Instagram star and model Essena O’Neill’s recent social media shutdown made headlines — why would a gorgeous teen feel lost and confused and upset by the rock star life, covetable style, and thousands of fans she gained via social networks? The Aussie babe re-edited her Instagram captions to reveal “the truth” behind each photo: how many takes it took to get a photo that made her look sexy, how much she was paid to pose in a dress, which photos were authentically made in the moment and which ones were prepped and styled to look effortless. She started a movement via a new website to live in the present and influence the world in a positive manner. She deleted her major social media accounts and YouTube vlog — all because she despaired of being part of a culture that promotes inauthentic happiness.
It came at the right time for me.
I’m a professional athlete; no, not a rich one and definitely not a famous one, but a full-time track and field runner who uses social media in two major ways: to promote myself and my supporters and to capture my life visually. But over these past few weeks, I’ve felt uneasy about social media. Why should anyone follow me? What about me garners fans? In the most important year of my career, will I have anyone cheering me on at the starting line of the Olympic Trials besides my boyfriend and my coach? Why should you pay attention to my dreams, when so many other athletes in my event have the same exact dream?
If I had to sit down and write out a proposal to a company interested in sponsoring me due to my social media accounts, this is what I’d say:
“As an elite steeplechaser, I represent a dream shared by a majority of the world: making a U.S. Olympic team. No matter what your athletic ability is today, at one point, you dreamed of standing on a podium with a USA jersey across your chest, accepting your spot to compete on the largest stage in the athletic world. Through my running, I compete for my dreams and for your dreams as well.
On the track, I’m a fierce, dedicated, dynamic female athlete, whose competitiveness and discipline shines throughout a competition. My athletic build speaks to the “strong is the new skinny” mantra that’s grown throughout the fitness world of Crossfitters and yogis; I represent a demographic that’s more muscular than lean. As a Hispanic, I create community for the minorities that seek to carve a space for themselves in the record books. As a Southerner, I connect with athletes on the East Coast who train through Appalachian terrains and mild winters.
Through my social media accounts, I seek to cultivate a connection with athletes of all abilities; to promote healthy living; to share my favorite athletic brands and gear; to provide inspiration, motivation, and advice to aspiring runners.”
But the reality is, I’m not that confident in my head.
In fact, my social media accounts create an anxiety much like Essena’s popularity plagues her. Something she said in her original “why I’m quitting social media” video struck me: she mentioned feeling worthless when she was 12 years old and how that unworthiness compelled her to create a persona and lifestyle on social media that would make up for the lack of love she had for herself. Is this the same story for all girls popular on social media? Did they (we — although I’m far from “popular” compared to the following Essena and co have) seek to create a new self via social networks to replace the one that was insecure and unhappy? Is social media becoming a place where we are authentically inauthentic?
I’m not the only one who has questions about how social media is affecting our realities. In her TED Talk earlier this fall, yogi Rachel Brathen shares how her Instagram account inadvertently made her life look like something it was not — and how posting a photo that revealed the human side of herself received a wave of negative feedback.
“People will form an image of you based solely on the things you share — so maybe we need to be more mindful of what it is we are sharing,” she said. “If everything you post are the perfectly orchestrated, filtered, beautiful moments of your life, social media becomes filled with images and lifestyles that are impossible to attain cause no one has that life every single day. And in the end, we scroll through our Instagram feed and instead of feeling inspired, we feel inadequate, like we aren’t enough… this is not using social media as a sustainable way as a society.”
The Washington Post agrees; in an article this week, they interview an MIT psychologist who notes that social media users who “sign off” feel an anxiety that their created selves (online personas) are growing more and more distant from the “reality of their inner lives.”
This has become true for me. And what’s more frustrating is that I pay attention to numbers — sometimes too much attention. I put myself down when a fellow athlete receives double the “likes” I receive, especially when their post seems truly in the moment and unstaged, whereas mine is edited, captioned, styled all in the hopes of getting attention. I feel insecure when I post a picture of my teammates that receives more feedback than a picture of just me. I roll my eyes when sports bras, abs, and bare legs get the most likes — then make sure the next few posts I share all have those things prominently featured.
