Social Media Up(root)ed

Instagrammers and social-mediaites all over the world have taken a second, more in-depth look at their own online profiles thanks to the viral caption edits of nineteen-year-old Australian model Essena O’Neill.

O’Neill lived a privileged life. As the paradigm of Western beauty and a master of the carefree beach-babe aesthetic, Essena O’Neill’s Instagram account (which has now been taken down) was infiltrated with images of her gorgeous blond hair, trim and toned bikini bod, beachside hangouts, and seemingly ‘perfect’ life on the Australian coast. Frustrated by long hours of drawing her self worth and validation from the number of likes she received, O’Neill did something bold and relatively unheard of: she told the real story behind each photo on her Instagram account.

A picture of her smiling in an elegant, form-fitting white dress was recaptioned “NOT REAL LIFE - I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.” On a photo highlighting her backside in bikini, O’Neill rewrote, “PLEASE VALIDATE MY EFFORTS TO LOOK SEXY WITH MY BUM BEING THE POINT OF THIS PHOTO. I wish someone would have shook me and said ‘You have so much more in you than your sexuality’ at age 16.” O’Neill admits that she derived her happiness solely from her popularity on social media, that she was often paid to sport certain brands and articles of clothing, that her apparently “candid” shots were anything but. She introduced the reality that Instagram photos are often taken hundreds of times for just the right shot and that she starved herself to look thinner in her photos. Just because she wore workout clothes didn’t mean she ever went for a run. Just because she was smiling does not mean she was happy. “SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL,” O'Neill said.

Essena O’Neill’s choice to re-caption her photos has spurred online debate, flack, awareness, and upset. For some, Essena’s reality check was the kind of slap in the face they needed to reassess their own online presence. Many have realized the falsehoods in their own photos, wondering why likes made them feel good, remembering times they felt sad or alone but posted a picture of themselves smiling anyway, and finally understanding that social media is not truth, it is not reality – it is a digital world where users pick and choose what they want people to see.

For others, Essena O’Neill and the outpouring following her dramatic statement undermines the wonderful aspects of the social media universe. For these people, posting a selfie is not a sign of insecurity, narcissism, or desperation for attention, but rather an outward expression of self-love. Social media is a platform for discussion and communication across large geographic landscapes, and people simply need to learn how to avoid falling into the trap of measuring self-worth via comparison and validating likes. 

A third demographic is highly critical of O’Neill, claiming that the entire media stunt has not resulted in her quitting social media as she originally proclaimed but instead has garnered her more attention than ever; for them, she has simply switched platforms, moving off of Instagram and now asking for donations on her own personal website. If she wanted to quit social media, she’s not doing a very good job of it in their eyes.

Regardless of Essena O’Neill’s personal tactics and choices, she has opened up the door to an important discussion about the dangers of comparison, the meaninglessness of likes, favorites, and retweets, and the self-worth problems afflicting the millennial generation. There’s something heartbreaking about watching a beautiful young girl that so many admire (#goals) sobbing into her vidcam over how hopeless and worthless social media has made her feel. While not every social media user gets quite as invested in their digital popularity as O’Neill evidently did, most can relate to her feelings on some level and recall instances when they too deleted a post that didn’t get sufficient likes, demanded friends to like their picture, felt good when their picture got liked, or portrayed or altered reality before posting. Instagram has a built-in filter and editing system to alter photos before they’re posted, and yet many users take these images at face value and compare themselves to candid images that in reality took hours, money, and thought to set up just so. Clearly, Essena O’Neill has put a voice and a face to the dangerous implications of social media for mental and physical health and is finally making the kind of waves she wanted to make all along.

**Disclaimer: Photos appearing in this article are screenshots of Essena O'Neill's Instagram account taken from various other accounts on Instagram and Tumblr.