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Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media

Editor's Note: With the recent chatter surrounding Essena O’Neill and her position that "Social Media Is Not Real Life" (also the new name of her Instagram account), we thought TGR Stash member Carolyn gave interesting commentary on the legitimacy of social media "influencers". Just keep in mind that the opinions shared below do not necessarily reflect those of Teton Gravity Research as a whole. Be sure to check out our follow up piece with audience input!

A snapshot of Canadian Instagram influencer Katie Goldie. Goldie photo.

Every time I thumb through my Instagram feed, I am faced with photograph after photograph of young, long-haired women in brightly colored gear against jaw-dropping natural landscapes. Snow-capped mountains and blinding alpine lakes and technicolor sunsets fill the screen of my phone, telling me that a world like this exists out there and some lucky people are getting after it. And many of those people happen to have perfectly gorgeous faces, an enviable beanie collection and a pocketful of sponsors. Damn. Badass, right? Maybe.

Recently, Australian model and Instagram sensation Essena O’Neill posted a rant on YouTube that has since gone viral, insisting that  social media is not real. In the video, she speaks to her experience with the reality of being an Instagram personality. “Everything I was doing was edited and contrived to get more views,” O’Neill says. “I did shoots for hours to get photos. I would meet up with people and connect with them just to get photos for Instagram.”

These assertions feel more and more applicable to the outdoor community on Instagram as a relatively new type of account seems to be popping up all over the place: the everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-model.

The Everday-Woman-Turned-Outdoor-Model

You’ve probably seen it before. The classic wide-angle shot of a woman standing in front of a sweeping vista, waist-length  hair tucked under a backwards hat or beanie made by a small start-up gear company, patterned-legging bedecked legs that don’t touch, accompanied by a generic quote telling you what happiness is. She's not a professional athlete or photographer, just a gal with great hair who likes to get outside and either owns a DSLR or a GoPro or has adventure pals who do. 

Don’t get me wrong, these photos are mesmerizing. Bright colored down puffs and nature porn will get you every time. You scroll through them on your feed: where can I buy those galaxy-print leggings? What shampoo do I have to use to get locks like that? Why don’t I live in British Columbia?

CHECK OUT: The follow-up piece, Our Audience Weighs in On What's "Real" and What's "Fake" in Outdoor Social Media

But pause to look a bit closer at these enviable people, especially in light of O’Neill’s recent comments the real circumstances behind these photos. Often, these women are wearing  clothing that is completely inappropriate for the activity they're doing. Hiking in jeans and boots, staring out at an alpine lake wrapped in a wool blanket, or wearing a cotton sweatshirt with a cutesy mountain logo on it. And let’s not forget the women in the outdoors with completely made-up faces. 

Brooke Willson looking immaculately groomed for a weekend outdoors. Brooke Willson photo.

These all make for great photographs, but are at odds with what the activity would actually require. Which leads to logistical questions like: are these women actually doing outdoor activities in clothing like this? Or are they merely props for the sake of the picture or the sponsor? Either way, there is an air of orchestration about the whole thing.

Many of these accounts seem to be mostly hair and scenery. 20 pictures of long blonde hair cascading out of a hammock hung in front of a gorgeous view. Hair waking up in a tent in the morning. Hair in front of a steaming enamel mug (is all this about hair?) Hair, that despite having hiked up to pointy mountain peaks or remote alpine lakes, is still down, clean, and perfectly coiffed. I don’t know about you, ladies, but when I drag my ass up a mountain my hair is typically braided and either stuffed under a hat or wrangled by a headband, and it is usually a sweaty, tangled mess. Not ready for an outdoor Pantene commercial.

And worked in there in some way is the plug for the brand the women are sponsored by, a Tentree hat here,  a Kammok hammock there, an Orukayak over there. The relationship between these companies and their ambassadors cannot be ignored. Gear ambassadors are live advertisements, and their Instagram accounts outsourced catalog shoots. 

See a brand @mentioned? The photo might be sponsored. Elise Sterck photo.

While the relationship between a brand and an ambassador is obviously mutually beneficial for both parties, it does call into question the authenticity of the photographs. Did these women merely go outside wearing that shell or those shoes or that hat because their sponsors requested content? Did they choose to take certain pictures because it would earn them money? These feeds become more akin to flipping through a gear catalog than providing an insight into the candid life and adventures of an individual.

And then we have the photos themselves. Who is taking them? Who did these women “connect” with via social media to get pictures of themselves? Is it an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-mine type of exchange? How long did it take to set up and capture the perfect Instagram-worthy photo? 

