“I didn’t know myself without social media.” – Essena O’Neill and Knowing Ourselves

Essena O'Neill final

I don’t often drop everything to comment on newsy topics, but when it involves body image and identity, sometimes I can’t help myself.

You may have seen that Essena O’Neill, a teen social media celebrity with half a million Instagram followers, has quit social media. I didn’t know who Essena O’Neill was until yesterday, but I’m not very cool on social media, and I’m also not a teen. So I looked her up.

I read about her. Watched this video, and then read her edited captions on Instagram, which I totally loved. Her message is not just one for teen girls. It’s for me, someone ten years older than she is, and it’s for anyone who uses social media on a regular basis. Now with her new site LetsBeGameChangers.com, she is hoping to spread–what I’ve narrowed down to–three messages:

1. Social media is a ruse. It’s not real life, so don’t aspire to be social media famous, like her.
2. Social media likes and follows do not determine whether or not you are a worthy person.
3. Your physical appearance does not determine whether or not you are a worthy person

At one point in the YouTube video, she shares a story from when she was twelve years old. She used to stalk beautiful models and celebrities on social media, wanting to look like them and be like them. She would look at herself in the mirror and wonder if she was skinny like they were or pretty like they were. One day, she looked up the centimeters of different models’ waists and thighs. Then she measured her own waist and thighs to see how hers measured up.

That’s the part that got me. I know what that deep, relentless, self scrutiny feels like. I am ten years older than Essena, and I still know what that feels like.

She goes on to say, “I didn’t know myself without social media. I didn’t know myself without my appearance.”

I didn’t know myself, she said.

Essena’s message is powerful and I think it will make a difference, but that phrase right there is what she’s getting at, even if she doesn’t know that’s what she’s getting at. She didn’t know herself, but she wants to know herself, apart from the posed and strategic posts on social media. She hopes to accomplish this by getting off social media for good and spreading positive and truthful messages to others who are caught up in it.

I think when we say we want to know ourselves better, what we mean is we want to be known. For how we can be us and not know us? How can I be me and not know me? There must be something out there that knows us better than we know ourselves, and that, that is what we want.

Essena, in her own way, is expressing this universally human craving. To be known and then for our known selves to be loved.

This one thing we all want, what Essena wants, what I want, what every girl or guy on Instagram who is refreshing their feed compulsively to count their likes wants, is what we already have.

For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
-Psalm 139:13-16

A lot of people quote that first part, and but I like the parts after. “When I was made in secret and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.”

We were known before we knew ourselves. We were known before our own mothers knew us. We were known. You were known. You are known. Nothing has changed that. This truth, it holds true.

We cannot be more known than to be known by our creator, and He knows us. Like, really as much as you can possibly know someone and more than we could possibly ever understand, he knows us. Our substance being yet unformed. Our days fashioned as yet there were none of them.

Our backwards quest for acceptance through the posting of dishonest, improved and staged images of ourselves can only be turned around by believing that we are unconditionally accepted by our creator. This, I am convinced, is the only weapon we have to fight this war on self hatred, worthiness, and the feeling of not being enough. A war that’s always existed and is greatly magnified by the social platforms that allow us to see what everybody else is doing, who they are doing it with, and what they look like while they are doing it.

My hope for Essena, for girls and for all of us is that in our search for self, we come to end of ourselves and to the beginning of something much greater, a love that was always there, a love that knows us through and through and loves us still.

When Your Life Isn’t Measuring Up

When Your Life Isn't Measuring Up

I write this on Sunday after church, lunch, a nap and suffering through a Tracy Anderson work-out DVD. Many Sundays are like this for me. Not too eventful, as productive as I can manage with some rest and some writing mixed in. I love Sundays for this reason. But this Sunday after waking up from a too-long nap, I began to scroll through Facebook on my phone. I saw many posts about people playing volleyball, going to parks, going hiking, eating brunch. They were with other people and enjoying summer. Suddenly, my to-do list seemed so lame. I didn’t have plans to meet up with friends later. I hadn’t gone somewhere cool for brunch and I wasn’t “soaking up summer.” I sat up from my reclined position and began to feel embarrassed about my life. I began to believe it wasn’t measuring up.

People have been calling out the social-media comparison epidemic for a while now. I wrote it about it for my friend Katy’s blog in the context of relationships. I particularly enjoyed this one by Shauna Niequist on Relevant. I’m glad we’re being honest about this problem and being honest in the conversation. But as much as I read and talk about the dangers of comparison online, I still do it. I still compare myself to everyone I see on all of my feeds: Facebook, Twitter and, the worst culprit, Instagram.

And sometimes my solution to not comparing myself is worse than the actual comparison: I think bad things about people. Like, “They probably took that last week and are just now posting it to make it look like they’re having ‘the best day of their lives.’” Or, “So he got you flowers again? Isn’t that getting old?” And my most favorite, “Her life must really suck right now if she feels the need to post so much scripture and positive crap.”

Welcome to the reality of my sinful mind. It’s not pretty to write about, but I have a feeling others have had these thoughts at least once before when you’re in low place.

I have moments though when my thoughts aren’t so dark as I peruse the photos and status updates. Those are the days I feel like “liking” everything my friends and acquaintances are sharing. I call it giving virtual high fives. When I’m feeling secure in who I am and liking what my life has to offer, I can like all of the other great things in people’s lives. But when I’m feeling lonely or like my social calendar has way too many gaps, I hate what others are posting and offer no high fives.

The word that came to me today as I felt shame over my big plans to visit the grocery store and write a blog post and felt jealousy toward the volleyball players and picnic eaters was gratitude. Ah gratitude, isn’t it always the obnoxious answer? But something inside me said that if I could pull away from my smartphone screen long enough to list off a few things from my own Sunday I was thankful for, I would probably feel a little better. So I did, and it turned out there were several things: I had gone to a wonderful place to worship God. I had had lunch outside with a friend I love. I had successfully taken a nap, which I often can’t do. I had a missed call from my sister whom I also love.

Allison Vesterfelt recently wrote an article about people who are abandoning social media (I have been one of these people, twice). She talks about how the problem with social media isn’t social media; it’s us. How true. This is evident in my ability to some days “like” everything I see on Facebook and some days want to unfollow each person who is having a better day than I am. It’s not my Facebook friend’s fault; it’s something that’s going on in me. And it could be, just maybe, an opportunity for gratitude.