There has been a lot of talk lately about social media being the highlight reel of people's lives -- an artificial, curated selection of only the best (or sometimes completely fabricated) moments. 19-year-old Instagram star Essena O'Neill recently made headlines when she changed her Instagram name to "Social Media Is Not Real Life" and recaptioned her photos to describe the painstaking work that went into making them look so effortless. Similarly, "Socality Barbie" became an overnight sensation for satirizing carefully constructed hipster Instagram photos.
Social media's critics have a point. The online platforms portray people in whichever light they choose; and oftentimes, it is the clean and beautiful version of their lives. But that's not the only way -- and I've seen it.
Prior to news breaking about O'Neill, Oh She Thrives -- a community of purpose-driven women to connect, inspire and grow, for which I am editor -- started an Instagram Challenge called #honestisbeautiful, sparking incredible dialogue around telling the honest versions of people's stories -- instead of the purely likable ones. And it's shown another side to social media.
"Day 2: Body. Oh the things I could say. Where do I even start. The words I would have used to describe my body in the past would be 'hate,' 'ugly,' 'un-sexy.' I had once been quoted as saying, 'I really only like my face and hair. I hate everything else.' And then I began raising children. Daughters. I wanted to show them healthy, happy, strong. And the only way I could do it was to change my bitter perspective on my very own God-made creation. But in order to do so I have had to push past some obstacles, make the decision to either let the walls smack me in the face or to climb over them and bust them down. Every day proposes a challenge but my body has whispered gently that I am capable. It continues to carry me through each day with more confidence and is responding to my efforts with strength," wrote @chatrbox below a photo of herself with the hashtag #honestisbeautiful.
Every day of November, Oh She Thrives challenged readers to share an honest story about a different part of their lives, starting from the outward layers in. Day 2: Body. Day 14: Heartbreak. Day 22: Money. Day 30: Bucket List. And dozens of topics in between.
The challenge arose out of unprecedented feedback for a blog post with a quote from acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the 2015 Girls Write Now Awards:
"I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it's also something that's quite difficult for even older women and self-professed feminists to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you're supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you're supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don't quite say, don't be too pushy, because you have to be likable.
And I say that's bullshit.
So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that's going to ruin your story, so forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there's somebody who's going to like you; you don't need to twist yourself into shapes."
Readers instantly requested more dialogue around the topic -- discussions about how this desire for likability affected the stories they told about themselves, their relationships, their bodies and their careers. The Instagram Challenge was designed to engage people in an honest conversation from every walk of life, and the responses have been moving and sincere.
@samantha.amador.seattle posted a photo of her stomach on Day 4: Skin. "Here I am baring more skin up close than I ever have in my online presence... I preach to embrace your body and love living in the skin that you work so hard to keep up and running, and yet I still don't walk around feeling 100% pleased with the skin that I have. A few years ago, I was sitting at a size 18 and letting myself get to that size and then shrinking has left me with constant daily reminders of what it was like being a prisoner in my own body. Many mothers wear their stretch marks and extra skin as either something to be ashamed of or a badge of honor (they MADE A HUMAN) and here I am with the after-effects of not taking care of myself... I just turned 32 and I promised for my yearly goal that I would choose to take care of me and all that entails. This is one of them -- learning to love the skin that I live in, and letting that carry over into my overall self-love and acceptance... #honestisbeautiful."
@lisaeberly shared a photo about her teeth, writing, "When I was 12, I was in a pretty brutal skateboard accident that left my face and teeth, well, mangled. After over five years of countless dentist and oral surgeon appointments, surgeries, root canals, tissue and bone grafts, tooth implants, caps, dentures (at 13!), Novocain shots, liquid and soft food diets, I finally had a set of teeth again (just in time for senior prom). These teeth will never look completely real, and are constantly on my mind when I smile or laugh, so coming to terms with them and letting the world learn about and see my teeth up close is a big deal for me! But hey, being #honestisbeautiful!"
Others have written about money, travels, struggles and hopes with increasing levels of transparency and openness. It's the same old social media, but it's being used in a completely different way, and it's begging the question -- what if we utilized social media to inspire authenticity, instead of artificiality? What if we looked at all the little ways we sacrifice honesty for likability -- and we make a concerted effort to stop doing it? What if we share the most honest, boldest versions of our lives, relationships, bodies and careers... and name them beautiful -- not because they're perfect, but because they're authentic? Because they're our true stories.
@chatrbox wrote, "I've found my most revealing and honest moments have come through these challenges. Simple reminders of the things that make us US. Reading others' stories of self-love, redemption, pain, healing and confidence. I wear my emotions and heart on my sleeve and I'm okay with that. It is my goal and hope that in sharing my stories and being transparent with the not-so-picture-perfect life that I am giving hope and light to someone else who needs it. Someone did it for me."
To join the conversation, check out the list of daily topics on Oh She Thrive's Instagram account and tag your own photos #honestisbeautiful. I applaud O'Neill for being true to herself when she called out social media for being, at times, incredibly contrived. Now let's see how people can connect, grow and inspire when it's used to be honest. After all, #honestisbeautiful.