If Essena O’Neill’s testimony is any indication, there may have been more shooting and re-shooting on these adventures than actual enjoyment of the outdoors. This is the essence of the issue that O’Neill raises in her video: why are we doing this? Why do we take photographs? Why do we post? And most of all, for the outdoor community, why do we go outside?

According to the quotes that accompany many of the photos on the pages of these “outdoor models,” they go into the mountains to connect with nature and find inner peace and freedom. But the photographs tell another story. Do they go into the outdoors for the pure pleasure of being outside, or to snap the perfect shot? 

Many of these accounts claim to want to inspire people to get outside, but rather than inspiring people to get outside and hike/climb/bike/ski/kayak/camp, it seems they only inspire people to go to a beautiful location and try to take the perfect picture. Is that all being outside has come down to in the age of Instagram?

I am a woman who adores being outside, trail running, and hiking and skiing in particular. I have around 500 followers on Instagram, and generally post photos of places I go outside and the people I go with. I always bring a camera on my adventures, and without fail post at least one shot on some social media channel. I’ve posted shots of myself standing in front of the breathtaking views, with the enamel mugs filled with hot drinks and wearing the funky leggings. I’ve posted out-the-tent-door POV snaps. I’ve done all of these things. And I still struggle with what my motivation is. 

Do I post because I am trying to be radder-than-thou? Do I post because I want to share my experiences with others? Do I post to try to keep up with the Instagram Joneses? Am I part of the problem?

I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram. 

There is nothing wrong with taking photographs and there is nothing wrong with posting them. There are plenty of women on Instagram who are getting out there and getting rad in a real way, professional athletes and regular ladies alike. Climber  Emily Harrington, skier Angel Collinson, and ultra-runner Rory Bosio all curate feeds that are down-to-earth and authentic, while at the same time being awe-inspiring-ly epic. They post photos of themselves practicing their sport, of the landscapes they see and the people they fill their lives with. They post photos of themselves when they are sweaty and dirty and bare-faced and real.

Ouch. Hard-earned scrapes for Emily Harrington. Emily Harrington photo.

I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram. The first category is full of women who are getting outside and doing them because they love it, whether it is their paid job to do so or not, and post photos that reflect the life they are living. The second is full of women who appear to be orchestrating their lives (and in some cases, social-media-driven careers) around posting a photo that will garner the highest amount of likes. 

Rory Bosio cheesin' hard–no sponsors, no name-dropping. Rory Bosio photo.

To me, this seems to defeat the entire purpose of going outside in the first place—of getting away from things you can plug in and interacting with the world around you. Of looking out and up at the grandness of our planet and not down at a tiny screen. Of being in the moment instead of orchestrating it.


Be sure to check out TGR's follow-up piece to Carolyn's op-ed, Our Audience Weighs in On What's "Real" and What's "Fake" in Outdoor Social Media

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

Awesome

This is great. Yes, unfortunately, perspective can be skewed on social media but there are a lot of us that just live and enjoy that outdoor lifestyle. My IG feed is just an expression of such. It’s real despite my great blonde hair and makeup. :) :p @jblackhawk

Sadly this comes off as a bitter rant. I am a woman who feels happiest outdoors, sans makeup with dirt embedded everywhere. And yet, I take no offense to these girls capitalizing on their looks and creativity to get some free stuff here and there. If you are of even modest intellect, you can see which pictures are financially motivated by a brand relationship; however, they are still visually appealing images at the end of the day. Don’t like being marketed products via pretty pictures? Stop trolling hash tags and just follow your friends.

    Yup, this. Modest intellect will get you pretty far when it comes to social media.

    Totally Agree why not take advantage of having fun and getting some free perks! and I’m never one to complain when someone wants to get some High quality photos for me to share!

      To me, this article is quite flawed as it comes to making judgments and assumptions rooted in a discussion about quality of life. The conversation regarding social media and reality is quite interesting and obviously it has its merits and faults. Based on the exposition and movement sparked by O’Neill, I believe the point is an important one to raise- What is real and what is “fake”? Our technological identities are becoming more and more convergent on our real ones and the line between them is becoming more faded. But these identities are still manifested out of ourselves, isn’t that completely real? - no matter how what we post differs from our “actual” selves?
      Moving beyond identity and getting into the main point of the post, on loss of quality of outdoor life attributed to social media, what is to say that a mountain climber’s experience is any more authentic than a woman sitting blanketed in a lake canoe? Sure they are different, but you simply cannot make conclusions about someone’s experience, no matter how far from authentic you believe it may be. There is no right or wrong way to experience the outdoors, or experience anything for that matter. We are all different and we all engage with the world differently. To each his own. 
What makes me think critically beyond these points, however, is that you probably wouldn’t see an article like this discussing men orchestrating scenes with expensive outdoor clothing and a manicured beard. We thus have the ability to discuss why women’s posts of the same sorts make them “posers”, while a man’s aren’t belittled by the same mechanisms. Having an understanding of issues surrounding gender and women participation in a primarily men’s dominated area, I would have hoped that your arguments didn’t make it increasingly hard for women to be accepted and to be inspired to find their own bravery.
 