I can tell myself that I’m a worthy person, but I don’t often feel it on social media. So here are a few truths about my relationship with my social self:
- I found that when I posted pictures of my pretty breakfast or a craft project or myself in non-athletic gear, the posts didn’t receive much action. So I created a second account for my “pretty pictures”. I figured I’d give the people what they wanted — and what they wanted was non-stop running, all the time. Even now, I hesitate to post pictures of lifting or cross-training, as they don’t get as much love from the runners who follow me. Why do I censor my real life? Who cares if I want to share images from off the track — why do I need to put them in a separate corner on a completely unrelated account?
- When I was in graduate school, I began following bloggers — mostly from California, mostly in the wedding or design industry. They had the most incredible websites, with witty writing, beautiful photography, and amazing projects. I wanted to be just like them — a blogger girl who traveled the world, styled photoshoots, made it all look absolutely effortless. When it comes to social media, I find myself emulating those bloggers and, now, model-athletes. Everywhere I go is an opportunity to set up an interesting photo and everything I wear/use is evaluated based on its ability to make pretty pictures. Social media directs too many of my decisions when it should be vice versa.
- Many of my closest friends are in the event and wedding industries; it is there that I’ve seen these social media anxieties play out more prominently than in the athletic arena. It’s just a big game — who can post their work faster, whose wedding receives the most likes, how many blog or magazine features can you get, are you on a magazine’s list of “top Instagrammers to follow”? So many creatives make extraordinary work, but if they’re not receiving attention on a post or if they see a competitor grow in popularity for a project they didn’t get, it throws their confidence and makes them feel like their work isn’t as valued. It shouldn’t matter if your hashtag gets more likes — if you enjoy your work and love what you do, you shouldn’t need the added pat on the back from strangers online.
- Social networks offer great value. Originally, they were for connection and inspiration; today, I do think they’ve skewed too far into the FOMO/envy/insecurity categories. I love scrolling through my Instagram feed and keeping up to date with friends and people I admire. But there are times when I take those posts and hold up my reality against them — and worry that my reality is lacking. I am too insecure to try out new social networks — no thanks Snapchat! — because I can’t help but think, “Who would follow my Snap Stories? I’m not funny, I don’t draw dicks on top of my pictures, I’m not doing anything interesting today…” I don’t have the confidence to share my full life because it doesn’t feel compelling — at least, not through the lens of social media.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t sit around all day wishing I were someone else. I’ve found my place and my people and my callings and I love the journey I’ve embarked on. When I find myself self-judging too harshly, I put the phone away and turn off my computer. But there are still those times when my inner pre-teen comes out and I feel unworthy and insecure — why am I not one of the beautiful people? What’s missing from my life? What will it take to give me a big break?
The Everygirl posted a blog reminding us that we KNOW social media isn’t real — and that we’d get bored quickly if we did post the banal, unfiltered parts of our lives. Maybe this is true for some people, but we shouldn’t have to have an asterisk next to our posts: *This post is created for you to swoon over and feel jealous of. It’s not my everyday reality. Brands and businesses need to present themselves and their goods in an aspirational way — they want people to WANT the lifestyle that wearing their clothes or consuming their drinks will bring. But for real people… showcasing your true self is an important part of self love and we shouldn’t have to have constantly remind ourselves that our online personas aren’t our reality.
Social media is a wonderful tool that can create community, foster change, and promote connection — but we have to be dedicated to keeping it that way. When we turn to it with our own insecurities and vulnerabilities, we only feed into a cycle of unhappiness that negates any good these networks may have. I’m not saying social media should change the world; it just shouldn’t promote a culture of inauthenticity. I’m guilty of buying into that, both as a creator and as a viewer. I want to live in a world where posts online represent real people and their real lives — and that starts with me presenting the real me.