Why Essena O’Neill’s Breakdown Matters To Parents Everywhere

essena oneill

With over a million fans and followers across social media, Australian teen Essena O’Neill was a bonafide social media star. She made money from YouTube videos, Instagram posts, as well as modeling and other freelance work she was able to secure due to her online popularity. But at the end of October she started deleting many of her over-2,000 photos from Instagram and re-captioning the remainder. She was exposing what she said was the “ugly truth” behind social media – that it’s all staged and often done on behalf of a brand.

While I do spend a great deal of my work talking about and educating people about the need for disclosure – and not just because it’s the law in the US, EU, and many other countries – this post isn’t about disclosure. I’ll discuss that issue on my other website. This post is about being a parent of an almost teen girl and how do I prevent this from happening to my child. Essena may now be 19 and have been “instafamous”, but she represents our kids. Our everyday kids who post on social media and watch, comment, fave, like, and ‘heart’ any number of social media accounts. We may follow our friends with their 65 other followers, and our kids do that too (although they and their friends have many more followers). However, the bulk of their impressions are coming from people who are social media “famous”. People like Ms. O’Neill.

The difficulty of parenting in the age of social media is that our kids are exposed to much more that we don’t see. Our parents may not have known exactly that we were looking at certain magazines or sneaking in to see movies or watching videos with our friends we knew we shouldn’t have been seeing. And while we may have wanted to believe they were clueless of what we were doing, they weren’t. The outlets for us to get information were the same as our parents. We weren’t bombarded with advertorial, product placement, sponsored content, and other types of subtle marketing that kids today must navigate. Which is why Essena O’Neill’s very public departure from social media is a bit of a wake-up call for parents.

Ms. O’Neill began on social media when she was 16. She quickly amassed 50,000 followers on Instagram posting photos of herself at the beach, wearing bikinis, showing herself ‘going to the gym’, etc. She is slender, beautiful, and lives in Queensland, Australia. Life was good. Then she found out brands would send her swimwear to ‘model’ and photograph for Instagram. Brands would pay her to do this. And she began down the road of using her social media platform for business. Instead of just being a 16-year old girl looking for people to validate her beauty, she became a shill for brands. She knew what she was doing – getting paid for posting photos that promoted a brand. But most of her followers – many, teen girls like herself – don’t.

So why does this matter to us? As parents, especially those of us with tween and teen girls, we work very hard to give our kids a solid foundation and healthy self-esteem. We spend hours making sure our kids aren’t bullied, or bullies. We read article after article about how to spot eating disorders in young girls. Our Facebook is filled with friends warning us about the latest predatory tricks of social media networks. We set up parental control, monitor texts, and ask a lot of questions.

But we don’t tell our kids that social media is another form of marketing and advertising. We likely assume they know that. We don’t tell our kids that those photos of their favorite celebrity are likely ads disguised as casual conversation. Because we don’t want to seem cynical. We’re not sure how to explain that the YouTuber they watch may be getting paid to talk about certain video games or makeup or clothing brands. How do you tell your kids that everything they read and see online may really be some sort of marketing? Even though they’re researching and doing their homework there.

We, the parents, don’t even know if what we’re seeing is an ad. It’s easy on TV, usually. It’s easy in magazines and newspapers, which our kids don’t read anyway. We know billboards are ads, and we inform our kids of this. They see advertisements in the program at sporting events, and from a very early age we’ve educated them on the difference between the ads and the content. But online? I know I’ve been sucked into reading what I thought was an article, only to realize at the end it was really just an ad. And, admittedly, sometimes it wasn’t until I was reading comments that I realized what I read may have been what is now being marketed as ‘native advertising’. If we’re not sure the social media post or video is really just an ad or product placement, how can we expect our kids to know?

And that’s why Essena O’Neill’s “departure” from social media matters. It matters because we’re talking about it. We’re talking about whether this is just a marketing ploy on her part or if she is sincere in her exposing ‘the ugly truth’ behind social media and those perfect posts. We’ll talk about it with our kids and find out their thoughts on what they believe is and is not real on social media. We’ll question more and demand disclosure. We’ll demand disclosure not because there’s something inherently bad about getting paid to work with a brand. We’ll demand disclosure because, just like with other forms of advertising, we have the right to know. And our kids have the right to know that what they see is just marketing and that they’re not expected to have that level of perfection in their lives.

Consumers and advertising watchdog groups were the advocates and impetus for the truth in advertising rules that apply to what some call traditional advertising – movies, television, newspapers, magazines, and direct mail. These same truth in advertising rules apply to social media. But until we’ve educated ourselves and our kids as to what this social media advertising and marketing actually looks like, just like we educated ourselves with traditional advertising, we deserve to know the truth, and so do our kids.

