Call Aussie Instagram star Essena O’Neill, 19—who publicly disavowed her formerly selfie-obsessed lifestyle—an Internet-savvy publicity hound (as many have since her announcement) or a teenage “revolutionary.” It’s possible she’s a bit of both: the announcement came as she launched a new website, after all.
Regardless of her motives, embracing of a more realistic, healthy POV is meaningful, especially to girls and young women, says Toronto-based beauty blogger, Sylvia Ta, a.k.a BeautyCakez. Ta, 22, says she frequently gets messages from girls who mistake Instagram and YouTube perfection for reality; who don’t seem aware that social media stardom is more business than pleasure and more fantasy than real life. “I try to stay as true as I can on social media,” she says, “but I do get some people who make assumptions—negative or positive—about my life based on one photo.”
We spoke to Ta about how she feels about O’Neill’s decision to reveal the ugly truth behind her Instagram stardom.
What was your response to O’Neill’s decision to “quit” social media?
When I first saw that headline I was like ‘OK, I can understand someone wanting to quit social media’. When it turns into a career, it can be a pressure thing. I understood her intent, but I don’t necessarily think the whole ‘I’m quitting social media’ thing is true, seeing that she still wants to be on social media. She’s just taking a more real-life approach.
She’s gaining more followers because of this and she’s still using [social media] to get that message out there so I think it was kind of misleading. I think it’s more ‘I’m taking a different approach to social media.’
Some have accused her of just seeking publicity for her new site. Do you agree?
She talked about how real life and promotional material is confused online and how that bothered her. Is there a divide among social media personalities about how to handle promotional posts?
I do see the divide there, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. At the end of the day, if you’re promoting products that you really truly do like and you’re not just a walking billboard, I feel like that’s OK. Social media and the digital world has become a type of business and there are things that are not the most real when I post them, but it does have the intent of genuineness behind it. For example, I might take a picture of ‘the outfit of the day’ and that may not be exactly what I wore, e.g., I might not have worn heels all day… I think people would understand that.
I think it’s different when you’re leading a completely different life, though. There are a lot of Instagrammers out there who seem to be living this paradise life, eating fruits by the beach, and I can see how that is not truthful.
O’Neill went through her Instagram and recaptioned a lot of her old pictures. One caption that accompanied a shot of her in a dress got a lot of press: “nothing about this image is inspiring to a younger generation or creating real change.” How do you feel about that statement?
I understand how a selfie in an outfit isn’t necessarily inspiring change but I don’t think that everything you’re doing on the Internet needs to be advocating some kind of change. Sometimes I go on Instagram for the pure fact that I want some inspiration for what I’m going to wear that day! I’m not hurting anyone by doing so and I don’t think she was hurting anyone with her selfies of her outfits. So be it if it’s not inspiring change but it may be helping some girl who isn’t feeling confident about herself that day.
She also said that a lot of social media stars are privately miserable because of the pressure to perfect and edit their lives. Do you agree?
I do agree with that to some extent. I’ll admit that at times I do feel the pressure to go out wearing makeup every day because I might run into someone that might recognize me off of Instagram, or having always to look good, or not posting a photo because I have a double chin in that photo, or my arms look too big in that photo and not necessarily posting the things that I wanted to post. Maybe it’s a happy smiling photo of myself but my face looks fat in it…
I do understand the pressures of that but I think it’s up to you how far you let yourself take it. I agree with her in the fact that there are pressures and sometimes it’s not the most glamorous job…I wouldn’t go as far to say that I’m miserable.
Social media is a job for you. And a job does tend to stress you out. How do you balance your life with your online persona?
You have to have thick skin going into it. Yes, of course, there are breaking points when one day that one comment will really upset me and make me feel bad for that whole day, but it’s just like anything else when you’re feeling emotional.
Do you ever worry about becoming addicted to likes?
I’ve been able to separate it because it’s a business. When I look at something that didn’t get a lot of likes I don’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s a really bad shot of me.’ I look at it from a strategy viewpoint, i.e. it didn’t get as many likes because the esthetic wasn’t good.
What about your followers?
I get messages from a lot of girls who are hooked on likes. It’s not that easy just to tell them to forget about it and not think about it. I can see that a lot of people in our generation use likes as a validation.
Do you think you’ll ever deactivate?
There are times that I think about it…but at the end of the day I honestly do like what I do. I think there will be an end at some point when I’m old and unrelatable and no one cares to admire you anymore but for the time being I’m happy doing what I’m doing.