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 Emotionally Loaded Language Of Cleansing

Sometimes, as I prepare to wash my face, I worry that I’ve accidentally joined a cult. “Be free from impurities!” screams the soap. “Your face will become soft, smooth and clear!” Or “Our 14 step programme will remove all dirt without stripping essential oils!” A few months ago I heard about a brand beloved by the wealthy wives of Notting Hill which was distributed by some sort of super bougie Avon lady, who provided cleansers of increasingly complex technologies and determined if and when you would be allowed to progress to the next level. It’s baptism in a basin. We’re all born with original sin, but we can have clear complexions and consciences if we pay to play. The Lord will Cleanse. And we’re lead to believe that He will Tone and Moisturise too.

My scrubbed face (and my failure to find a hairband)
My scrubbed face (and my failure to find a hairband)

I love a ritual. I was brought up Catholic, and the feeling I get when I finish up in the bathroom and put down the hot flannel is definitely in the same family as the surge of relief that used to flood through me when I heard the words “Go, the Mass is ended!” Once you’ve washed your face, the day is behind you, and its disasters have gone down the plughole. And I like looking at my bare skin, becoming comfortable with it, and making my peace with Me. The bump on the top of my nose, the slightly red, uneven patch of skin just next to my right ear, the pronounced Cupid’s Bow of my top lip, the way that, at rest, one eyelid is slightly heavier than the other. This is the face I cannot change. I can focus on my favourite parts, accentuate and emphasise it, and control how the rest of the world sees it. But it feels like a tiny triumph, as someone who never felt pretty growing up, to strip away the layers (without removing the essential oils, natch!) and be able to look into the mirror and say “This is me. And that is fine.”

But with cleansing comes the alarming idea of ‘skin perfecting’. Every advertisement we see for skincare (and I’d guess that if you have a job that takes you away from your home, you live in a town or city and you own a TV, it’s over five a day) encourages us to scrub until we’re smooth, work at our wrinkles and solve our spot problems until our faces resemble vacant, smiling satin masks.

I’m incredibly lucky to have reasonably well behaved skin. Occasionally I’ll get a spot on my chin right before my period, and if you were to come close and look deep into my eyes you’d probably find some blackheads on my nose, but it seems to be OK when I make an effort. (I hope that I’m doing some extra good by trying to drink lots of water, not smoking and eating an avocado every time I encounter one.) But what I have doesn’t approach ‘advert face’. And I know plenty of people who’ve experienced adult acne, or those who struggle with their skin as a side effect of vital medication, or just have mysterious and debilitating allergies to almost everything one might buy in Boots. Cleansing isn’t fun for many of us, and it hardly helps to be told that the products aren’t just there to help us wash our faces – they are the ‘path to purity’. We know these images are false idols with feet of clay, constructed to sell us something. But it isn’t fair to use the language of souls to claim that unless we’re silky smooth and free from blemishes we shall be unclean.

We know that the narrow range of bodies we see in the media is problematic. When we talk about airbrushing, we’re usually alluding to the enthusiastic designer who has sliced off some already slender leg so that more sky might show through the thigh gap. Or the person who has digitally created a waist to hip ratio so extreme that the model has no real room for a heart, or kidneys. But what about the endless airbrushing of skin? When the dull, dry, reddened or pigmented is buffed to an impossible polish? We see girls gleaming like marble statues and silently, subconsciously hate ourselves and our realness.

A few years ago, musician Beth Ditto was interviewed by NME, and pictured naked on the front cover. She looked beautiful, luscious and abundant. I remember coveting her clear, smooth skin, and being amazed at its even tone and the total lack of cellulite, bruises, bumps and ingrown hairs. I’ve been a journalist for long enough to know that magazines live and die on their front covers, decent circulation figures are hard to come by and cellulite does not boost sales. But that was when it hit me that society’s stealth obsession with ‘perfect’ skin might be as emotionally damaging as the desire it fostered for ‘perfect’ body shapes.

As a white woman, I’m painfully aware, anxious and embarrassed about the unignorable way the beauty industry focuses on and celebrates whiteness, and I don’t believe we can talk about the pressure to have ‘perfect’ skin without discussing the issue of race . If I’m bothered about Beth Ditto’s cover, I’m horrified and startled by the number of high profile women of colour to appear on magazine covers only to be ‘whitewashed’ – lit and filtered in such a way that their skintone appears to be much lighter than it really is. A very quick, cursory Google shows that Beyoncé, Gabourey Sidibe and Kerry Washington have all appeared on high profile covers or in ad campaigns with lightened skin.

Lupita Nyong’o has spoken about how, as a child, she used to pray for lighter skin, until she became aware of the model Alek Wek and could see a woman with skin like hers being celebrated for her beauty. “She was as dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,” commented Nyong’o, who made the comment when speaking about how a young woman had written to her to say that because of Nyongo’s work and media presence, she no longer wanted to lighten her own dark skin.

Still, we’re all dealing with an insidious evil. “The evidence suggests that black cover girls don’t sell as well as white cover girls,” says Alexandra Shulman, British Vogue editor. It’s heartbreaking and horrifying. It reflects how collectively fucked up we have become about skin. At one end, the fashion and beauty industry is making us insecure about our blemishes. At the other, it’s geared against women of colour in a racist way.  I know I’m in a position of great privilege to have only experienced the former, and I know I’m part of the problem if I don’t challenge the latter. Still, it’s all a way to make women feel vulnerable, unsure of themselves and less than enough. We’ll buy the magazines and absorb the advertising and believe that if we all had enough time and money, we could become as identically smooth, golden and desirable as a set of Oscar statuettes.

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 16.58.40
The results of my Google Image Search for ‘face wash’. White women just love to splash themselves with water!

Ultimately, we will never be ‘free from impurities’. We can scrub until we’re raw, compulsively unpeeling ourselves, becoming more vulnerable with every exposed layer, but our skin won’t be perfect – just less protective. So I want to reclaim cleansing for all of us. When I’m washing the day away, I’m not going to think about becoming less dirty. Instead, I’ll be cleansing my skin of all the bad ideas and confusing messages it’s been exposed to since I got out of bed. Hopefully the face washing will undo some of the brain washing. I’ll force myself to forget the advertisements, the luminous, velvet skinned teenage girls being assaulted by an improbable shower of raindrops and segmented citrus fruit. I’ll rinse off the day’s physical and emotional pollution and return to pigmented, imperfect me.