Behind the image: Essena O’Neill

‘My success was largely in the hands of my white privilege and genetics. I was thin, tanned, toned, blonde with a big smile and a push up bra’

Sarah Fenton talks Essena O’Neill and the problem with Instagram culture 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, chances are you’ll have heard about the teenage social media star Essena O’Neill who has suddenly given everything up. A few weeks ago she announced a new project called ‘behind the image,’ which involved changing the captions on her Instagram pictures to the real details of the day. These included how long she took taking the picture, why she posed in a certain way and how she was actually feeling. She shared how much she was being paid to model clothes, food and teas for big companies. Now, her Instagram and YouTube have been deleted and she has created a new site called ‘Let’s Be Game Changers.’

Essena knew that her social media was not just consuming her but serving to actively deceive people about her life. She is aware of her privileges and is honest about how they enabled her to get ahead: ‘My success was largely in the hands of my white privilege and genetics. I was thin, tanned, toned, blonde with a big smile and a push up bra’. She was coming from a position of privilege and the healthy lifestyle that she was promoting wasn’t the reason she looked the way she did.  Her photos were edited, she had a restrictive diet, obsessively exercised and yet passed off the way she looked as an effect of a healthy vegan diet.

Essena’s case is not unique; people on Instagram and YouTube have developed such a following they now have enormous amounts of power, and Essena has opened people’s eyes to how contrived their image often is. Most people scroll idly through Instagram not thinking about whether the image has been edited or not. I can think of many a time when I was sitting in my kitchen stuffing my face with cheesy chips and looking through beautiful images of her drinking a mango smoothie standing in a bikini with a caption about health and morning runs. These pictures made me feel bad about myself and my lifestyle choices, and research shows that most people feel worse after spending time looking through beautiful images of ‘perfect people.’ But being able to read that those pictures actually took her hours to take and were heavily edited made me feel so much better about myself. It’s so easy to forget that this is people’s jobs; they have all day to take perfect ‘candid’ shots and then have the skills to edit them to create a perfect picture.

In a recent Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ video aptly called ‘keep your chia seed smoothies off my Instagram feed,’ Bella Mackie claims ‘enthusiasm for wellness has gone too far.’ She discusses how eating healthily has become a big business as cook books and healthy snacks are increasingly in demand. Yet there is increasing evidence that these extremely restrictive diets can be very harmful and the majority of people making these lifestyle choices are young women. Instagram accounts like Essena’s promote a deceiving image of what this lifestyle entails. They promote a contrived and one dimensional beauty standard. These perfect accounts worsen the problem as they fuel the notion that if you lose enough weight and eat healthily enough you will have the ‘perfect’ life.

It is trends like this that led Steven Bretman to coin the term ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ in 1996. Although not officially a medical term, it is used to describe the increasing unhealthy obsession with eating healthily. The term literally means ‘fixation on righteous eating’ and people who suffer from it are obsessed with food quality and purity. It is most common among young teenage girls, which is worrying as teenage girls make up the majority of Essena’s audience. The lifestyle and veganism that Essena and many other bloggers like her, such as vegan twins Nina and Randa Nelson and Bonnie Rebecca promote, can be the trigger for these unhealthy obsessions.

While following a vegan lifestyle can be both ethical and healthy, Bretman explains how when people turn vegan they lose lots of weight simply because of the lack high calorie animal products in their diet. While for most people losing weight is not why they go vegan, Bretman argues that it becomes a subconscious inspiration to continue to change their diet and become increasingly restrictive. We are bombarded daily with images of ‘perfect’ extremely thin women and this is held up as the pinnacle of success and beauty in culture. Losing the weight makes people feel they are succeeding as our society holds being thin as an ideal.

Noami Wolf discusses the reasons why thinness is held as ideal in our society in her book The Beauty Myth. She claims that ‘a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; ‘a quietly mad population is a tractable one’. This is a point Essena touches on when she explains how she felt the need to look as good as possible in order to better spread her message. She thought that by looking better people would listen to her However, she realised that she was potentially causing harm and has done everything in her power to stop that: ‘I thought I was helping young girls get fit and happy. But I only realised at 19 that placing any amount of self-worth on your physical form is so limiting.’ She decided to change because she realised she was helping to enforce a beauty standard that only included white thin people.

Essena knew that she was being idolised and that people thought of her lifestyle and body as a ‘goal’ and so she did something about it. She is brutally frank and open about the images she posted, and she highlights the dark side to her fame: ‘a 15 year old girl that calorie restricts and excessively exercises is not goals.’ We all know how much magazines are photoshopped but don’t expect it from someone we casually follow on Instagram.  Manipulating people into thinking that your life is perfect is really damaging and she should be held accountable for this, especially as she knew she had a young audience who weren’t able to dismiss her photos as fake and idolised her. Her pictures have appeared on thinspiration blogs (blogs that promote eating disorders as a lifestyle and not mental illnesses) and are used by some as a fuel to continue eating in a disordered way as they believe their destructive diet will lead them to look like her. As Jessiemae Peluso says: ‘you will never look like the girl in the magazine. The girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like the girl in the magazine.’

Having someone come out and say how much effort goes into looking ‘effortlessly beautiful’ is a really important message. Despite her previous manipulation, her positivity is what we should be talking about and admiring: ‘don’t let numbers define you. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not enough without excessive makeup, latest trends, 100+ likes on a photo, “a bikini body,” thigh gap, long blonde hair.’ I hope that what’s she’s done allows people to feel better about themselves. She is spreading a message of love and self-acceptance through being so honest and open. I hope other people in positions of power are inspired by what she has done and that things begin to change. As Amy Leigh Mercree says: ‘one woman filled with self-love and self-acceptance is a model more super than any cover girl.’

Illustration by Miriam Cocker


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