I’m sure many of you have seen that viral story about Essena O’Neill, the courageous Instagram model from Australia who took a stand against the illusion of perfection so many of us see on social media. At 18-years-old O’Neill had amassed close to a million followers across her social media platforms: 580k on Instagram, 260k on YouTube and around 60k on Snapchat. Her entire life was on display, at least what she wanted you to see was. Then one day O’Neill deleted over 2,000 photos and went silent across her social media platforms. She came back to re-edit the captions of the remaining photos by describing what exactly was in the photo instead of perpetuating the idea of perfection.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“The only thing that made me feel good that day was this photo. How deeply depressing. Having a toned body is not all we as human beings are capable of.”
O’Neill then created a website, where she advocates for change on social media. In quick blog posts she gives some powerful advice.
“My first video IS UP… AND MAN DOES IT JUST FEEL SO FUCKING GOOD. I can’t tell you how free I feel without social media. Never again will I let a number define me. IT SUFFOCATED ME. Not because I had 500,000 followers, I felt the same as a young girl, I would just spend hours looking at everyone else’s perfect lives and I strived to make mine look just as good… Guess I succeeded. It’s totally stupid. Everyone’s doing it. And I know you didn’t come into this world just wanting to fit in and get by. You are reading this now because you are a game changer, you might not know your power yet, I am just finding mine, but man… when you do… far out you’ll go crazy. It’ll be brilliant. You’ll be brilliant.”
In one of her more recent posts she says, “PLEASE CAN SOMEONE MAKE A SOCIAL SHARING PLATFORM NOT BASED ON VALIDATION IN VIEWS/FOLLOWERS/LIKES BUT SHARED FOR REAL VALUE AND LOVE. THANK YOU. PLEASE HURRY UP.”
The sad thing about this cultural rut, the age of the “selfie” and the “likes” and the “Instagram models”, is that it’s not anything new. People act like it is, but it isn’t. This has been happening since 2003, when Myspace came out. I was thirteen then and not allowed to have an account. Two years later, at fifteen, my mom finally relented and let me have one.
I took a few webcam pictures – grainy and pixelated; I thought they were nice enough to put on my themeless Myspace. After all, my friends all knew what I looked like anyways, so who cared? Then I started adding people I went to middle school with. I went through a big move after 8th grade and lost touch with a lot of my friends in the transition.
“That’s Sarah now?! Wow she got really pretty!”
“When did Amy learn how to do makeup like that?”
“Cassie’s style is really cool, I wish I had style.”
“Sierra’s hair is awesome. I don’t think I could ever pull that off.”
I couldn’t believe how different all of my old friends looked in their photos. It was like they grew up into the adults I always wished I would develop into and left me behind. Why did I still look twelve while everyone else looked like they belonged in magazines?
For Christmas that year I begged for a digital camera. The webcam just wasn’t cutting it. After a summer of lurking all of my friends and analyzing their accounts I knew I needed to step my game up. All of my friends had edgy photos, they all got hundreds of comments. My photos got a measly two or three at best. I knew an actual camera would make all the difference. I NEEDED to be on the same level.
I got a Canon Powershot. It was silver and fit into the palm of my hand. The camera came in a box with a woman playing tennis on it. It was supposed to show the camera’s ability to handle photographing subjects at a high speed. I became obsessed with getting the perfect photo of myself. I didn’t even realize my body could contort the way that it did in my attempts at trying to be edgy. The higher count of megapixels and added flash made me look worlds better than my crappy webcam ever could.
Then I started playing around with Photoshop. At first it was just little things I did for amusement. Then they grew into a laundry list, a reflection of what I felt was the perfect image. The edited photos of myself were me as perfection, or at least what I thought I *should* look like. The girl in these photos didn’t get bullied for her overbite, stick thin legs or nose with a bump in it like I did everyday. This girl was perfect. It was like playing a role-playing game: you build your character and live an alternate life through a screen where you can be anyone you want.
I always said there was no way I’d ever actually upload any of these edited photos, they were just for fun. No one who knew me in real life would buy this. Until one day I did upload one. It stemmed from there and my inbox looked like this. If you were apart of my generation you remember this all too well: I couldn’t get over it. All this from ONE photo. No one said “hey you don’t look like that!” or “hey you’re a fraud!”, everyone praised me. These photos are all of me, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen – the three years I let Myspace run my life. Filters, blur, teeth whiten, eye color change, hair color change, skin made more pale, skin made less pale. You name it, I did it.
It got to the point where I would take 100+ photos of myself only to end up crying because I looked disgusting in every one of them. I’d be lucky to approve one photo out of two-hundred. My normal face had become disgusting, my normal vision of myself was now of perfection, of that girl that developed in Photoshop – perfect skin, perfect body, perfect teeth and hair. Anything less than that was unacceptable. When I saw my normal self in the mirror, it fought with my perfect self. It told me that I wasn’t good enough because I didn’t look like that. My image of myself was this Photoshop girl, that is who I became.
My grades started suffering in school. With over 30,000 friends on Myspace at this point, I needed to monitor it all the time. My image was at stake. My photos were getting hundreds of comments but it didn’t make me feel good. It made me feel disconnected because in reality I was managing someone else’s life. I started to withdraw into my head, I obsessed constantly about people in school staring at me too long, trying to pinpoint what I edited and what I didn’t. Trying to blow my cover of perfection. My anxiety developed at this time. I couldn’t eat because my stomach was always in knots. I knew that when I got home my inbox would be full, usually nasty messages from girls at my high school.
My mom found out and took away my laptop for a month.
I went to the doctor for my anxiety attacks some years later. They diagnosed me with BDD, short for Body Dysmorphic Disorder.
“People who have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day.
They can’t control their negative thoughts and don’t believe people who tell them that they look fine. Their thoughts may cause severe emotional distress and interfere with their daily functioning. They may miss work or school, avoid social situations and isolate themselves, even from family and friends, because they fear others will notice their flaws.”
Do I think this was a direct result of my life being plastered across social media from a very young age? Yes. I still struggle with this issue. While I no longer spend hours editing photos of myself, I will admit I will throw on a filter here or there whenever I happen to upload a selfie. It’s not complete until some type of editing is done to it, right? I do have days where all I want to do is paper bag myself and hide away from the world.
Much like Essena O’Neill, this type of thing starts out slowly and becomes a monster bigger than anyone can imagine. It becomes you. The constant need to reach perfection that is validated by strangers on the internet strips away your passions, your interests, your personality, it sucks everything it can and turns you into a shell of a person because you are no longer connected to yourself internally, but to yourself on a screen.
Next time you’re scrolling through someone’s Facebook or Instagram and think to yourself “She’s got it all. She’s so lucky” stop and realize that you are only seeing what she’s putting out there for you to see. We have the ability to curate our lives and we take advantage of that. It’s time we took advantage of the reality we are living in and showed it for what it is – real.
Oh, ps, for fun, my Myspace pseudonym was Killah K. Ironic how we all still used pseudonyms when we uploaded photos of ourselves, isn’t it?