19-year old Essena O’Neill has it all.
With 700,000 followers on Instagram and 250,000 on You Tube, she’s an Internet star. Her social media empire pays the bills through sponsorships and modeling contracts.
Fans and followers hang on every post as off-the-cuff selfies and candid shots record her perfect life of beautiful clothes, pool-side soirees, and hanging out at the beach.
Thousands of fans think Essena O’Neill has the perfect life…except she doesn’t. It’s all fake.
Those candid shots? All staged. The clothes? She was paid to take pictures wearing them. That impromptu selfie? Usually the result of several hours trying to get the perfect look and heavy editing.
This week O’Neill came clean. The self-absorbed social media life was making her miserable.
“I didn’t live in the real world, I lived through screens”, she said. “I created a celebrity construct of myself, believing it would bring me happiness. That couldn’t be further away from the truth. It’s simple, it’s because we are stuck living in distractions. An addiction to screen life. I guess I convinced myself that a number on a screen dictated my value. It limited my potential here on Earth. It consumed me and killed all creativity."
After 173 weeks on Instagram, she deleted most of her posts and edited the captions on the ones she kept with tell-all commentary.
Next to a selfie in workout gear she told of the unhealthy habits she used to get her healthy look, “A 15 year old girl that calorie restricts and excessively exercises is not goals. Anyone addicted to social media fame like I once was, is not in a conscious state.”
Many fashion pics were sponsored by brands, “EDIT REAL CAPTION: paid for this photo. If you find yourself looking at ‘Instagram girls’ and wishing your life was like there’s [sic]…realize you only see what they want. If they tag a company, 99% of the time it’s paid.”
Sometimes she never even wore the dress outside her house.
“I spent everyday looking at a screen, viewing and comparing myself to others,” she wrote. “It’s easier to look at shiny and pretty things that appear happy than stopping and just getting real with yourself.”
By another photo in workout clothes, shirt casually raised to show toned abs, “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.”
Another caption reads, “Paid promotion of tanning product. Only wore workout wear for the photo. What does this inspire? To have to be tiny to be healthy? To have to be born into a genetically small frame and win the genetic lottery?...There’s more to the human race that looking ‘hot.’”
Her “perfectly contrived candid shot” bikini photos were not candid at all:
“NOT REAL LIFE – took over 100 similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this.”
“’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 16. That was all I thought others wanted, that’s what got the likes, that’s what I thought was cool. There’s nothing cool about this.”
“…Stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs, I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.”
“Not real life. Only reason we went to the beach this morning was to shoot these bikinis because the company paid me and also I looked good to society’s standards…I only realized at 19 that placing any amount of self worth on your physical form is so limiting!”
Not real life
There’s something intriguing about people who walk away from “the perfect life.” Essena isn’t the first celebrity to proclaim the glamorous life as hollow and miserable. Why is it so surprising? Why is it news?
Because, despite continually hearing it, we don’t believe it. We’re star struck by seemingly effortless beauty and glamour. We all want to be loved, and this seems to be the best way. Fame, adoring fans, recognition, getting paid for how you look…that lifestyle is intoxicating. It pulls at us. It seems to fulfill our deepest desires.
It’s humanity’s genetic marker of success. How could someone like that not be happy? Even though faith, and experience, tell us something different, the belief is deep seated. And, that’s the danger for our youth.
Essena is not condemning social media or Instagram, per se. She’s railing against the duplicity inherent in the game. She wasn’t telling the whole truth. Her Instagrams were staged to look candid, natural, off-the-cuff. She portrayed a lifestyle that wasn’t real…and worse was unattainable and unsustainable.
Thousands of girls looked to her as a role model and wanted to imitate her life. She didn't want to lie to them anymore.
An important message for our kids
Society is pushing our children to grow up younger and younger. At 16, Essena’s life was immersed in her appearance and being an object of sexual desire. After four years of measuring her self-worth by this standard, she was empty.
Instagram Girls like Essena are daily forming our young girls, teaching them about sexuality, how to present themselves, and where their worth lies…and I see parents condoning it. They’re allowing girls as young as 11 and 12 to get caught up in fashion and cultural trends. It only continues downward from there. Don't let your girls, or boys, get trapped in it!
Essena’s message? You are more than a hot Instapic! You don’t need to win the genetic lottery of beauty to be happy. Fulfillment doesn’t come from being thin.
Now she has a new site dedicated to sharing the truth. It's called Let's Be Game Changers. She posted several videos that discuss her views and some "behind the image" videos that talk about the truth of her former social media image.
The Catholic truth about the human person
Keep your kids grounded in the Church’s truth about the human person.
Everyone has an inherent dignity and worth, solely by reason of their existence! God created human beings for their own sake. It is below our dignity as humans to be used by anyone for their own self-gratification or agendas. It’s beneath us to be merely a tool for economic gain.
It doesn’t matter if you’re productive, thin, beautiful, extremely talented, or smart. You’re made in God’s image and likeness and thus have worth because of that. Think how freeing that is. You matter! Just because you are you!
And with God's help and grace, you can unlock the full potential hidden within you to become everything God made you to be.
Do your kids understand how societal norms and social media can distort self-image and self-worth? How can you show them? How can you spread this message to the young people you know?
Copyright 2015 Marc Cardonarella
About the Author
Marc Cardaronella is the author of Keep Your Kids Catholic: Sharing Your Faith and Making It Stick from Ave Maria Press. Marc directs catechist and discipleship leader formation for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, MO. He is married, has two teen boys, and writes about Catholic spirituality and how to share the Faith on his personal blog.