Let’s face facts. For all the joys of social media, as visual portals like Instagram and Snapchat have soared in popularity among young people, image issues have become more prevalent. A recent study declared the no-shit Sherlock of: ‘Social media use is associated with body image concerns, particularly if the users are engaging in certain kinds of activities on social media, such as making appearance comparisons to others.’
But the insecurities go further than simple body image, as can be shown by the story of 18-year-old Instagram star Essena O’Neill. After years of posting photos of herself living a very aspirational, beautiful life, she decided to ‘out’ herself, changing previous online captions of herself enjoying, say, a flounce by the beach, into condemning truths.
Once pseudo-meaningful aphorisms about a (constructed) carefree life made way for self-flagellating comments like: ‘See how relatable my captions were – stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.’
Essena was widely congratulated online for her ‘outing’, with new fans professing (via social media, which Essena has quit): ‘I never paid attention to Essena O’Neill but I really admire her bravery and honesty now.’
But was it brave or honest? Or just self-harm by another name? The new captions now ironically brim with exactly the sorts of hurtful comments Instagram trolls will jealously post under a photo of anyone who’s having a half-decent time. Essena might have a free pass to call herself out, but what does it achieve?
Well, for her, she quit her Instagram to launch a new site called letsbegamechangers.com and there, via vlogs, she will cover: ‘veganism, creative imagery with purpose, poems, writing, interviews with people that inspire me, and of course the finical reality behind deluding people off Instagram’. It’s of a high enough packaging and quality to prompt speculation that this was all just a big ploy to get more people following her unreal life.
Regardless of Essena’s initial intention by ‘outing’ herself as a demi-fraud, the result was a beautiful young woman negging herself to the extent that she went viral and made it into the papers. And how does it affect other, less conventionally attractive women, who now see the very photos Essena condemned rebroadcast and plastered all over websites and newspapers?
The gut reaction is twofold. Firstly, a beautiful woman who hates herself is the most beautiful of all, and if this woman could hate herself so much for glossing over her life, how far does that extend to us? Should we ditch the make-up, the Instagram filters, the angles, the taking of photos four or five times to get a good one?
And should we feel bad if we don’t? It’s obvious now that celebrities/beautiful people complaining about the apparent flaws in their gorgeous bodies can make us normals question our own bodies. But could it also be that women calling themselves out and feeling guilty for doing exactly as they’ve been encouraged – by both ‘likes’ online and companies paying them to post beautiful ‘fitspo’ or whatever – gives us yet another standard of ultra-authenticity to hold ourselves to?
As much as Essena’s life wasn't healthy – she has admitted now she would skip meals before a photoshoot – the vigilance this new standard of authenticity entitles onlookers to is hardly helpful. In early 2014, Lena Dunham was criticised for appearing in a stylised photoshoot for Vogue, where Annie Liebovitz had Photoshopped her. Jezebel paid $10,000 for the pre-Photoshopped images and posted them alongside comments like: ‘While Dunham has not been radically Photoshopped, it’s clearer than ever what kind of woman Vogue finds Vogue-worthy: the taller, longer-limbed, svelter version of reality. Vogue is not interested in reality, of course.’
Lena slammed* Jezebel*, telling Slate France: ‘I don’t understand why, Photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing’.
Using tricks and tools and resources to make herself look more camera-ready is something Lena’s cool with, later telling Channel 4 News: ‘At first I was like, “I don’t need a stylist! I don’t need a make-up artist! I don’t need a hairdresser!” but then I looked at myself on television and I was like, “I’d like to have all of the advantages of the people of my profession.”’
And it’s right – if you’re under so much scrutiny, why wouldn’t you want to look your best? The same goes for us normals who now appear on camera more than ever before by way of our own social media accounts.
Celebrities like Lorde and Zendaya have both been congratulated for calling out Photoshopped images of themselves, re-posting them online alongside messier reality eg of spots or the actual curve of their legs. Zendaya said she was ‘shocked’ that Modeliste would adapt her body for print: ‘These are the things that make women self-conscious, that create the unrealistic ideals of beauty that we have’.
And Lorde complained when someone online Photoshopped her face to be void of the teenage acne she had. ‘i find this curious – two photos from today, one edited so my skin is perfect and one real. remember flaws are ok :-),’ she said as she posted both side by side.
But as well as calling out those who think it’s OK to try to homogenise other people’s appearances, both young stars go further than that. Unlike Essena, whose popularity post-‘outing’ propagated the idea that pretty women hating themselves is attractive, they also speak of the positives of their differences.
Zendaya has spoken emphatically about what her ‘locs, her African-American hair, means to her in a world that prizes caucasian hair. And Lorde will upload to Instagram a photo of her pinkeye when it’s all weeping and sore but proclaim: ‘so why not say fuck it and let’s dance with the melodrama?’
Lorde and Zendaya are photogenic enough have not been as drastically Photoshopped as the hypothetical average girl might be if she were to somehow end up at a photoshoot, but their influence as slightly left-of-centre beauty icons has hold. And their influence on social media is hugely valuable in helping turn the tables of negative impacts on young women’s self-esteem.
So too does user-generated body positivity like The Naked Diaries. This Instagram page has been running for just over six months now and features self-submitted images of bodies – mostly female – for all their flaws. There are people who’re unhappy with their bodies after eating disorders, people who’ve got stretch marks through pregnancy or, you know, just because, people who’ve got more than the usual body hair, scars or spots.
It’s no wonder the page now has 50,000 followers, almost doubling its following in the past week, from 27,000.
Because, for each of the ‘flaws’ on show, these are real people with real stories that bring an awareness of these shared, skin-deep commonalities. The page lacks of BME women, hinting that body positivity is only for white bodies, but this should surely change as the page grows and gains more contributors.
And that’ll be great, because instead of judging people who cover up whatever they feel insecure about – thus creating an extra sensitivity about authenticity as well as concerns over body image – the page just goes ‘here we are, we’re different, and isn’t everyone in their own way?’
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.