Essena O’Neill is an Australian 18-year-old who attracted a huge number of followers on Instagram by posting gorgeous selfies. No. I’d never heard of her either. Last month, she re-edited her account, ditching many photographs completely and rewriting the captions on others. Pictures of herself were captioned with explanations of how long it had taken her to get ready, how many hours she’d spent getting a shot she was happy with, which brand has sponsored her to wear things. Pictures of food were re-captioned from vegan or Fairtrade perspectives. So, scrambled eggs and bacon became “chicken periods” and “pig flesh” and chocolate became “poison and violence”.
O’Neill’s aim was to tell the truth behind the images. She confessed various alleged sins, which amounted to a single confession: she’d been working as a self-employed beauty queen and had come to realise that her work wasn’t meaningful. O’Neill exhorted other teenagers to realise how superficial her posturing had been, how her actions had been prompted by insecurity, not confidence, and how none of it was healthy or useful. Now, O’Neill has announced that she’s quitting Instagram and will instead be running a website dedicated to drawing attention to the things that really matter.
It would be easy to suggest that O’Neill has found a new and improved way of feeding her ego, that just like the beauty queens of old, she’s in thrall to the attention she has attracted, and has come to believe that, as all those contestants in Miss World used to say, she can help to bring “world peace”. It would be easy. But it would be unfair.
Amid all the hand-wringing about social media, and its addictive artificiality and projection, it’s important to remember that all it does is magnify and intensify issues that already existed. Beautiful teenage girls have valued their “natural assets”, have sought to exploit them, and been exploited in turn for their pains forever. Anne Boleyn’s Instagram account would have been awesome.
Sure, anyone with teenage children of any gender will recognise that social media sharpens the insecurities of those who feel unable to compete successfully in this seething global arena. But that’s because the insecurities, if not the arena, are familiar memories from our own teenage years. As is the knowledge that most people make their accommodations and survive.
Will O’Neill survive her accommodations? Possibly. She’s already on her way to doing so. She could have carried on being a freelance model, endorsing brands, building her image and keeping her mouth shut. She’s decided to think and speak instead.
The important thing to remember is that it is the supposedly adult world that would reward O’Neill for staying superficial and pretty, and being prepared to work hard to attract empty and vacuous attention from her peers. It would be nice to think that social media has the power to break this cycle, rather than perpetuating it. Anyone who puts their hand up and tries to, even if it can be dismissed as simply a new way of seeking attention, is all right by me.
QotD: “The knives are out for Essena O’Neill. I say she’s a teenage role model”