I’ve been thinking a lot about Essena O’Neill, the Australian teenager who has been in the news this week for her viral video announcing her departure from social media because it is not real life.
The Instagram model, a term people are hesitant to embrace even though it is very much a thing, was struggling with understanding what mattered in her life, realizing that she had spent years striving to find acceptance in what turned out to be a superficial way. It was not authentic. She went back and deleted a number of photos, recapturing others. She admitted to struggling with her own self acceptance, taking hundreds of photos in an attempt to capture the perfect “candid shot.” She was paid to pose with products and to wear certain clothes, some she said she only ever wore for the photo. She based her happiness on how many likes a photo got, on whether she looked thin or toned enough. Sometimes the photo was the only good part of her day. She admitted that she would under eat and over exercise in order for her stomach to appear tight. She smiled in photos, but was terribly sad in real life.
People on the Internet were quick to attack her and call her campaign a hoax, criticizing her take on social media but failing to realize that what this is really about is an issue that many people and especially young women face, that discrepancy between how we present ourselves to the world versus how we feel on the inside. We all try to find value and acceptance in one way or another, and sometimes we go so deep on these journeys we lose sight of what really matters. I feel for Essena because I’ve been there, having also struggled with self acceptance and body issues as a teenager and still to this day. Enough now when I look at the photo above I can’t help but feel a pang of envy. I’m working on this.
As a writer and someone who is active on social media, I too worry about these things. I think a lot about what I put out there for the world to see and what it says about me as a person and my values. Does it show me as a strong woman? A wild one? Do I look respectable? Am I interesting? Do I look irresponsible? Do I look happy? Do I appear smart? The images I post on my Instagram account are one thing and perhaps not something I pay enough mind to (though I’m starting to), but it is my writing where I really question these things and constantly stress over just how honest I should be, or if I’m being honest and authentic enough.
I’m going away soon on a trip that I am both looking forward to but also not looking forward to for a variety of complicated reasons that are in some ways related to this but of which I’m not sure how to express at this time. In my quest for a book to read on the plane I ordered Yoga Girl by Rachel Brathen, who is also a famous Instagrammer. I only recently discovered her account, which is full of gorgeous photos like the one above of her meditating on the shore in Aruba where she lives and teaches yoga.
Then I discovered her TEDx talk. Posted just a few days ago, the talk entitled “Lessons I’ve Learned Through Social Media” recounts her journey from her first Instagram post to where she is today, an author of a best selling book and curator of an account with almost two million followers. Her entire talk is about authenticity and how she chose to express her true self on her Instagram account and in her photos, documenting her struggles and her journeys through grief, pain and transformation. At times her honesty has gained her followers and other times it has cost them and brought controversy, like the time she posted a photo of her dinner and a shot of tequila and was called a hypocrite. How could a yoga teacher drink alcohol? She talks about how she is just a normal person working to find a life that is balanced and that she wants what she puts out in the world to reflect that. I found it very humbling.
There are a lot of things I want to talk about and write about but have been too scared to out of fear that I will be judged or that it would affect future work opportunities. In many ways I’m not sure if I’ve been authentic enough. I’ve danced the line a few times, like here and here and here, but I haven’t fully committed to telling the stories of my authentic self. So when I read these stories about Essena and Rachel and authenticity and social media (which in these situations is the vehicle for the projection of one’s self) I realize I am not being true to myself. It has inspired me to start being more open and truthful on this blog going forward.
Rachel ends her TEDx talk with some words that really resonated with me:
Even though telling the truth in a public space can be absolutely terrifying, I know it can change the world for the better. Because every time you tell the truth about how you feel, you inspire others to do the same. And in time, we may even have a society that is supportive of human beings being human beings. Talking about your pain is relieving it, and sharing your story is letting it go. We all feel the same things, just not always at the same time. And being vulnerable, that’s how we heal. If I can give you one thing with this talk, it’s this: When it comes to bearing your soul to the world, you have nothing to be afraid of, so tell the truth. It might just change the world.
I admire both of these women for putting their vulnerabilities out there, addressing social media’s role, and for taking the time to reflect on both how being honest affects them and what it says about them.
Yoga has helped me on my path to healing and lately I have gone astray, but I am getting back on track now and learning how to breathe again. I hope by documenting things in a more authentic way here that we can talk more candidly and openly about this stuff. We all deserve to find happiness, and sharing our stories will no doubt help others find the same.