To me, this article is quite flawed as it comes to making judgments and assumptions rooted in a discussion about quality of life. The conversation regarding social media and reality is quite interesting and obviously it has its merits and faults. Based on the exposition and movement sparked by O’Neill, I believe the point is an important one to raise- What is real and what is “fake”? Our technological identities are becoming more and more convergent on our real ones and the line between them is becoming more faded. But these identities are still manifested out of ourselves, isn’t that completely real? - no matter how what we post differs from our “actual” selves?
Moving beyond identity and getting into the main point of the post, on loss of quality of outdoor life attributed to social media, what is to say that a mountain climber’s experience is any more authentic than a woman sitting blanketed in a lake canoe? Sure they are different, but you simply cannot make conclusions about someone’s experience, no matter how far from authentic you believe it may be. There is no right or wrong way to experience the outdoors, or experience anything for that matter. We are all different and we all engage with the world differently. To each his own. 
What makes me think critically beyond these points, however, is that you probably wouldn’t see an article like this discussing men orchestrating scenes with expensive outdoor clothing and a manicured beard. We thus have the ability to discuss why women’s posts of the same sorts make them “posers”, while a man’s aren’t belittled by the same mechanisms. Having an understanding of issues surrounding gender and women participation in a primarily men’s dominated area, I would have hoped that your arguments didn’t make it increasingly hard for women to be accepted and to be inspired to find their own bravery.
 

To me, this article is quite flawed as it comes to making judgments and assumptions rooted in a discussion about quality of life. The conversation regarding social media and reality is quite interesting and obviously it has its merits and faults. Based on the exposition and movement sparked by O’Neill, I believe the point is an important one to raise- What is real and what is “fake”? Our technological identities are becoming more and more convergent on our real ones and the line between them is becoming more faded. But these identities are still manifested out of ourselves, isn’t that completely real? - no matter how what we post differs from our “actual” selves?
Moving beyond identity and getting into the main point of the post, on loss of quality of outdoor life attributed to social media, what is to say that a mountain climber’s experience is any more authentic than a woman sitting blanketed in a lake canoe? Sure they are different, but you simply cannot make conclusions about someone’s experience, no matter how far from authentic you believe it may be. There is no right or wrong way to experience the outdoors, or experience anything for that matter. We are all different and we all engage with the world differently. To each his own. 
What makes me think critically beyond these points, however, is that you probably wouldn’t see an article like this discussing men orchestrating scenes with expensive outdoor clothing and a manicured beard. We thus have the ability to discuss why women’s posts of the same sorts make them “posers”, while a man’s aren’t belittled by the same mechanisms. Having an understanding of issues surrounding gender and women participation in a primarily men’s dominated area, I would have hoped that your arguments didn’t make it increasingly hard for women to be accepted and to be inspired to find their own bravery.
 

      To me, this article is quite flawed as it comes to making judgments and assumptions rooted in a discussion about quality of life. The conversation regarding social media and reality is quite interesting and obviously it has its merits and faults. Based on the exposition and movement sparked by O’Neill, I believe the point is an important one to raise- What is real and what is “fake”? Our technological identities are becoming more and more convergent on our real ones and the line between them is becoming more faded. But these identities are still manifested out of ourselves, isn’t that completely real? - no matter how what we post differs from our “actual” selves?
      Moving beyond identity and getting into the main point of the post, on loss of quality of outdoor life attributed to social media, what is to say that a mountain climber’s experience is any more authentic than a woman sitting blanketed in a lake canoe? Sure they are different, but you simply cannot make conclusions about someone’s experience, no matter how far from authentic you believe it may be. There is no right or wrong way to experience the outdoors, or experience anything for that matter. We are all different and we all engage with the world differently. To each his own. 
What makes me think critically beyond these points, however, is that you probably wouldn’t see an article like this discussing men orchestrating scenes with expensive outdoor clothing and a manicured beard. We thus have the ability to discuss why women’s posts of the same sorts make them “posers”, while a man’s aren’t belittled by the same mechanisms. Having an understanding of issues surrounding gender and women participation in a primarily men’s dominated area, I would have hoped that your arguments didn’t make it increasingly hard for women to be accepted and to be inspired to find their own bravery.
 

