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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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