Essena O’Neill is brave. You’ve heard about her, right? The social media star who quit Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr to break free of the delusions and squash her addiction to the likes and the comments and the fame. She’s giving up a modeling career, sponsored posts and adoring fans because she’s tired of being fake. That word, “brave,” is the one you’ll catch most frequently if you scroll through the comments of her now defunct Instagram account. It’s as though her followers — old and new — have been longing for someone to break through the glass screen of their phone and tell them that none of this is real.
“No shit it’s fake,” was my kind, thoughtful, initial reaction. But I’m jaded: I work in this world. The fourth wall has long been broken. When I see a model smiling with a coconut on the beach, I do not think, “Goals.” I assume she’s photoshopped then think, “I bet that model hates coconut. Good for her, though. Make money. A job’s a job.”
Young girls do not know this. The 8-year-old nor 13-year-old nor 16-year-old versions of me certainly wouldn’t. What you see in the media skews your perception of normal. I was reminded of this when conducting interviews for our story on the lack of diversity in fashion. It’s why the industry as a whole cannot rely on the ideal of “one.” Without people shouting their truths from the rooftops of their platforms, it’s much easier to carry on with filters over our eyes.
But something wasn’t sitting well with me. Was it that her actions felt too dramatic — almost to the point that I wondered, “Is this a hoax?” Was it that she kept her Instagram up (with edited captions, yes, but still: she’s accumulating followers). Was it the knowledge that every media site would pick this up for the SEO, because everyone was talking about, because they didn’t want to be left behind?
I think it’s because I felt that if we didn’t pick this up — have a Man Repeller opinion on the matter! — we’d be left behind. I work on the Internet. I’ve written sponsored posts and posted fake smiles for Instagram. “Oh shit,” I wondered. “Am I fake, too?” I definitely have been.
But I know at my core that part of what makes working here special is that we try to simultaneously entertain, do our jobs and be honest with you guys.
Surprise! I ended up writing about it. Her overall message is important: no one is perfect, “goals” are often fabricated and the reality behind so much of what we see as voyeurs of social media is no more “real” than the Real Housewives franchise. But that’s not the only reason why.
I seriously, truly needed to hear from you guys. It’s the conversation and connection that keeps the tinted windows rolled down. So, when you heard about Essena O’Neill, the former social media star who said goodbye to it all, as consumers of “content,” as digital natives and immigrants alike who work in the industry or far from it, what did you think?
All Images via @essenaoneill