Most of you have probably heard about Essena O’Neill by now. She was all over social media and the news this week, which was both ironic and awesome. For those of you who don’t have a lot of millennial, female “friends” on Facebook who are all sharing videos about Essena, let me recap:
- Essena O’Neill is an 18-year-old from Australia
- She is an Instagram model, which means she self-promoted pictures of herself successfully enough to start making money
- She has 500,000+ followers on Instagram, 200,000+ followers on YouTube, and a ton of followers on other social media platforms that I’m too old to know about
- She is—even by society’s ridiculous standards– very beautiful
- She decided to “quit” social media last week because she wants to stop living in a fake world created by pictures that skew reality
- She wants to help young women understand that pictures they see of “beautiful” people are not a reflection of those people’s happiness
- She wants us to remember that living for an online presence is not living
- She is more mature at the age of 18 than all of the Kardashians at their combined age of 199 years old (Kris+Kourtney+Kim+Khloe+Kendall+Kylie)
If you haven’t already, go ahead and watch this video. It has some bad language, but to be honest, I don’t even care. The message is fantastic.
I love this girl. And based on my newsfeed, so does everybody else.
The “all bodies are beautiful” movement is nothing new. And we all read memes about how people need to get off their phones and be “present.” But what is so strikingly different about Essena’s message is her ability to make us actually believe what she is saying.
Plenty of famous people post pictures of themselves wistfully standing next to a park bench, ready to go on a run, with the caption “It doesn’t matter what your body looks like as long as you’re healthy. #strongisthenewskinny.” But we feel like their words are empty, despite the fact that many of these sort of posts “promote” self-acceptance. Well, there’s a reason why those captions don’t sit well with us.
Most of us don’t tote around a camera crew and a personal stylist, so we assume that [insert model, celebrity, reality star] asked a stranger to snap a quick photo before they took off on a run. I mean, that’s how I get most of my pictures. So how in the world do they look so effortlessly gorgeous? Essena is here to tell you that basically anyone with tons of followers (I’d say 100,000+) is getting paid to market products, clothes, or simply to look carefree and hot so that advertisers will keep hiring them. And that “candid” photo took hours of preparation, dozens of trial runs, hours of filtering, and probably a couple of hissy fits. Even “self-acceptance” photos are taken to gain followers because it’s the new-wave cool thing to post “real,” “stripped down,” and “body positive” pictures.
Essena is O-V-E-R this façade that social media is a place for “real people” to post about their lives. That “definition” of social media is a big ole load of bologna. We all logically know that photos are just snapshots of random moments that are only part of a much larger picture, yet we still can’t seem to help but use those snapshots to make one million assumptions about the people in them.
A pretty girl posts a picture of herself smiling in a bar with the caption that she had a great night: Oh, well then she must have had a great time and people must love her because she looks so happy and surrounded by friends!
A model posts a picture of herself in a bikini at the beach with a caption written by Marilyn Monroe: Oh, well she must feel super confident and happy! And she’s so old school chic like Marilyn!
A girl from high school posts a picture of herself at the gym with a caption about feeling proud: Oh, well she must really value health and like her body!
Essena somehow took a concept that we all already knew, and broke it down in such a way that made it interesting again. Of course pictures are not reality and followers are not friends, but for some reason, we all still view them that way. Getting a behind-the-scenes look from a “master” of creating a glamorous online façade was just what just what the doctor ordered.
Essena’s message reaches far beyond the well-timed photo by a professional, though. I’ve written about this before, but social media is not a real depiction of anyone’s life. We can use mine as an example since, well, this is my blog. I am not a professional and don’t post high quality pictures (which could explain my very small following), but I’m sure plenty of people still think they have decent insight into my life. So just for kicks and giggles, I will do what Essena did on her Instagram photos, which is to re-caption some of my most recent pictures with a behind-the-scenes look:
Okay, so I didn’t find many recent pictures where I was conveying an emotion I didn’t feel at the very moment the picture was taken, however there is a LOT of backstory to every shot–little stories of hurt, frustration, anxiety, and embarrassment that don’t make the cut. That’s basically Essena’s message: Not only does a lot of effort go into desirable photographs and videos, but the people in the posts are way more dimensional than what you see in a final product.
If Essena’s story is not convincing enough, just look to Madison Holleran. She was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Pennsylvania who took her own life in 2014. Her social media accounts painted an incredibly gorgeous, in-shape, fashionable, well to-do girl with an active social life and loving family. She was and had all of those things, but in moments of solitude, she was deeply unhappy. She compared her life to her friends on social media, wishing she was as happy as they were. So she made her online presence look like she was. That is, until she couldn’t take reality anymore and jumped off the top of an five story parking garage. If this is not the most eye-opening red flag that social media is a facade– or at best, not an all-encompassing look into its users’ lives– then I don’t know what is.
This blog may not have some brand new, profound take on social media, but I couldn’t miss this opportunity to highlight the well-known fact that social media does not reflect real life. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any positive benefits, but for goodness sake, can we all stop the madness? Don’t compare your real life to someone else’s fake life. Don’t spend more time trying to get followers and likes than you do developing friendships with people who will actually show up when you need them. Don’t live in a virtual world instead of the real world.
Thank you, Essena, for your candid, unfiltered message. We needed it more than the random photos of celebrities without makeup. And more than the hundreds of Huffington Post articles written by people who have never been in the thick of it. We needed to hear it from someone who could give real anecdotes, provide tangible evidence, and reach the masses. We [sadly] needed to hear from someone thin, blonde, and “carefree” that being pretty and wealthy is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most of us “knew” that already, but an 18-year-old from Australia managed to keep the message relevant– and hopefully, influential.