Two women hike up to the top of a peak, separately. The first woman has a ponytail and a hat on, takes a few landscape photos and a big grinned selfie with her iPhone, has a snack, hydrates and then heads back down the trail. The second woman has her hair in a bun, but takes it down once shes reaches the summit. She puts on a lightweight jacket, has some water and a snack and then spends 15 minutes setting up her camera and tripod to get a scenic shot with her in it. Both women post to social media and both women tag a brand or sponsor.
Question: Who's adventure/life/Instagram feed is more "real?"
Answer: Who cares? Both women made it to the top.
Teton Gravity Research published an opinion piece by Carolyn Highland titled “Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media.” If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so and form your own opinion. The author attempts to address the lack of authenticity on social media and targets “the everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-model.” Is she talking about me? Probably, although she didn’t call me out specifically. I didn’t make the example list, seeing as she was seemingly hung up on blondes with long hair. That’s probably because it’s a well-known fact that brunettes and redheads are more real. *wink* I kid, I kid. But in all honestly, I easily fit in the same category of women being offered up as examples of what should be questioned.
I think the article is confusing right off the bat though... the author talks about being awe-struck by a vast landscape featuring a woman in a brightly colored jacket and leggings, to then asking the reader to take pause to notice that often times these enviable women aren't wearing appropriate clothing for the outdoors. She goes on to describe a more "hipster" type of female in jeans and a mountain sweatshirt, wrapped in a wool blanket, but then visually showcases Brooke Willson with flushed cheeks, wearing a blue shell out in the snow. The author asks a lot of questions and some of them have merit, but her lack of tact by calling out specific outdoor women really takes away from the overall message and begets negativity.
Let's look at a few of the questions/issues that were raised. First up, 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."
Well, my hiking hairstyles usually range from a ponytail or bun, but sometimes I hike with it down. A little finger combing once I'm at my destination and BOOM... outdoor Pantene hair commercial, although I can assure you, it's not clean. I do bring a travel sized hairbrush with me on backpacking trips though. Tangles and knots the next morning are no joke. Ok, but seriously, why does this matter? For me, it's not about showing you my hair as much as it's about not showing you my dirty, sweaty, makeup-less face. Does that make me or my adventure any less authentic? Hopefully not, but it does mean I have some insecurity issues. I'll deal with those later.
"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?"
Social media and advertising... it's a thing, so let's talk about it, openly. I have a confession. I am an Influencer. *Gasp* I didn’t start out that way, but as my account grew, some brands took notice of the fact that I loved the outdoors, got outside frequently and had an eye for photography. Let me be CLEAR, I would still be going outside regardless of being an Influencer. I consider myself very lucky that my love for the outdoors has turned into something that earns me a little extra cash and quality gear and apparel. I am very selective on what projects I agree to, as they need to seamlessly fit into my outdoor lifestyle. There is a downside of being an Influencer though…. I have to give up a little of my “me” time when I’m in the mountains and there is a level of work involved. My time and my creativity is precious and I don't give that away freely to companies. Bottom line, I'm able to make a little extra money that helps me pay my bills, in exchange for promoting products and brands that align with my own... all while out doing something I love. Becoming an Influencer is new and strange thing in my life, but overall it has been a positive experience and I've been able to engage with some really great brands.
"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."
The author of the article highlights some inspiring women to check out, all of which are professional or sponsored athletes who tag brands and promote products in their images, yet their authenticity isn't questioned when they tag The North Face, LaSportiva, Action Cam or Noka Organics... and it in no way should be. There is no doubt in my mind that these women are indeed awesome and have clearly been successful in pursuing their outdoor and fitness passions, but calling out the relationship between brands and Influencers and saying it can't be ignored, and then promoting professional athletes who are also sponsored by brands seems a bit contradictory.
"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."
Maybe you can't see the sweat or the dirt on my face and body, but it's there. Maybe the fact that I wear a touch of makeup when I'm outside is sad, but I do... and none of that makes me or the person I present to the public any less real.
Ultimately I think the article is trying to spark a conversation about the motivations behind why some women are getting outside and to encourage followers to take a closer look at what's authentic and what is not. If you read my "For the Love, or For the Love of the Gram" blog post then you know I raised a similar question a while back. I believe I understand what she is trying to say, but unfortunately I think the piece lacks the appropriate research, consistency and tact to successfully make a compelling argument... and it's too bad she solely aimed it at women. I think if she and TGR really wanted answers to the many questions that were raised, they went about it the wrong way.
As long as people are being responsible and respectful to the environment and those around them, then what does it matter? Leave No Trace, and outdoor ethics and etiquette are a FAR bigger and better topic than the one I'm currently writing about.
"I think it comes down to whether your Instagram is about your life, or if your life is about your Instagram."
You might read that and immediately think "yes, so true," and I agree... I hope nobody is so wrapped up in Instagram and social media that they forget to really live their life, but I don't think that is what is happening here and the examples given in the article in no way reflect such a statement.
Whether you hike up to the top of a peak because you wanted a good workout, needed some time in nature or wanted to take photographs of the sunset and your new down jacket, the reasons may be different, but is one really better than the other? Chances are it's a combination of hobbies and passions that got you outside in the first place. At the end of the day, your feed is yours and mine is mine. Instagram is about sharing photography, life, passions, interests and hobbies, creativity, art, the outdoors, the indoors, our pets, community, friends, family, travel, etc., etc., etc.... It's whatever you want it to be. If you want to post pictures of your breakfast and a gym selfie, great. If you want to post pictures of your dirty legs after a bike ride, great. If you want to post a picture of your hair spilling out from under a beanie that you're promoting... in front of a remote alpine lake, GREAT! And if you don't want to post anything at all because you think social media is a waste of time and energy... more power to you.
Everyone is different and we all find inspiration in various ways. Let's stop dissecting what everyone else is doing all the time. I personally don't care what brand someone is working with, if their hair is clean or dirty and I don't care if their love for photography or for climbing mountains is what got them outside. At least they got there. Respect yourself, be kind to others and pretty please, from the bottom of my heart, care more about the environment than getting that perfect tent shot. That's all I can hope for.