Thanks to her 792,000 followers on Instagram and 271,000 subscribers on YouTube, Essena O’Neill has been raking in money as a star on social media, where she has boasted, “I could make [$1,400] a post EASY.” But in an emotional video posted to YouTube on Monday, the 19-year-old announced that she has quit her gig because the toll it takes is too high.
Essena O’Neill got real on YouTube Monday. (Photo: YouTube)
“I’m the girl that had it all, and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life … I had never been more miserable,” declared the Australian model, who last week deleted 2,000 images and edited the captions of the remaining photos (on her account, now renamed “Social Media Is Not Real Life”) to share details about what she did to perfect her appearance in each.
“I had acne here, this is a lot of makeup,” she wrote in the revised caption of one Instagram closeup (shown at top). “NOT REAL LIFE — took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good,” she added in another caption. “Would have hardly eaten that day.”
O’Neill explained in her video that a phone-free week spurred her to take action and shift her goal from getting likes to trying to get young women to value themselves more than their social media personas. “I realized, I didn’t know myself without social media,” she said. “I’m doing this because it’s a wake-up call. I’m doing this for myself at 12 mostly, because that girl deserves someone who is up to say this: All we need is to feel valued, loved, by the people around us.”
That isn’t the feeling O’Neill got from her social media success. “Posting on Instagram consumed me,” she wrote introducing her Nov. 2 testimonial, adding: “Now I’m here and I see how contrived, fake, and forced consistently proving to the world how amazing my life/body/self is. I spent every day looking at a screen, viewing and comparing myself to others.”
In the 17-minute footage, O’Neill — who has been a social media personality since age 12 — gets into detail about how “everything I was doing was edited and contrived” to get more views. “At 12, I told myself I would be of value the more views I got on YouTube. … I will feel happiness,” she said. “I let myself be defined by numbers. … The only time I felt better about myself was the more followers, likes, views online [I got].” O’Neill added, “I spent 12 to 16 wishing I was this perfect person online. Then I spent 16 to 18 proving my life on social media, perfecting myself enough to be that … perfect person online. Is that life?”
O’Neill, who just turned 19, continued, “I don’t even know what is real and what is not, because I let myself be defined by something that is so not real. … [But] you don’t have to prove your life on Instagram for it to be a good life. You don’t have to prove your body for you to feel beautiful.”
Launching her website, Let’s Be Game Changers, she now hopes to rally young women to stop comparing themselves to others online. “There is nothing cool about spending all your time taking edited pictures of yourself to prove to the world ‘you are enough,’ O’Neill writes on the site. “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.”
It’s an important message for young people to hear, psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Ludwig tells Yahoo Parenting. While adults may know the difference between contrived and real images, says Ludwig — who calls Facebook ‘Fakebook’ — “many teens don’t have the life experience to really get that.” For those kids, O’Neill’s testimonial “may be a relief if they’ve been attacking themselves for not being able to live this fantastic lifestyle,” she says. Listening to this star’s honesty may help even help teens be kinder to themselves. “Essena is basically saying, ‘I need to be who I am and be loved for who I am, not who I’m not,’” says Ludwig. “Hearing that may give others permission to model that more honest, authentic image of who they are, and experiment in presenting their lives in more honest ways.”
It’s normal for teens to struggle with figuring out their identity, the expert adds. “So Essena saying, ‘I’m not always perfectly pretty and I don’t like being fake or false’ tells teens, ‘Imperfect is OK.’ And that can be pretty empowering.”
(Top photo: Instagram/essenaoneill)