In Praise Of Essena (Or How Social Media Helped Me Lose My Mind)

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’

The Big Weep: Why I will never wear waterproof mascara

I am a lavish and profligate weeper. In the late nineties, when I was a teen and ER was quite the thing, I was teased mercilessly by my little sisters, who liked to do impressions of the gasping, snotty sounds I made when I was moved to tears by fictional families affected by tragedy, struggling pregnant women, car crash victims and poor Dr Romano (“But he’s already so curmudgeonly! H-h-how can he ever find love and happiness when he only has one arm?”)

I’d like to claim that I only cry out of compassion, but the truth is that the tears come whenever I feel out of control. I cry because I’m jealous, because I’m insecure, because I feel left out, because I’m hungry, because I feel fat. Things I have made me cry in the last month: Joy after hearing the lovely stonemasons on the radio at Glastonbury, and being excited about people making things (“So noble! The ancient crafts!”); Fear that my fiance might stop loving me and leave me (or stay in a loveless relationship with me out of a sense of obligation); Self loathing because an old writing colleague I barely know has been published in the New Yorker (“I will NEVER be in the New Yorker, because I’m not funny, and all my ideas are shit, and they’ll have to make a special magazine for me called Shit Monthly and it will have a giant, greasy turd on the cover, embellished with tiny pictures of my head.”)

My tears reflect badly on me – figuratively and literally, if I’m in a public loo with unforgiving lighting. Spoiled, selfish, self absorbed and snotty – that’s me. On top of that, I constantly feel as though I’m letting the feminist side down. Weepers have a rubbish reputation. We’re the Madeleine Bassets.  Byron’s less impressive shags. The ones who don’t make it past Judge’s Houses. I am supposed to be a strong, successful woman. You don’t catch FLOTUS, or Beyonce, or Angelina, having a weep, unless it’s about something super serious. I suspect Hilary is never found sat on some steps, weeping into the sleeve of her pantsuit, hiccuping “I just can’t even today.”

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With all that in mind, I was going to write “and now, for all the other Wailing Wendys and Sobbing Sindys out there, here’s my pick of the top waterproof mascaras!” And then I thought FUCK THAT. Partly because I’ve never used a waterproof mascara that I’ve liked, or that hasn’t lead to me finding weird, black, blobby bits on my chin on the week after application. But mainly because I think that life can be really hard, and there are a thousand ways to be a Strong Woman, and if I’m sad, scared and frustrated enough to cry, I’ll let my face take the hit. No more biting my lip and blinking! No more “My hayfever is so bad today!” No more dashing to a lav to reconstruct my eye make up, and using products that make sure that my lashes stay defined even if I’ve just been told that my entire extended family has been wiped out in a deep fat fryer accident. Let the dark grey, smudgy rivers run!

Waterproof mascara is for when you decide to treat your emotions like farts. We all suffer sometimes, but no-one must ever, ever be aware of yours. If you let slip in front of someone you fancy, you worry that they will never want to have sex with you again. (It is also for going swimming, and if a bit of eye make up is what transforms you into your best aquatic self, all power to your elbow. This is why I am not calling for an immediate ban.) But what did your Grandad say about farts? Better out than in! Also, probably “Now, I do like dates, but they really don’t like me.” Anyway, it’s the same with tears. If we pretend we don’t cry, and squeeze our eyelids tight, and refuse to allow so much as a dampening of the lashes, we’re storing up so much sad, bad emotion that we’re one harrowing episode of Teen Mom away from having to take a week off work. But by crying streakily, visibly and unapologetically, we’re not building up a bitter ball of dark, damaging emotion. It’s the wellbeing version of defrosting the freezer on the regular rather than waiting until you have to chisel out individual peas with a fork.

With that in mind, here are my favourite resolutely non waterproof mascaras that will leave your weepy face looking so dramatically streaked that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope will probably invite you to join Insane Clown Posse.

Benefit They’re Real, £19.50

With a brush that’s brilliant for lifting and separating, a single coat gives enough definition and drama for a strong level of streak. But I often wear it on happy days just because it makes my lashes look extra curly.

Weepy rating: Lana Turner in Imitation of Life

Urban Decay Perversion, £17.50

A nice, subtle house party lash – more hallway eyes than bedroom eyes, but you can really work the brush into the corners and go a bit ‘moody indie’ with it.

Weepy rating: Chloe Sevigny in Kids

Rimmel London Lash Accelerator Endless Mascara, £7.99

Excellent for tragic mimes – you can craft whole new lashes, and probably entire houses and cities, with multiple coats of this. And when the tears come it’s gonna be like an opera.

Weepy rating: Amy Winehouse in Amy