@Codycirillo Dude, you’re completely missing the point. There absolutely is a difference between the identity that one meticulously constructs and displays through social media and the one that one does more naturally. I think when it comes down to authenticity, its really about the kind of spiritual component which is being so wholly immersed in what it is that you are doing that you aren’t so caught up in neurotic self-awareness and how it is that you want to selectively display your activities and regulate your self-image. So yeah, its an authentic experience in the sense that it happened in reality but the author is using authentic in the sense that such obsession with self-image through social media cheapens and kind of perverts this experience.

I don’t really agree with you. I partially admire that you give them the benefit of the doubt but I worked as a guide for 2 years for my college’s “Outdoor Adventure Program” and I can’t even count the amount of times that people would be sweating profusely having a dragging their feet, complaining about the weather, looking frustrated just to do a 180 degree turn around the second were at a remotely scenic location or someone pulls out a camera. The proof is in the pudding also man where these people are carrying ceramic mugs on a multiday hiking trip with their 3 pound Pendleton™ blanket with perfect hair. Thats what she’s referring to and lets not kid ourselves here.

It’s not about the inadvertent marginalization of women because thats the subject of her experience. Guys also do the same thing and I’m sure the author would agree because there’s plenty of accounts where men do the exact same thing. Don’t turn this into a sex thing -___-

Over half of the original mountaineers were women. They climbed mountains in full length dresses. I’m sure they had their naysayers too. Or in this case, online bullies. Calling out these women on a public forum for not doing their wilderness adventures the way you think they should is loathsome and I am really disappointed that Teton gravity supports this. Elise is a truely badass, lovely human being and if you checked any facts beyond your presumptions you would know this. She climbs, hikes, backpacks, and skis. Those huge mountains she is standing on top of, was the work to get there not authentic enough for you? Why is all of this directed at women? Are we the only ones with the dual hobbies of photography and outdoor sports or just the ones you want to silence?

Way to write an article about a bunch of really talented women that only mentions what their hair and makeup look like. I don’t remember the last time I read something so catty. You really buried the lead on this one. The article should simply have said: Women Wear Makeup, Post Photos; All Other Accomplishments Invalid.

This article is really disappointing. The writer is assuming the worst of people she doesn’t know. A girl bashing girls like this feels a bit like high school drama. The article is written from the momentum created by a teenage, Instagram superstar. What pulpit is this message is being preached from? You shouldn’t wear mascara when you hike? You shouldn’t go the extra mile to take the best photo you can? It’s wrong for non-professional athletes/photographers to have sponsors? The writer is just assuming the worst of these people, that they are conceited.
It seems to me that Teton Gravity Research is just trying to put others down in order to create some kind of distinction between the “non-professionals” and “professionals.” The ironic fact is, is that many “non-professionals” have better engagement on media platforms like Instagram than the professionals do. Maybe if TGR just focused on creating creative content that the public would enjoy instead of focusing on putting others down, they wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that all these girls have better statistics on Instagram than TGR does.

    I think the best part is that the authors instagram is doing all of the things she calls out in the article. She is an author for @outdoorwomen and they do unfortunately tend to take the “we are above all approach to how women should behave in the outdoors and on social media”. Most of the women are just being real people that like to share their adventure with friends, i know it makes me feel good when I get a shout out or tag or get rewarded for a post.

To your point, I think.  This girl I know was in a CB ‘extreme’ comp a number of years ago and won the thing.  But she couldn’t get Sponsors like this one very attractive girl who was fifth if I remember.  There were nine women in the comp.  The girl who won wasn’t super hot like the fifth place women who had sponsors fawning all over her because she looked good in front of the camera.

Carolyn- I appreciate your honest assessment of outdoor women on social media.  This was the crux of your argument for me: “I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram.”

My girlfriend often jokingly refers to my IG feed as my “outdoor porn.”  Lately, I’ve noticed an ever-increasing use of the medium to promote products and places.  You called this out, and that’s resulting in much discussion about social media and gender and everyone’s unique and personal experience of being in the outdoors.  Good for you!

I personally try to reduce my feed to include include only those athletes and outdoor enthusiasts that don’t continually pimp their sponsor or products.  This is disingenuous to me.

I also don’t begrudge anyone for doing what it takes to make a living while being in the great outdoors.  I just don’t want anything to do with it.

How to solve this issue?

#nohashtags

As a professional travel blogger hired to create the most beautiful content I can on a daily basis, I completely agree with this op-ed by Carolyn.

A world adventure traveller myself, the past year blogging for the government has been less about authentic adventure than about capturing it on a camera to share with my followers afterwards (or immediately) and making it look beautiful.

