Social media is a powerful tool, but we all know it can have positive and negative effects, as the Essena O’Neill story shows. Siobhan Smith explores the different ways in which Instagram and the rise of the selfie has affected our perception of ourselves, others and body image
If you hadn’t heard of Essena O’Neill before last week, chances are you have now.
The 18 year old Australian teen had amassed more than 600,000 followers on Instagram by posting over 2,000 photographs of herself posing in various outfits, with different foods and drinks often in shot. She claimed that she could make up to “$2000AUD a post EASY”.
Last week she deleted the majority of her Instagram snaps, leaving only 96 – all of which she re-captioned with the ‘real’ story behind the seemingly perfect pic.
The teenager has since completely deleted her social media accounts after saying it was making her “miserable”.
O’Neill then posted a 17 minute long video to her YouTube account – which had over 250,000 subscribers.
In an introduction to the video, she writes:
“It’s not always as beautiful, fun, funny and effortless as it seems. Everyone goes through life differently, myself growing up with social comparing so easily available… it consumed me… I spent 12-16 wishing I was someone else… then spent 16-19 constantly moulding myself, editing and self-promoting the ‘best parts of my life’ – which turned into a massive career based on numbers and how I looked aesthetically. I simply no longer want to compare my life with anyone else’s edited highlights. I want to put all of those hours I looked into a screen into my real life goals, personal relationships and aspirations. I’m over this celebrity culture and obsession. It’s silly and for the most part, internally lonely and fake…
“Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. 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.”
Update: O’Neill has reuploaded the video to Vimeo:
The YouTube and Instagram star is now encouraging everyone to visit her website letsbegamechangers.com, where there are “no likes or views or followers”. The site, which aims to promote a healthy, vegan lifestyle, reportedly crashed last week due to high volumes of traffic.
While many have jumped on the bandwagon and accused O’Neill of using the social media deactivation as one big publicity stunt, nobody can deny that she has a point.
Sure, you probably hadn’t seen her posts before. You probably have now. But it has highlighted that there is a darker side of Instagram, which is essentially turning into one big, glossy advert and in turn promoting a fake life as a real one, leading to all sorts of issues around body image, self worth and personal validation by views.
“There is nothing cool about spending all your time taking edited pictures of yourself to prove to the world ‘you are enough’,” O’Neill said. “Don’t let numbers define you. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not enough without excessive makeup, latest trends, 100+ likes on a photo, ‘a bikini body’, thigh gap, long blonde hair. I was born into the flesh I have, there is nothing inspirational about that. I am just so grateful to think of how many young men and women might see this movement and stop limiting themselves to artificial ideas of happiness online.”
The social media reaction
Unsurprisingly, fellow Instagrammers, Vloggers and YouTubers have rushed to defend what they do, saying that their social media personae aren’t ‘fake.’
Gabriella Epstein, a 21 year old Australian model and blogger with almost 800,000 followers on Instagram, regularly posts pictures with captions like the one below. Captions exactly like the ones deleted by O’Neill.
So @mgra_swimwear has finally launched! I couldn’t be prouder of my friends @mitchgobel_resinart & @mraagibson and I’m incredibly honoured to be aligned with such an amazing brand. MGRA isn’t just another bikini brand – it’s 78% reclycled, sustainable, Australian made and 10% of all profits go directly to the MGRA Wildlife and Habitat Conservation. @mgra_swimwear truly is Designed For Nature. So proud of you boys @MGRA_swimwear💕🐚🌎🌙🌿🔮👙
She wrote on her Tumblr account this week:
“Of course Instagram isn’t real life. Everyone, myself included, chooses the highlight reel of their life to present on social media – we all know that and it is all our choice to be a part of it. However, that doesn’t mean I have ever pretended to be someone that I am not on Instagram.
“Choosing to use social media as a platform to tell people social media is a lie is hypocritical and contradicts the very same notion. Take responsibility for yourself and your own actions – the potential to create the life you wish to live is completely in each of our hands. #chooseyourreality.”
Kurt Koleman, whose Instagram bio reads, “I’m 18,DJ& I’m addicted to selfies & spray tan” and regularly posts with the hashtag #PerfLikeKurt, has almost 200,000 followers.
Some have even claimed that social media has a positive effect on body image and is in fact an outlet for people to share positive messages via various hashtags and inclusive accounts.
Teenage Instagrammer Dounia Tazi has penned an article titled ‘Why social media is totally empowering and inspiring’ in direct response to O’Neill’s claims that there is nothing inspirational about living your life through posting pictures online.
