For anyone who ever peered at the sun-kissed photo of some Instagram "star" and thought, "This just can't be real life," this should be validating: Essena O'Neill, one of Instagram's bright, beautiful stars, has decided to quit social media — and, in the process, expose how what we see isn't always what it seems.
O'Neill, 18, an Australian who had built up a massive social following, announced last week that she's leaving it all behind, stating in an Instagram post, "Social media, especially how I used it, isn't real."
"It was never my conscious intention, but I deluded a lot of people... Call it deception, manipulation, lying, not saying the whole truth... I was both addicted to social approval and terrified no one would value me for myself. So I rewrote the captions of these false photos with short shots of reality."
What wasn't real? O'Neill had the ultimate lifestyle feed, with carefully curated photos that epitomized a well-lived, beautifully maintained life with all its Instagram-ready trappings. O'Neill has a fit, toned body with a seemingly perpetual tan; the sort of beachy blonde hair Aussies are envied for; and a love of yoga, bikinis, staring into sunsets and mirror selfies.
Now, most of the photos have been deleted — nearly 2,000 pics, according to the Sunshine Coast Daily. What remain have new captions, ones that expose the truth about the photo, from how she really felt when taking it to where the clothes actually came from to how much she was paid.
Most crucially, they expose how an unsustainable, unrealistic and undesirable the reality behind the Insta-fantasy really is.
Like so many online "lifestyle" stars, Essena was paid to promote clothing items.
And beauty products and food too.
All those stylish outfits? Most aren't worn for more than a few minutes for the photo.
When someone's body looks amazing online, you're not always seeing the truth.
And even when someone has an awesome body, that doesn't mean their life is perfect.
For O'Neill, someone whose success was built on capturing perfect images of a perfect lifestyle, the admissions are a big deal. The teen started changing the captions on her old photos — and posting new ones that struck a decidedly more critical tone — over the past several weeks. Her critiques target the false realities put forth on social media and also the soul-sucking power of social media itself.
"I'm starting to rid myself of distractions," she wrote in a caption three weeks ago, while in the process of paring down her media diet:
"I think ridding myself from all these distractions I've lived with for so long (useless scrolling time on social media, obsession on appearance, hyper sexualised and contrived forms of media/tv/music) has forced me to really reach in. It's scary and overwhelming how much of my life isn't 'real' life, it's screens and images. I have filled most of my reality (day) with contrived artificial ideas of living. I didn't realise I had an addiction to social media and my appearance until I removed my phone and makeup."
That's why, as she put in several recent videos, she's quitting. "For me, personally, [social media] consumed me," she said in a YouTube clip last week. "I wasn't living in 3-D world, I was living in a 2-D world."
Moreover, she added, "I was living in a system that said if you're genetically beautiful, you're more important."
The magnetic pull of a "like"-approved life: O'Neill's not wrong that social media can suck up our attention, tugging us away from the real world in favor of a flattering, more "perfect" world where we control how we're perceived.
It also molds the lives we desire. Facebook-stalking people we know has been replaced by Instagram-stalking people we don't know, as we lust after lives that look far more wonderful than ours, with every detail in its place — certain clothes, certain jewelry, certain foods or drink, certain homes, even certain bodies.
As one 20-something previously told Mic, "[I follow] girls who are insane about exercising and love gloating about their bodies and what they eat to maintain that look," adding, "Intrigue and jealousy definitely drive my behavior."
But being jealous of a life that isn't real is dangerous territory to dwell in. Which is why O'Neill has not only blown the cover on her social media fantasy, but also created a site called LetsBeGameChangers.com to inspire young people to disconnect from their social media-driven lives and get a grip on what really matters.
"We see luxurious living, genetically blessed people, we see new clothes, sexy workout wear, tight abs, toned thighs, perfectly styled hair, painted masks, spray-painted bodies. We don't see real life," she writes on the website. "Some might say we have issues 'coping with society' ... I say we are game changers."
Changing her Instagram presence for good is a great place to start.
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