Essena O’Neil has shot to fame after having a breakdown on social media. The Instagram and YouTube star (I had never heard of her before her weepy retreat from the public eye went viral, either) recently posted a video announcing she was quitting social media*. The world’s press jumped on the story. You can see where the irony lies. She ‘quit’ social media on social media and everyone who reported on it and responded to it showed their support via social media. Many people have questioned the authenticity of this ‘stunt’ – is it a publicity hoax, isn’t her new website ‘Lets Be Game Changers’ simply a re-branding of the same highly constructed online persona? The young model has brought an interesting debate to our computer screens, so does it matter if she has a personal agenda? And why are we all so eager to undermine her message anyway?
Social media encourages young girls to base their worth on outward appearance and material success
Two of her supposed friends and fellow YouTube stars, sisters Nina and Randa, posted this video calling her out on the ‘hoax’ and airing their outrage that she suggested they, along with other social media stars, were also presenting an artificially perfect version of their true lives on line and that they were equally miserable behind the lens. I whole-heartedly support their right to defend themselves. Essena should not have spoken for anyone but herself and the implied accusations that her friends were ‘depressed’ is understandably offensive to them. What I do not support is their vehement defense of social media as a platform to ‘inspire’ young girls when all too often it is a source of insecurity and encourages them to base their worth on their outward appearance and material success. Their crude retort that Essena is the only person guilty of being ‘fake’ simply highlights that they fear Essena’s story will have negative repercussions for their on line brand personalities. They would rather demonise their ex-friend in the public eye than admit there is anything wrong with the platform on which they have built a career.
The sisters argued that Essena was not as successful as she says she was, that upon her visit to LA she stayed on their couch and relied on them for transport and food. They expressed their hurt that after welcoming her into their family home and introducing her to their friends she revealed she had been miserable. What they fail to realise is that these assertions only support Essena’s argument. To the outside world, she looked impossibly successful, impossibly perfect, impossibly happy. Off Instagram she was living a far more ordinary existence, a girl who worked hard to filter out the mundane realities of her trip to LA to make her life look enviable to her followers. She never claimed the people she was with were fake in person, but that her backstage pass to their private lives revealed just how carefully constructed these online personalities are.
Nina and Randa insist that there is nothing wrong with posting bikini shots online and publicly endorsing brands they like. They are right, to an extent. Post whatever you like on your own account. Advertise what brand you are wearing if you have fans who want to emulate your style. But please don’t pretend that it is anything other than that – an advertisement for either yourself or a company who is endorsing you. They do not address Essena’s comments about posing for hours to get the perfect ‘candid’ bikini shot and they even equate their own beach body photos with the body confidence movement which has been trending lately. They say that if a fan sees their bikini-clad body and asks them for diet or workout tips then this is a positive thing. They have inspired someone. They don’t acknowledge that fans body confidence, or lack thereof. They don’t acknowledge that their confidence with their own body comes from decades of cultural reinforcement that slim, white bodies are desirable. They don’t acknowledge that there is truth in Essena’s claims that it sometimes takes hours to get the perfect shot. That sometimes the preoccupation with making our lives social media-worthy means we forget to live in the moment.
Social media is not real life, nor do we want it to be
I don’t take issue with Nina and Randa and many others like them having successful social media accounts. I don’t take issue with them posting as many bikini shots and brand-endorsed posts as they like. But I do take issue with their tearing down a fellow YouTuber, her decision to remove herself from that sphere, and undermining her reasoning in order to maintain their own constructed personas. That is what it boils down to, after all. Essena’s breakdown calls attention to the secret everyone knows but no one talks about: social media is not real life, and nor do we want it to be. Girls like Nina and Randa are pissed off and slightly fearful of Essena’s recent online antics because it threatens to tear down the lives they have so carefully built. Similarly, fans and online journalists alike are clamouring for the ‘truth’ behind Essena’s claims because most of us want to believe in the ideal these girls embody. We want to believe in a world in which perfect bodies, perfect relationships, and perfect lives are attainable.
Happiness is not a goal that can be achieved by accumulating followers and viewer-counts, but we want it to be. We want Essena to be fake so we can continue e-dreaming of what might one day be.
*The video is no longer available as Essena has since deleted her YouTube account, but you can find clips on various social media outlets and news sites. #Irony.