Like the rest of the internet, I’m obsessed with Essena O’Neill. By now we all know the story – teen Instagram star turned supermodel makes a video featuring a startlingly honest takedown of social media and how miserable it makes her.She deletes and reedits all her photo captions to explain how many filters she used, how much she got paid for them and crucially, how unhappy they made her feel. Conspiracy theories abound – how can an 18 year old sound so savvy, switched on and eloquent? It must be a scam! I am Team Essena, and paradoxically I don’t care about proving her authenticity, because I think her bravery is making us all think about living our lives in a more authentic way.
Essena is a megastar. I’m a fairly anonymous journalist who makes a living from her words, not her face. But Essena’s story, and this brilliant blog post from my old Sunday Times colleague Pandora has been making me think hard about my own authenticity and the concept of a personal brand.
Half the year ago, I turned 30. In the run up to the big birthday, I became increasingly excited. I was prepped! I was ready to go! I was smug. Most of my twenties had been one long hangover, an extended, tearful STI test conducted in a box room of a dirty flatshare. I’d had fun, but I hadn’t been happy. I’d spent years breathing in, being broke, feeling trapped with nothing to carry me from one second to the next except hope. Blind, irrational hope. Intermittent heartbreak marked and shocked me like a tattoo needle. I welcomed the extreme, emotional pain because it anaethetised me against the low level crapness of my life. Better to cry over a boy than weep because the water is getting into your shoes and you can’t afford new ones – or just to get the bus to work. Let’s say that I can’t eat because I’m lovesick, not because I don’t get paid for two weeks and can’t stomach another bowl of boiled rice for dinner.
At 27, I couldn’t picture a 30 year old me, or a version of myself whose shoes didn’t leak, let alone one who felt safe, successful and loved. But miraculously, in my late twenties, my life started to sort itself out. When March arrived, I thought I was going to feel insufferably #blessed. I’d just been offered my dream job! I was getting married! I lived in a flat that I loved! I’d paid off my credit card!
But the night before my birthday, my self esteem collapsed in a spectacular crise de confiance. Or, to say it like a true Millennial, a Personal Brand Crisis. And social media powered the shifting tectonic plates that caused my collapse. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I spent the night after my birthday party crying in my boyfriend’s arms, wailing “I’ll never amount to anything because I’m just not pretty enough for Instagram! I’m just not pretty enough to live!”
We were in a beautiful hotel in Berlin. Eight of my best friends had flown out to celebrate with me. We’d had beers and dinner and dancing and a trip to the Stasi museum. I knew I was loved, and I was lucky. I hated myself for crying over the silliest, most trivial, most pathetic problem imaginable. I had everything. But as an adult, I couldn’t believe in it, or believe in myself unless I looked good in the pictures. I had ruined a wonderful weekend by comparing myself to gorgeous strangers – and finding myself wanting. If I’d come out of my twenties feeling that fragile and insecure, what hope could there be for the teens who had grown up filtering everything?
I could have spent the rest of the year carrying on like this, crying and criticising every aspect of my appearance. But I decided to take a good look at my beliefs – my brand values – and give them an overhaul.
As someone who watches TV and uses the internet, I hear the same message every day, every hour. “Being beautiful is the most important thing, but if you let on that you care about it, you’re shallow and dumb! Contour everything, but quietly! You must look like a Kardashian, while slagging off the Kardashians and everything they stand for!” My therapist talks sensibly about how some messages have a bigger impact than others, and you’re likely to interpret something in a damaging way if it echoes a deep seated belief you have about yourself. After extensive childhood bullying a simple shampoo ad can convince me that I’m fat and ugly. Like the Conchords, my feelings are hurt easily. I sincerely hope that most people aren’t like me, and can watch a commercial or see a beauty blogger and simply think “Oooh! I shall try that shampoo!” and not “Oooh! I must get a brown paper bag for my head!”
With the help of my therapist, I realised that my main value – “You’re hideous – and completely stupid and evil for caring about your appearance”, combined with a lesser value – “Everyone in the world is better at Instagram than you” was destroying my sanity. The point of a personal brand is that it’s personal. You need to know what you stand for, for the sake of your own happiness. Your brand shouldn’t be “words to profit by” but words to live by.
My new values are fairly simple:
1.I am pretty enough for Instagram.
2. Everyone deserves to feel beautiful – and to know that they can pursue this feeling without being accused of not caring enough about global warming or Darfur.
3. No-one good will ever judge you for not being pretty enough, but they will notice how kind you are. This includes being kind to yourself.
Essena’s fierce rebranding is inspirational. We’ll always love to look at beautiful people, but hopefully she’s instigated a shift that means we’ll learn look at an image mindfully, understand its construction and appreciate an aesthetic without subconsciously feeling that it reflects badly on us – it isn’t more than we can be, and it doesn’t make us lesser beings. I still find it hard, and when it feels too hard I reread this beautiful passage taken from Caitlin Moran’s letter to her daughter:
“The main thing is just to try to be nice…Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm lamp in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux, and this will save you the anxiety of other, ultimately less satisfying things like ‘being cool’, ‘being more successful than everyone else’ and ‘being very thin’