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“It’s time for some truth on social media”: Lucy Mangan on the Instagram illusion

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Essena O’Neill, the 18-year-old Instagram star from Australia with over 600,000 followers, has abruptly and voluntarily taken herself out of the game. The game by this point was bringing her in, as she put it, “over $2,000AUD a post EASY” whenever she promoted a product. But on 27 October she deleted all but 96 of her 2,000-plus posts from the social media platform and drastically re-captioned the rest. 

One apparently casual selfie, for example, now reads: “Please like this photo, I put on make-up, curled my hair, tight dress, big uncomfortable jewellery… Took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then edited it for ages on several apps – just so I could feel some social approval from you. THERE IS NOTHING REAL ABOUT THIS. #celebrityconstruct.” Another one, of O’Neill in a bikini, is captioned: “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.” O’Neill, it seems, has gone through the looking glass and wants her followers to go too.

It is possible to be sceptical – O’Neill is launching her own website letsbegamechangers.com and the de-’gramming publicity will help that. But the fierce honesty of her new posts, her damning analysis of the effort that went into the originals and the insecurities that fuelled that effort, are so compelling you can’t begrudge her any benefit that accrues. 

I can only wish that others will follow her lead. If we can’t live in a world where we’re all allowed to run around as naked and lumpy and wobbly and hairy as nature intended (and we can’t, not if the reaction of my neighbours is anything to go by) then I would at least like to live in a world where people are honest about the extremes they go to in order to maintain their image. 

Enough of the dribs and drabs we get when celebrities let their guard slip and reveal glimpses of how little they eat or of training regimes that would exhaust Olympic athletes. What we really need is full acknowledgement across the board of the hideous, relentless, year-in, year-out grind that is required to present an A-list face and body to the world.

I’d like a detailed, verified list of everyone’s exercise regime, dietary intake, depilation duties and cosmetic procedures for a start. Then I’d like them to complete a questionnaire that begins “How long have you been hungry? If someone invented a calorie-free burger, how much would you be prepared to pay for one right now?”, then whips through a few salient financial queries like “How much money would be enough?” and ends “If your parents had loved you more, do you think you would be sitting on the sofa in Uggs watching Netflix like a normal?”

Technology is enabling lies and hypocrisy to rise to lethal levels via pictures that work at a visceral level. It’s insidious, almost irresistible and we are all guilty. I can’t tell you how quickly after joining Instagram I started carefully cropping pictures and trying to find the most invisibly effective filters. But it matters, because billions of years of evolution mean that we believe what we see for a nanosecond before our rational brains kick in. We need the information and the knowledge about how perfection is produced to arm ourselves against it. Power to O’Neill. Let’s hope she’s the first of many. Let’s change the game.

 

Photography: Ellis Parrinder

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