What do you think about the need for more transparency in social media and other emerging media platforms?


My Hair Does Not Define My Beauty #LoveYourCurls

dove love your curls


Few people know I have curly hair. I just don’t wear my hair that way too often. And I do my best to keep it straight. Although I am very low maintenance when it comes to my hair, the fact is I almost always blow dry my hair. If I know I’m not going out I may let it dry naturally, but that’s not common.

When I went to get my hair cut this week, I had already started seeing the new Dove campaign called “Love your curls”. It made me cry. Then again, those kind of ads with little girls and their moms do that to me. I hate to see little girls and tween girls so down on themselves. Do we have to keep that cycle of self-dislike alive? Have we not learned how to raise our girls in the nearly 40 years since I’ve been a little girl?

According to the Dove Hair Study, 1 in 3 US women have wavy to curly hair. That’s half of the global number, which sits at about 65%. Yes, there are studies that show more than half of the women in the world have wavy or curly hair. Yet, pull up a gallery of women from any Hollywood awards show and see if you can find but a few with curly hair.

There are formal and informal studies about the perception of women based on their hair. Consistently, women with curly or wavy hair don’t fare as well as those with straight hair. Dove’s study on curly hair is reporting slightly different results than the one Loreal conducted less than two years ago when it came out with its line of products for curly hair. In the Loreal study, it seems that there was a more positive response to curly and wavy hair. So why the difference?

Part of it is marketing. Well, a lot of it is marketing. Loreal took a different angle and went with the perspective that people found women with curly hair to be “fun” and “adventurous” and “sexy”. Dove, on the other hand continues its theme of how women (mainly moms) feel about themselves and how that impacts their daughters. When looking at the limited results that were published, both are correct. Because it has a lot to do with who you ask.

I like the message in the Dove ad, don’t get me wrong. Maybe this time the message will be a bit stickier. Perhaps now is the time for the media, in general, to project positive messages and public discourse about curly hair. But I’m not sure we’ve moved away from the obsession over straight hair and its association with being “classy” or “sophisticated” as opposed to “frazzled” or “unkept”. The conversations about Michelle Obama’s hair, and that of the first daughters‘, often provides praise when it is straight. And let’s not mention Beyonce and the uproar that was Blue Ivy’s hair. And we wonder why little girls with brown skin want straight hair.

So me, what does this have to do with me? Well, I’m part of the conversation. A conversation about hair and the social pressures it creates and the stereotypes that come with it. It’s a conversation that takes twists and turns, like the ones surrounding Merida from the Disney movie Brave. When Disney re-imagined the spunky teen into a full-fledged Disney Princess back in 2012 there was quite an uproar. Much of it had to do with how her body was changed, but there were many who felt changing Merida’s “frizzy” hair into something more smooth and wavy was a disservice to curly-haired girls everywhere. Petra Guglielmetti, beauty writer at Glamour.com was not happy, saying ‘Having a curly-haired daughter has changed my feelings about hair texture in this world. More specifically, I wish there were more celebration of natural curls in our popular culture.’ She said that 18 months ago. Yet, here were are. No further in this conversation.

There is obviously a need to have this conversation. And any time a little girl feels bad about herself because of the way she looks we need to take a long hard look at why. We can blame the media all we want, but Dove is right. It starts with us, moms. It aways starts with us and how we look at ourselves. The problem with putting all the responsibility on us moms is that we still have the societal prejudices of the past and present to deal with. We still have to reconcile it within us, which doesn’t make it easy for us to put on a happy face after years of wondering if things would be different if we did our hair a different way.

I’m generally indifferent to my curly/wavy hair. I don’t have an agenda in drying my hair straight. That is, I don’t have an overt agenda. But may, just maybe, all those years of being made fun of for having wavy hair did take its toll. I’m not all of a sudden going to change how I do my hair. What I will do, though, is make sure I’m much more cognizant of the women and girls I come across who have curly or wavy hair and be sure to let them know they are beautiful. Not because of or in spite of their hair, but just because they are!

My hair does not define my beauty, neither does your hair define yours. But until we make it clear to the pundits, the commentators, the gossip writers, and the media that using someone’s hair style to define the person we’re not righting this ship any time soon. When we can look at women with curly hair and see their beauty without commenting on their hair we’ll know the conversation with our girls will begin to get easier. Until then, I’ll continue to focus on what’s inside my head and not what’s on the outside. As it should be.

Watch the ad below and let me know what you think.