Essena ONeill | happiness based on aesthetics

Bad Ass Babes is a monthly series that features women who have gone out into the universe and made it a better, more interesting place. These are the women who make the world go ’round. The women that our daughters need to know about and hear about and learn from.

I should start by saying that when I started this series last month, 18 year old Essena O’Neill was not at all the type of woman I envisioned myself featuring. Scientists and aid workers and intrepid explorers? Yes. Social media stars? Not so much.

But Essena changed the game entirely last week by quitting her popular and incredibly lucrative Instagram and YouTube accounts. She deleted 2,000 Instagram photos, changed her account name to “Social Media Is Not Real Life,” and recaptioned the remaining photos to reflect what was really going on when they were taken before eventually shutting down the account entirely.

Essena ONeill | happiness based on aestheticsI had acne here, this is a lot of makeup. I was smiling because I thought I looked good. Happiness based on aesthetics will suffocate your potential here on earth.”

Essena ONeill | contrived candid shot

 “Edit real caption: This is what I like to call a perfectly contrived candid shot. Nothing is candid about this. While yes going for a morning jog and ocean swim before school was fun, I felt the strong desire to pose with my thighs just apart #thighgap boobs pushed up #vsdoublepaddingtop and face away because obviously my body is my most likeable asset. Like this photo for my efforts to convince you that I’m really really hot #celebrityconstruct

Essena ONeill | toned body isn't everything

“The only thing that made me feel good that day was this photo. How deeply depressing. Having a toned body is not all we as human beings are capable of.”

Essena ONeill | trying to look zen

There is nothing zen about trying to look zen, taking a photo of you trying to be zen and proving your zen on Instagram.”

Essena ONeill | $400 dress

Was paid $400 to post a dress. That’s when I had maybe 150k followers, with half a million followers, I know of many online brands (with big budgets) that pay up to $2000 per post. Nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known. This photo had no substance, it was not of ethical manufacturing (I was uneducated at the time). SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL is my point. Be aware what people promote, ask yourself, what’s their intention behind the photo?”

Essena ONeill | validate my effort

“‘PLEASE VALIDATE MY EFFORTS TO LOOK SEXY WITH MY BUM BEING THE POINT OF THIS PHOTO.’ I wish someone would have shook me and said ‘You have so much more in you than your sexuality’ at 16. That was all I thought others wanted, that’s what got likes, that’s what I thought was cool. There is nothing cool about this. This is a photo taken for the sake of trying to get people to like a photo. There is nothing inspiring about that. Social media is an illusion.#celebrityconstruct #behindtheimage

Essena’s message is basically that a social media culture built on likes and views can easily lead to becoming obsessed with the numbers and what people think about you. She admits to becoming obsessed and feeling lonelier and lonelier as she got more and more wrapped up in a life that wasn’t even real.

There has been a bit of backlash about Essena’s story. Some people have called it a hoax or a publicity stunt. Thousands of people who had never heard of her before (myself included), now know about her. Others have found it ironic that she’s spreading her message online or think she’s just a spoiled brat who should’ve known better.

Personally, I don’t think any of that really matters. What matters is the message that she’s spreading: comparing ourselves to other people on the internet and becoming obsessed with getting their approval helps nothing. It makes us miss out on what’s actually happening in our lives and it makes us feel like crap. This is a reminder we can all use—and one Essena’s teen followers really need to hear.

For more from Essena, you can check out her new website: Let’s Be Game Changers.

I want to highlight women—both famous and those who are quietly doing their thing—who have made or who are making a difference in the world. But I need your help! If there’s anyone you think needs to be featured, whether a historical figure or someone from your community, let me know! Either leave a comment below or email me at and I will most certainly investigate your favorite Bad Ass Babe.

Written by Jennifer Garry
Jen is a freelance writer and girl mom from New York. When she's not knee-deep in glittery crafts and girl talk, you can probably find her sprawled across her couch in the middle of a Netflix marathon with dark chocolate smeared on her face. The struggle is real.