance enhancement, breast augmentation, or butt implants, enhancement is the act of taking something that was not good enough before and altering it to be more like what is desired, expected, or profitable.
But who is desiring it, expecting it, or paying for it? Society, a.k.a. other people. The rise in “enhancement” is symbolic of the fact that people want to be inspired by “supermen” and “superwomen.” Yet, at the same time, we want to be able to assume those men and women became “super” through “hard work” and “discipline,” and if we want to become “super,” we can too.
But only if you “want” it enough. Otherwise, or so the narrative goes, you’re a half-hearted failure, lacking in character and revelling in victimhood and self-pity, expecting everything to be handed to you on a silver platter “like those damn Millennials.”
Of course, hard work and discipline accomplish a lot, almost everything worth doing. But there comes a point at which, seemingly, it is not enough.
Let’s just say a person lacks adequate work ethic and discipline to MAKE their own hard work enough to succeed, yet they still want to be one of the “greats,” someone who is admired and recognized as a standout.
They believe that being admired and desired and basically having influence is how a person becomes successful, “awesome,” “cool,” memorable, or other Schwarzenegger-esque characteristics.
In a way, they want to be an authority figure on the subject of being awesome—of being admired and desired—and they want to be able to tell other people how to go about becoming extremely admired and desired too, like they are. They want that license, that validation, that influence and the doors that it opens, and they’ll do anything to get it.
Believing either that hard work is too hard, or that it wouldn’t be enough anyway to reach their goals (which may be true), they turn to “enhancement,” believing that simply looking the part is enough, whether or not they possess the necessary talent, experience, and strength of character to instruct anyone on anything.
And it turns out, they’re right. There are numerous fitness models, Instagram celebrities, YouTubers, authors, and others with huge followings who are regarded as authorities on fitness, muscle gain, weight loss, nutrition, lifestyle, business, success, manliness, and a host of other sensitive topics.
And while they might look outstanding (which is, of course, subjective), many of them repeatedly demonstrate a lack of actual knowledge regarding health or fitness, or sometimes anything else. Why? Because they’re, like, 25. Or because they learned everything they know from the internet instead of from education or experience.
And mostly what they learned on the internet is how to manipulate people by appealing to insecurities, how to tell people what they want to hear using clickbaity buzzwords to get attention, and how to use a “whatever it takes” attitude to rationalize whatever ethical compromises are required to succeed like the enhanced people who inspired them.
They talk a big game about “hard work” and discipline, when in reality they didn’t have enough work ethic or discipline to pursue their goals without enhancement, or the grounding in reality (which comes either with age or with good mentors) to realize that their standards of beauty were flawed, unrealistic, and based on similar deceivers who came before them.
And, they simply didn’t believe in their talent—real or imagined—enough to trust that it would take them where they wanted to go with adequate work. They “wanted it” enough to stick needles into their bodies, but not enough to rely on hard work alone.
But the real complication with “enhancement” in the fitness industry (and it is very true in sports as well) is, if everyone is “enhanced,” how is anyone who is not enhanced, regardless of talent, ever supposed to succeed in this competitive field, where ethics are as optional as a tie on Fridays?
There is one clear answer: People’s desires must change. Their expectations must change. And what they are willing to pay for must change. Otherwise, all of these enhancements will remain enhancements. All of the lies and half-truths will remain widely accepted as facts, and all of the failures of the average person to live up to these unrealistic expectations will result, again and again, in unwarranted and debilitating feelings of insecurity and failure.
Those who don’t turn to enhancement might very well never pursue their fitness or health goals again, or most any other goal, feeling like success is impossible, not because their idea of success is unrealistic, but because they simply don’t “want” it enough to put illegal substances in their body that might shrink their reproductive organs or produce breast tissue in men and facial hair in women.
They’ll go through the rest of their lives feeling like weak, indecisive, uncultivated people, living up to all of the nasty things people say about Millennials on a regular basis, never knowing that the demands being placed on them were unrealistic and not tied even one iota to their interests or to reality.