“While we’re fighting for more people of colour to grace runways and get parts in blockbuster hits, we have another outlet to offer the representation we desperately need. We have a platform that allows trans girls to tell other trans girls that they don’t have to be deemed “passable” in order for their gender to be valid, that they don’t have to be feminine in order to be female. We have a platform where fat girls who don’t fit your conventional hourglass figure are utterly shameless in their outfit choices, inspiring others to not give a fuck about theirs. We have black men and women using their platforms to speak about racial injustices and to shout about beauty within their own community with hashtags like #flexingmycomplexion and #blackout.”
“To insinuate that social media as a whole is toxic and pointless is pretty self-righteous,” she continues. “It completely dismisses and derails the necessary conversations that start on Twitter. To insinuate that girls with a large following are as consumed as she was, is ridiculous. It further adds to the notion that girls can’t indulge in vanity and selfies without having personal interests. Humans are multidimensional. We can spend a couple of minutes snapping photos for Instagram and then go on to enjoy our day. We can indulge in self vanity and then go on to advocate for social issues. We can selectively share moments of our lives without feeling pressured to portray a perfect image. We can use social media as an outlet, as a temporary escape from reality if we please, as a platform to spark conversation, but also as a place to dump selfies and bikini pictures too.”
While Tazi certainly makes many valid points here – of course there are positives to be gained from social media – it seems that there is a much bigger issue at hand. Society has indisputably shifted to the majority of us feeling the need to be validated by the views and likes garnered by the online persona we all craft for ourselves. We all do it. It’s difficult to avoid.
While some question the motive behind O’Neill’s social media deactivation, others have followed her lead and #honestcaptions now has over 12,000 mentions on Instagram.
*honest caption: I've never actually worn this swimsuit, because the second I move while wearing it I tend to be.. no longer wearing it. Even if I had worn it, I certainly wouldn't do so with a pair of black jeans. This is a ridiculous outfit shoved on to get an attention seeking photo for an article which gained likes for no other reason than boobs. It was 9 in the morning and I was freezing cold, knowing that as soon as I got a good shot (after many, many attempts), I would be straight back under the duvet. It is not a realistic representation of my life.* #SociaMediaIsNotRealLife
Seeking validation through likes
It’s not just about the people behind the glossy accounts, and the effect their need to be validated by views has on their lives. While basing your happiness on how many likes you can get for each selfie is not a particularly positive way to live your life, what about those who sit at home, obsessively looking at said pictures, and feeling bad about the perceived inadequacy of their own?
In what way can content that – whether we like it or not – is often sexualized, be harmful to body image of the audience?
UC Davis carried out a study which examined the impact of social media on body image of young people. Jannath Ghaznavi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, told Medical Daily that “it’s a whole other level of engagement.”
Explaining that there’s a higher level of engagement with social media than there is with traditional static media, Ghaznavi says that the audience is no longer passively viewing the images, the aim is to collect retweets, favourites, likes or comments on pictures. And, of course, more engagement leads to greater impact.“
Another risk here is that a young girl or woman will see that a picture has 50 or 60 likes and “this may be construed as positive reinforcement,” Ghaznavi says.
Vlogger and “new media witch” Rosianna Halse Rojas has built a career out of new media, primarily Vlogging on YouTube – her account having over 40,000 subscribers.
She says that the desire to seek validation isn’t necessarily a bad thing but there are two sides to it.
“On the one hand things like selfies and taking a picture of my body when it feels great,” Rosianna says. “That stuff makes me feel good… Something about doing that is really valuable and important to me and has been incredibly important in my personal growth and that’s not because of the lovely comments people leave or the likes or any of that. It’s because for me it is important to catalogue those days in my daily life. I can’t separate online and offline life. It is so much interwoven for me. So it’s not as clear cut for me as turning these things off or walking away… But there is this other side of it that is seeking likes and seeking outside approval when you cant find it within yourself.”
We spoke to Beat, the UK’s leading charity supporting anyone affected by eating disorders, or any other difficulties with food, weight and shape. We wanted to know how the portrayal of the perfect lifestyle and perfect body could potentially be damaging.
“Social media is powerful, and can have both positive and negative impacts,” says Lorna Garner, Chief Operating Officer for the charity. “For those who have an eating disorder or at risk of developing one, constant exposure to images of a specific body shape and size can be triggering.
“Perfectionism, a typical trait of those affected by eating disorders, and particularly anorexia, can cause these individuals to strive to achieve and surpass this ‘ideal’, while never feeling good enough. Body image and self-esteem can be negatively impacted by the message perpetuated by the image-based environment of social media that only one body type is desirable.”
“Social media’s power can also be used for good, however”, she added. “Pro-recovery communities, an increasing trend on social media platforms, are enabling individuals to share experiences of and support each other through the tremendously difficult journey of recovery from an eating disorder.”
There is nothing wrong with earning a living through social media. But it is a powerful tool and it should be used wisely.
Main Image: Essena O’Neill / YouTube / Instagram