Louise O'Neill: Until very recently, none of us ‘civilians’ gave any thought whatsoever to our ‘personal brands’

I was upset recently, finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The person to whom I was speaking seemed surprised at this, saying that such a display of vulnerability wouldn’t be what people ‘expect’ of me. I asked what she meant by this and she replied with a wave of her hand, ‘you know, because of your reputation’.

Louise O'Neill: Until very recently, none of us ‘civilians’ gave any thought whatsoever to our ‘personal brands’

I laughed it off at the time but later than night it was all I could think about. It was so odd, to be offered this unsolicited insight into how the outside world sees you, what they think of you. That people you’ve never met might think you’re too tough or iron-willed to show emotion when you’re grieving or disappointed, that you’re hardened to your very core.

As a writer, it’s interesting to see how others have interpreted my writing, how strongly they’ve responded to some of the characters — at times it’s felt like my work is akin to a Rorschach inkblot test, revealing more about the reader themselves than perhaps they realise — as a human being, the disconnect between how I see myself and how I’m seen by those around me can feel almost dehumanising, like my sense of self is splitting.

It isn’t always negative assumptions, like above, where I am portrayed as a cold, power-hungry man-hater; sometimes I am given far too much credit, I am assumed to be braver than I really am, that I always know the ‘right’ thing to say and go (I don’t) or that I am sort of a role model, which I most certainly am not and have never claimed to be. After much thought, I realised I was so bothered by this encounter because it meant that I was viewed by others in a way that didn’t fit with what I think of as my authentic self.

I have often complained there isn’t enough space in popular culture for female characters to be fully fleshed out human beings, that a certain amount of ‘likeability’ is demanded of them, but the same seems to hold true in real life, particularly for women in the public eye

They aren’t given permission to be flawed, imperfect human beings; they are expected to be paragons of virtue, to be attractive but not too good looking, acknowledging their minor flaws like a light smattering of acne or cellulite but not revealing anything too repellent, dressed fashionably (in ethically sourced clothes, of course) and have all the correct political opinions but not be too ‘loud’ about them. It must be exhausting. I wonder what it’s like to be famous, to be someone like Meghan Markle, and to have to stay quiet and ignore the lies that are being told about you, a false picture of who you are patched together from estranged sisters and disgruntled old friends and tabloid journalists.

Louise O'Neill: Until very recently, none of us ‘civilians’ gave any thought whatsoever to our ‘personal brands’

We have all done things we are not proud of, moments where we’ve been unkind or spoken too hastily, friendships that we had to forsake, exes that we wish we had treated better, secrets we hope will never see the light of day.

Can you imagine being so famous that all of those foibles and mistakes would be used against you? Spun into a story in which you are the villain of your own life rather than the main character? I’m not sure any amount of wealth or privilege would be worth it.

Of course, celebrities and royalty spend a lot of money on PR experts to help shape how the public sees them (whoever rebranded Charles and Camilla’s image in the wake of Diana’s death must be a Machiavellian level genius) and they have done so since the early days of the Hollywood ‘star-system’, when the studios would pluck promising young stars from obscurity and create personas for them, giving them new names and inventing appealing backstories for them.

Until very recently, none of us ‘civilians’ gave any thought whatsoever to our ‘personal brands’, which seems quaint now in the era of social media

Today, as we post and tweet, like and share, we are, consciously or not, curating our lives, presenting an image of ourselves to our friends, family, and followers that we hope is likable.

We have, in fact, become the spin-doctors of our own lives. And, ironically enough, the most important thing to be in your social media is ‘authentic’. What does that even mean? The dictionary defines authentic as ‘of undisputed origin, not a copy’ and in existentialism, authenticity is ‘the degree to which an individual’s actions are congruent with their beliefs and desires, despite external pressures’.

Louise O'Neill: Until very recently, none of us ‘civilians’ gave any thought whatsoever to our ‘personal brands’

But surely the very act of filtering your experience through the lens of Facebook or Instagram automatically makes whatever you share a performance, whether it feels like that or not? We demand the people we follow be ‘real’, whether they be an actress, an ‘influencer’ with 50,000 followers on Instagram, or the mother we know from the school gates. We seem to feel that we are entitled to their truth because without us there, listening and commenting and watching, they would be nothing, that they need our approval in order to survive.

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? And if you don’t post something on social media for others to see, has it even happened? Why have we come to believe that social media makes our lives more real rather than less?

Louise Says

READ: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson. This collection of essays touches on birth, the body, first love, and everything in between. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing —beautiful, life affirming, and full of heart.

BUY: Her Kind by Niamh Boyce. It’s been six years since Boyce’s last book, The Herbalist, and it was worth the wait. Based on the Kilkenny witch trials in 1324, this meticulously researched novel shines a light on women who were all too often silenced by history.

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