I take photos dressed impractically after having brushed my hair and touched up my make-up. The sad part is, that’s what works to have successful content on so many platforms these days - and also what my followers love to see. Hundreds of photos just to get that one perfect shot.

I find I can’t scroll through those I follow on Instagram because it’s depressing and hard to live up to what the millions of other beautiful people out there are creating on a more-than-daily basis.

I see how and why social media often makes us feel bad about ourselves - impossible standards to live up to. And very rarely a true glimpse into what everyone’s real life looks like.

This is such a dumb article. Seriously, why does anyone care what other women are doing?  There’s a great saying: “Be the change you’d like to see in the world”. So Just keep being the authentic you and set the standard. Also, if you don’t like these social media posts then don’t follow them, you know? If you’re a parent, then start dialogue with your young ones that this crazy NEW INVENTION called social media does not equal real life if you’re concerned about the impression being made on them. And c’mon, let’s not deflect what the women actually do in real life as opposed to what the social perception is. It’s not Heidi Klum pretending to be scaling some rock face or skiing down some scary ass mountain. It’s possible to look like a total fox and be a bad ass outdoorswoman at the same time. If the posts make you feel bad about yourself, then it’s time to spend some time with yourself and really love who YOU are, not who someone else is or isn’t. Stay focused TGR

Incredibly misleading comments about Rory Bosio…she may not mention the companies, but she has tagged them! Please don’t omit important information.

I hope you also noticed that these girls also wear brightly colored clothing, have long blonde hair, backwards hats and pose in front of breathtaking views….hmmm…

This article makes me sad. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, there’s a difference between voicing yours and simply being misinformed. What happened to women uplifting women? This article screams childish jealousy and pettyness. Do you know any of these women personally? Do you know the stories behind their posts, behind their every day decisions, why they chose to become ambassadors or not for certain brands? No, you don’t. Instead, you’ve passed up judgment on a group of beautiful girls who take great photos. When I hike and work out, I look like a hot mess. I sweat so much for a girl, it’s gross really. But I’ve also seen a lot of people come to work out classes or hike or do any other physical activity wearing full make up. How? No clue, but I simply can’t be bothered to care or find out. To each their own. Which is the mantra you should adopt, instead of writing a vicious article subtly veiled as a piece allegedly designed to make you think. Personally, I follow some of those girls and love their photos, and find them absolutely inspiring. Instagram is a great source of inspiration for planning the next adventure, whether I’m sponsored by Eddie Bauer or Kammock or whatever.
Please, before you judge so harshly, get to know the people you are so certain you have pegged. Ask them questions, interview them, hell, go for a hike with them. Then you’ll have every right to judge or applaud or whatever. But don’t bash the successs of others.

Here’s the thing - whether or not she comes across as jaded she is RIGHT. Nothing wrong with what these sponsored women are doing, but it’s not real, and it’s genuine storytelling, and it’s not authentic self-expression. The second you think about your audiences likes, your clients clicks, your paycheck or anything else other than the pure enjoyment of the experience - the second you let any of those prior factors play a part in your decision of what to shoot, where to visit, how to dress etc - it’s not authentic anymore. It is commercial photography just like you’re used to seeing it in magazines, billboards and in catalogs - it’s just now on Instagram mixed in with a bunch of other people who only do post their real life stuff. Now it’s up to you to decide what is what and if you care. But it is not authentic.

I’ve been a photographer for years, for both love and money - and I can admit when the client needs come before my art, and I will not say that is an authentic self representation. It pays my bills and is my work, for sure, but it sure as hell isn’t happenstance or indicative of what I would be doing without a camera (ie my real life).

Carolyn..  can’t tell you how sad and angry it makes me seeing my friend Brooke Wilson being bashed in your article. You have no idea how authentic, sweet and inspiring she is. I met her on a trip in Thailand in 2011 and just finished another with her in Peru. Yeah she stunning and looks amazing in her pics, ha she’s one of those people that looks great even when she looks like shit. But don’t hold that against her. Her passion for life, the outdoors and travel has given her a life, a job,  and opportunities many dream of having. It came as a result of being who she is and doing what she loves. She is genuine not fake. Yes, she does some work for great companies like 10 Tree. And, yes, she has a boggling number of Instagram followers. But again, that comes as a RESULT of who she is, not because of any narcissism. If anything you should issue an apology, then take the time to get to know her. To reference your article… Instagram is about her life, her life is not about being an Instagram poser.

Ps… She just trekked 5 days at 5200 metres to view the little known Rainbow Mountains in Peru. No showers, no make up, no attitude.

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