Culture does not generally change overnight. What has to happen first is that people must be encouraged to question results, to question the words of celebrities and hold them accountable.
It is not wrong in any sense to alter your own body if you want to, but until it is understood that it happens and it is openly discussed and the stigma has been removed, it will continue in secret. And as long as it continues in secret, the average person will continue to pursue fitness and health goals that are unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy, and insecurity will continue to drive their decision-making.
When everything is out in the open, people will eventually respond to “outstanding” achievements with skepticism and discontent, similarly to the way you might respond to our fictional sculptor above.
And then, athletes and public figures and fitness models (and, one hopes, the millionaire team owners and Hollywood producers who control all of these folks’ financial destinies) will realize that at least some of their audience prefers what is real, what is natural, what is attainable, to what is falsified, tampered with, or “enhanced.”
Or, certain sports will lose money, and will have to try other ways of maintaining a steady profit besides relying on the self-exploitation of their athletes.
This will take a long time to achieve, because even though many people feel enhancement makes various areas of achievement unequal and unfair, they still find people using performance-enhancing substances interesting and entertaining, in that it exhibits human potential when natural barriers are removed and brings people to a “hyper-elite” level.
This “let’s have it both ways” standpoint illustrates an inconsistency. It’s easy to have a love/hate relationship with steroids in the same way it’s easy to both love and hate junk food.
It goes something like this: you hate it because you love it so much, and you love it so much because of how bad it is for you: salt, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, et cetera. Those bad things are, after all, what makes it taste so freaking good.
People like steroids because they allow athletes to serve as extraordinary entertainment, but people also dislike them because it gives some individuals an unfair disadvantage and makes the average person incapable of achieving stardom, no matter how hard they work.
Steroids can also make it harder to really admire those enhanced athletes who do succeed and achieve greatness, because they weren’t able to do it on their own. It makes them seem like less of a true authority on hard work, on discipline, on success, on striving, on being truly admirable, and more of an authority on shortcuts, instant gratification, wanting to be the greatest but not being good enough on their own, et cetera. In short, insecurity and dishonesty.
Why does this matter? Who cares if athletes, or anyone else, uses some enhancement to get ahead? Who wants to be mediocre, getting paid the average amount to do an average job? Who could blame someone for wanting to rise above, to be a star, to be a legend, no matter what it takes, asterisks be damned?
It matters because these are the folks ordinary people tend to admire, emulate, and look to for inspiration, not just athletes but all fitness icons and anyone else who strives for success. Every one of them wants to be seen as having gotten where they are entirely on their own merit, without any help or “enhancement” whatsoever.
Every person who has ever inspired anyone has had faults, failings, and foibles. And maybe some fibs. So does that mean there is no point in “aspiring,” or emulating people who inspire us?
No. It just means choosing who inspires you and what about them inspires you. Is it their physique or performance only? Is it their bank account? Or is it their honesty, their clarity and meaning of message, the content of their character, and whether they truly seem to want to help people other than themselves?
Sports figures are generally encouraged to be pretty low-key in terms of character. We are supposed to judge them on their performance only. This reduces them to the status of entertainers in a certain way: they are not there to make us think, but only to help us pass the time enjoyably, regardless of what’s really going on behind the scenes, what ideas and products we’re being sold, and who’s profiting from it all.
This is the hazard of entertainment: by accepting what we see without question, we accept what it takes to make that entertainment possible. In this case, we accept steroid use. We accept young men and women taking drugs to succeed where hard work and discipline just won’t cut it on their own. We accept limiting the opportunity of athletes who aren’t willing to inject illegal substances into their bodies. And we accept the sense of distrust and ill-ease whenever a star athlete accomplishes something great, because we know there’s a very good chance that he or she didn’t accomplish it; the drugs did.
We accept it, and we pay for it, both monetarily and at the cost of our innocence.