"No one knows the reality behind images because it's just an image," says Essena O'Neill
Credit: Courtesy Essena O'Neil

In a photo formerly posted to her Instagram account, Essena O’Neill poses in front of a mirror wearing running shorts and a sports bra to show off a toned stomach and slim thighs – but O’Neill is now sharing the darker truth behind a seemingly harmless image.

“I took these images between the ages of 15 and 16,” she narrates in a video entitled “You’re My Inspiration.” “During that time I had a very conditional view of self-love. I was happy when I looked like the girls that I admired when I was younger.”

O’Neill, 18, recalls taking screen shots of images of women whose bodies she admired who were “tanned with tight stomachs and firm breasts and nice thin thighs.”

“I had this idea that to love myself I had to look like these girls,” she says.

To achieve this, the former Instagram model – who recently decided to quit social media – would work out obsessively and only eat very small amounts of food, which she considered a show of strength.

“Strong to me at that time meant skipping meals, it meant eating as [little] as I could, it meant I saw food as an addiction,” she says.

O’Neill eventually reached a point where she felt she met society’s standards, so began posting photos that showed her physique. At the time, she thought she was empowering others, but now realizes the photos may have caused more harm than good.

“I posted images like this of myself and everyone told me how much of an inspiration I was,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking to think that maybe young girls [ ] would screenshot these images and then work out excessively and calorie restrict, or just have an idea of self based on aesthetics like I did, and then punish themselves for not looking like me.”

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She notes that no one really knows what was happening on the other side of the camera lens.

“You look at this image and you take what you want,” she says. “No one knows what I’m really eating or what I’m really exercising, the amount of effort that it took to make probably 100 different poses, and slightly sucking in my tummy and pushing up my boobs and making sure my tan was perfect. No one knows the reality behind images because it’s just an image.”

O’Neill says she is genetically blessed, and that other women should not idolize her for that.

“You only know I am some slim, blonde, genetically blessed girl that got lucky with her facial features, how long her torso is, how naturally slim her arms are, how firm her breasts are,” she says. “There are so many inspirational, beautiful, loving, full-of-life beings that don’t meet these impossible standards. And they deserve to feel beautiful.”

“How would I know what it’s like to have something other than my own body that everyone idolizes?” she continues. “I don’t know what that’s like, and that makes me incredibly disturbed to think of the amount of privilege I’ve received in my life because of how I look in this picture. I’m ill-deserving of that privilege, and I do not think that privilege should be admired.”