Why "Perfect" doesn't exist - A reflection on social media and self-esteem

This past week I stumbled upon a video on Facebook posted by HelloGiggles (Zooey Deschanel's feminist blog site). Normally I skip over online videos, as I have the attention span of Dory in Finding Nemo. But the accompanying article caught my eye: "A teen star gets real about her 'perfect life' on social media." I wasn't sure what to think when I clicked the link. I thought the article could offer me insight as to why the women of my generation feel so much pressure to conform to unrealistic ideals we place on ourselves, have placed on us by strangers, and even our friends. Essena O'Neill, a courageous eighteen year old Australian social media celebrity, known for her perfect body shots, flawless makeup tips and witty YouTube videos created a video explaining her decision to quit social media. She revealed how she manipulated photos in online apps, how she starved herself and put on a false persona for her fans in order to feel worthy. She would dress up in her fanciest clothes, layer on shape contours and contort her torso until she looked thin enough. Hours were spent primping for one photo.

My whole childhood, I felt like the ugly duckling, the odd one. Always being told I had a pretty face if only I lost the weight. At just ten years old, "ugly" became the word I identified with. I knew that I would never be accepted socially as one of the "girls" and I harboured no fantasies of ever being considered pretty.

I didn't have access to technology the way the other kids in my grade did. My family didn't have a computer until I turned six. We were among the last to adapt to DVD players. I carried around a clunky CD Walkman instead of an MP3 player or one of the first IPods. Social media platforms like MySpace were starting to blow up at this time. Most girls I knew were on MySpace posting photos of their happy normal lives that consisted of friends, family vacations, pets, etc. A hundred "friends" who would comment on photos, favourite songs carefully crafted to suggest optimal coolness. I was too busy buried in literary and musical worlds created by my favourite authors and musicians. Between reading and singing lessons, I simply did not have the time to care about these things I was supposedly lacking.

I tried my hand at having a Facebook account for the first time at thirteen. At the time I had to lie about my age to create a profile since you had to be eighteen to make an account. Every kid I knew in grade school in 2008 snuck behind the backs of parents to connect and share their lives with each other on social media.

By this time, I had allowed the constant bullying about my size to fuel an extreme makeover. Entering the eighth grade, I looked unrecognizable to my classmates. Everyone had to know what kind of magic diet I was on. For the first time in my life I was shopping for skinny jeans and cute little tops at name brand stores. I began to use my digital camera to take pictures in the mirror. Trying desperately to prove I was no longer the "fat" wallflower to whom no one noticed. I couldn't maintain the shape I willed my body into taking and gained a few pounds before graduation. I wore a pretty sparkly blue dress and had my hair done up at a salon. Despite no longer looking like a Barbie Doll I felt good about my looks. The day after I took to my page to post the photos I took with my family and my best friend. After finishing the post, I got a friend request from a boy at my old school that enrolled after I left. Still caring about the number of friends I could accumulate I hit "accept." He sent me an instant message in Facebook chat. It was one that I would never forget.

Barely a size 3, this boy was telling me that I shouldn't post pictures of myself because I was fat. My face fell when I read his comment. I thought I looked really pretty, and that was a really nice photo of me in my grad dress. As I got into Grade 9 my fate as a "loser" continued to gain momentum. My bullies followed me to high school, gained popularity with my new classmates and soon I had a reputation completely unearned and unjustified. Even at a normal healthy weight and trying to maintain a cleanly socially acceptable look, I was floundering. Turning back to those desperate selfies and crying my eyes out when they didn't turn out the way the other girls did. 

My best friend, although well intentioned, didn't realize that by constantly sending my photos to her guy friends and asking them to rate me on a scale of one to ten, that I would be permanently scarred. In our group, she was the wild, sassy "hot" one because of the way she dressed and acted, and I was her quirky quiet sidekick. She wanted to keep me from feeling confident about myself so that she cold fuel her own damaged ego. If the boys thought I was prettier she would have a hissy fit. Under her spell and wanting to avoid this reaction more times than not they would diss me in favour of pleasing her and potentially winning her over.

I ended up taking myself off Facebook for a few years after becoming fed up with my peers constantly trying to seek approval that didn't truly exist. Sure you might have a thousand or more friends on Facebook and twenty people said your photo looks "hot" but what did you have to put yourself through to achieve that "perfection," and how many of those people would care to know.

I don't take selfies generally unless that day I am in a good place in my heart. The photos I post depict a girl virtually makeup free with no retouching. I do not let others take photos of me and post them without my permission. I do not want to spend hours relooking over the pictures condemning my flaws.

This summer I posted a photo from the waist up to cover up my bruised, skeletal limbs. I wanted to remind myself that I was not my illness and somewhere inside there was a beautiful girl. The photo I took was for me and only me.

I smiled through the pain and in the five seconds I waited for the flash to go off on my computer's camera timer I found courage and peace. My family and friends were the first to like the photo and comment on my strength and when they said I was beautiful I knew those words were coming from a loving place I forgot existed for me. However, there is always a catch when it comes to the online world. I used the photo as a profile picture for an online dating website (as an awkward shy girl I have a hard time meeting guys in person) and the overwhelming response on how good these men thought I looked made me cry. If they could have been in my room when I posed for the camera, they would have seen my pants falling down around my ankles, my shoulder blades sticking out the back of my shirt like the wings of baby birds.                                                

I felt as though they were validating and condoning the eating disorder that almost took my life because it was better to be scary skinny and look like a haunted runway model than to be five pounds overweight. Months later, when I had posted new photos to show how proud I was of my recovery and how far I had come, a guy sent me a message saying I looked better "make-up free." In all of my photos except for one, I was not wearing makeup. That just happened to be the caption I wrote under that fated summer photo. I inquired further, confused by his message and he told me that I looked better in the timeframe in which I had taken that photo than I did now healthier than I have ever looked. He told me I should go back to looking like I did. I, of course taking my role as a feminist seriously, let him know it is never okay to shame a woman about her looks and to condone a life-threatening obsession with exercise and starvation. When is that ever an acceptable answer? Just because you have this sick idea in your head that this woman exists merely for the purpose of pleasing some unrealistic, soul crushing misconstrued ugly conception of beauty. 

I know I'm not perfect, neither is anyone else for that matter. Social media can be a platform to share innovative ideas, connect with family, friends and organizations across the globe. When used for good Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and YouTube are wonderful creative tools. However, when society fosters the celebrity of people like Essena and encourages vulnerable young girls to literally starve themselves or manipulate others and strive for unattainable goals of appearing to have a perfect body and life these sites quickly turn from fun to dangerous. I still see so many women sucking in their stomachs, tilting their bodies, smothering on caked layers of makeup, playing with lighting to slim their faces in Photoshop to achieve the perfect selfie for five seconds of "you are so pretty." What happened to taking simple goofy, toothy smiles and bunny ears with friends? It makes me sad to think that women like Essena, young and gorgeous both inside and out, don't feel worthy unless they can feel instant online validation. I hope someday we can live in a world where girls are proud to live authentic lives away from the cameraand in frontand can find the strength within to know that whatever they truly are is more than enough. Until then, I hope more YouTube, Twitter and Facebook celebrities like Essena will use their fifteen minutes of fame to inspire other women and speak out about the important issues. We need to take back our power.

This is the link to watch O'Neill's powerful speech about her experiences behind the camera:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe1Qyks8QEM