“Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real.”
One week ago, you’d be forgiven for assuming social media star Essena O’Neill had the perfect life.
The 19-year-old’s glamorous bikini photos, pensive beach shots and pouty, immaculately made-up selfies won her half a million followers on Instagram, as well as 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and Tumblr.
But the Queensland teenager has recently had a change of heart — and now she’s quit social media amid a public campaign to highlight the superficial, manufactured nature of social media.
You can watch a clip of Essena’s announcement here (the whole video is available on YouTube, post continues after clip):
Since Tuesday, Essena has deleted 2000 photos from her Instagram account and changed her account name to “Social Media Is Not Real Life”.
She has also edited the captions on her remaining Instagram photos to detail how they were manufactured, and her honest commentary makes for fascinating and reassuring reading.
“Now marks the day I quit all social media and focus on real life projects,” the Coolum woman posted in a caption on October 27. She has since posted dozens of frank comments about the destructive nature of social media and its users’ obsession with gaining approval. “Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real,” she wrote. “It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement.”
I had acne here, this is a lot of makeup. I was smiling because I thought I looked good. Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on earth. A photo posted by Social Media Is Not Real Life (@essenaoneill) on Jun 5, 2014 at 10:53pm PDT
Essena explained that her social media fame was driven by deep insecurities about her self-worth and looks.
“At 12, I thought I was ugly, too tall, weird, lonely, unpopular and that I could never be of value,” she explained on her new blog Let’s Be GameChangers.
“I told myself, if I got heaps of views on Youtube, I would then be happy, feel like enough… So let this be very clear, I’m quitting social media for my 12 year old self.”
Was paid $400 to post a dress. That’s when I had maybe 150k followers, with half a million followers, I know of many online brands (with big budgets) that pay up to $2000 per post. Nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known. This photo had no substance, it was not of ethical manufacturing (I was uneducated at the time). SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL is my point. Be aware what people promote, ask yourself, what’s their intention behind the photo?
She also details the real story behind many of her glamorous images, explaining that in reality she felt sad, had acne or had been driven inside by the rain at the time the images were taken.
NOT REAL LIFE – took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this. Yep so totally #goals A photo posted by Social Media Is Not Real Life (@essenaoneill) on May 10, 2014 at 12:59am PDT
In the caption for an image from her high school formal, she wrote: “[I] took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.”
Alongside an image of herself posing on a beach, she explained: “[I] took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this.”
In other captions, she points out the hypocracy of taking to social media to prove how relaxed and happy you are. “There is nothing zen about trying to look zen, taking a photo of you trying to be zen and proving your zen on Instagram,” she wrote. “Nothing is more inspiring than fake smile posing for a camera, creating a 4 collage of yourself and putting light speckles on top,” she added in another caption.
There is nothing zen about trying to look zen, taking a photo of you trying to be zen and proving your zen on Instagram. A photo posted by Social Media Is Not Real Life (@essenaoneill) on Apr 16, 2014 at 2:21am PDT
She occasionally remarks on how she wishes she’d spent her younger teen years focusing on other aspects of her self-development.
“Oh 15-year-old Essena I just want to hug you and tell you how much more free time you would have had if you didn’t care about your appearance, social media, what others thought. You probably would have pursued writing, or something real to you,” she said.
“I wish someone would have shook me and said ‘You have so much more in you than your sexuality’…
“I only realised at 19 that placing any amount of self worth on your physical form is so limiting! I could have been writing, exploring, playing, anything beautiful and real… Not trying to validate my worth through a bikini shot with no substance.”
Edit real caption: This is what I like to call a perfectly contrived candid shot. Nothing is candid about this. While yes going for a morning jog and ocean swim before school was fun, I felt the strong desire to pose with my thighs just apart #thighgap boobs pushed up #vsdoublepaddingtop and face away because obviously my body is my most likeable asset. Like this photo for my efforts to convince you that I’m really really hot #celebrityconstruct
Essana also admits she was often paid by advertisers to endorse products, and now believes she should have disclosed brand partnerships. “Nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known,” she wrote. “Be aware what people promote [and] ask yourself, what’s their intention behind the photo?”
Edit: “Please like this photo, I put on makeup, curled my hair, tight dress, big uncomfortable jewellery… Took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then I edited this one selfie for ages on several apps- just so I could feel some social approval from you.” THERE IS NOTHING REAL ABOUT THIS. #celebrityconstruct A photo posted by Social Media Is Not Real Life (@essenaoneill) on Feb 8, 2014 at 9:02pm PST
The teenager writes that she hopes younger Instagram users don’t aspire to the “contrived perfection” shown on social media.
“I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational,” she says. “It’s contrived perfection made to get attention,” she said.
This is what an addiction to your appearance, social media and just social approval looks like. Our physical bodies do not define us. I won the genetic lottery. These thoughts are not original, others have said them before me and others can say it all better. But you listen because I look pretty here. That’s messed up. A photo posted by Social Media Is Not Real Life (@essenaoneill) on Jun 29, 2013 at 2:31am PDT
The more recent images Essana have posted to Instagram focus on inspirational quotes, commentary about social media addiction and self-worth. “Confidence is not ‘they will like me.’ Confidence is ‘I’ll be fine if they don’t’,” one quote reads. “In general, people are not drawn to perfection in others. People are drawn to shared interest, shared problems, and an individual’s life energy,” says another. It’s not often we encounter an “Instagram celebrity” who makes us feel better about ourselves — but that’s just what Essena’s new campaign is doing. Thank you, Essena, for being so honest. Some more recent images from Essena’s Instagram: