Instagram star Essena O'Neill reveals brave truth behind her photos

Scrolling through an Instagram feed of retouched photos gives off an aura of fantasy. Here are representations of people in perfect lighting and unearthly, vibrant colors to make you yearn to jump through the screen and into their lives of paradise. 

Even without ever owning an Instagram, I have gotten the impression that it is used customarily in tandem with photoshop apps. 

Internet sensation, model and blogger Essena O’Neill decided last week to quit social media because, in her words, her posts were not “real.” This was a bold move coming from someone who can make up to $2,000 off of one post, as well as a wholly unexpected move from someone with nearly a million Instagram followers, 200,000 YouTube and Tumblr followers, and 60,000 followers on Snapchat.

Underneath the sheal of perfection is a ruthless domain of envy and competition. 

O'Neill now stands against the system of “likes,” considering this structure to be detrimental to self-worth. She is quickly stepping up to be a huge catalyst of change for social media at a time when we need it most.

Today, social media and technology are rapidly stretching across age groups and across the world. There is no question that it impacts our decisions, the way we view others and the way we view ourselves. Many of the videos, images and messages we are exposed to on social media contribute to restrictive societal pressures, which award superficialities over the authenticity and depth of an individual. 

In O’Neill’s latest videos, since quitting social media, she explains that she felt insecurities about seeing photos such as her own when she was 12 years old and feels awful at the thought of causing those same type of insecurities in other young people. She now urges everyone watching to try a week off of social media to discover just how clear-headed and wonderful it can feel.

O’Neill shares a grand insight in the first video she uploaded to Vimeo. She proclaims to viewers with certainty that we have the power to shape the type of world we want. This notion has motivated her to journey beyond the transient gratification of a high number of likes or followers and actually be the change she wishes to see. Even though O'Neill still uses the social media outlet Vimeo, she's still changing social media from the inside. In one video, she called tech-savvy individuals to create a new platform without the likes or comments that can judge and shame the person in the posting.

O’Neill isn’t just extracting herself from the issue; she is going above and beyond, trying to make a positive change in the world by discussing topics all the way from environmentalism to mental illness to living in the moment. Now, O’Neill is launching a new website, called, in which she seeks to create an inspirational platform for viewers to talk about real problems, emotions and experiences, beyond material pursuits.

In a video posted three days ago, O’Neill admits that before this daring move she only had plans, edging on obsession, to increase her following twofold. Now, she is doing just as she says and turning the whole game upside down. She reveals to her followers not only the number of retakes, filters and promotional opportunities behind her photos, but also the insecurities and mental turmoil that arose from her fame.

Now she reports that she feels amazing and incredibly grateful, uploading a video of her in sentimental tears that unveils her raw emotions over the positive, global feedback from her decision. In a world as scrutinizing as our own, especially on the Internet’s anonymous scene, the act of O’Neill posting a video for thousands of followers while in tears — without wearing any make-up and even pronouncing that she doesn’t care if she has acne — is brave. 

In the process of bringing an important topic up for discussion about how social media conditions us and infringes on our psychological health, O’Neill is also liberating us to strip off our fake facades. She encourages us to delve deeper into the richness of life, past superficialities and discover what inspires us, beyond the approval of other people. 

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Reach the columnist at or follow @ralydford on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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