The internet was suddenly a buzz, “outdoor women are faking it!” The world of social media was aghast because a 19-year-old model from Australia had exposed the raw underbelly of her reality… The photos she posted to her Instagram account were staged, shot by a professional photographer, and she wasn’t actually having any fun at all!!! Color me shocked, shocked I tell you! With headlines like: “Essena O’Neill: The Instagram Star Who Quit Social Media,” it didn’t start off as a story that would get my attention, but before long the internet had worked it’s magic and morphed her outcry into an area that fell squarely into my lap… an article that seemed to question the legitimacy of outdoor women on social media, “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” started showing up all over my social networks.
As an outdoors woman that uses social media, I couldn’t help but follow the link and take a look at its contents:
“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…..”
“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…”
The article went on to describe the tell-tale signs that these women are fakers… mostly that they look too good to be true: wearing inappropriate clothing, fresh make-up, and having clean/brushed hair… this was all just a lead up to their final argument, however, that outdoor women on social media are not to be trusted… that if they tag a company, or if you see product labels in their photos, they are probably posers… nothing more than corporate pawns… Advertisements masquerading as beautiful women!
By the time I finished reading the article I was feeling self-conscious about my Instagram posts… I don’t have any corporate sponsors (never have), but outdoor gear companies put their logos on everything, and I’m sure that those logos show up in some of my photos… I’ve even occasionally tagged products that I’m using when it feels relevant to my photo or post… Were people going to assume that I wasn’t a “real” outdoor adventurer because I excitedly posted about my Oru Kayak when I first got it?
“No, of course not,” I laughed to myself, “that would be ridiculous!” But I found myself opening up my Instagram account anyway… I’m not sure what I thought I would find, but I was genuinely surprised to discover that in the 12 hrs since the article had been published 30 people (~5% of my followers) had decided to unfollow my account… That may not seem like a lot, but in the two years I’ve been on Instagram the number of followers I have occasionally goes up, frequently stays constant, but never goes down by more than one or two people in a week… nevermind 30 in under a day!
Did anybody really think that I was the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” that the article was talking about? That seemed pretty ridiculous to me… Sure, I take shots standing in front of sweeping vistas (more after my mom started complaining that I was never actually in any of my photos), and I have to admit that I tend not to post the pictures that I feel like I look horrible in, but really?! It seemed laughable, but I didn’t want anyone to think that I’d sold out, so I hastily added a line to my Instagram profile,”I don’t get paid to to this, I do it because I love it!”
I immediately felt guilty for feeling the need to post the disclaimer… I would love to get paid to be an outdoor adventurer, to write about those adventures, to photograph my adventures… Getting paid to do those things isn’t something that people should feel ashamed about! The line between genuine social media content, and ‘stealth’ social media advertisements is a huge issue, which is partially addressed in the follow-up article, “Our Audience Weighs In: What is “Real,” What Is “Fake” In Outdoor Social Media?”, but it seems like we should direct our ire at the corporations exploiting outdoor adventurers (and women) for cheap advertising, instead of targeting the individuals desperately trying to find ways to fund their passions!
I thought very seriously about trying to get corporate sponsors when I set off for my second thru-hike… My finances were limited, and it seemed like a reasonable approach to try to keep doing the thing I love for as long as possible. Unfortunately many of the sponsorships seemed like a bad deal… “You want me to do what? And in return you’ll give me a pair of hiking boots?” I ultimately decided that I would rather be broke than to sell my soul for a pair of hiking boots, and besides, I hadn’t hit the bottom of the barrel yet… For the people that are out there trying to live the dream full-time, for extended periods of time, however, the issues involved with sponsorship can become very complicated. If you’re interested in the pros and cons associated with sponsorships and what’s involved in getting them for “everyday adventurers” check out these links:
- “Long distance hiking has no brand: Some thoughts on Sponsorship”by Carrot Quinn
- “How to get sponsored” by Andrew Skurka
- “How to get backpacking gear sponsors” by Section Hiker
- “How to live the dream: Corporate Sponsorship for Dummies”
- “How to get sponsored for your thru-hike” by Allison Kieley
Okay, so the issue of corporate sponsorships and social media are real, but is there more of a problem with the “everday-woman-turned-outdoor-model” than there is with the “everyday-man-turned-outdoor-model”?
I suppose if all of the people you follow on Instagram are young, long-haired outdoors women with brightly colored gear, that’s all you’ll see on Instagram… My Instagram feed looks substantially different than that, and if I had to guess, I’d guess that majority of the people in my feeds are men, but since most of the people I met on the trail were men, that wasn’t too surprising. I assumed that the distribution of men and women in sponsored media was probably closer to 50:50, but it wasn’t something that I’d even paid much attention to.
But it seemed like the original article was begging the question, “Is there a gender bias in outdoor advertising on instagram?” and “Are we being flooded by photos of young, long-haired women by outdoor companies on Instagram?” They were suddenly questions that seemed worth looking into, so instead of counting sheep as I lay in bed that night, I decided to count the gender distribution of Instagram photos from a few popular outdoor companies**:
- Oru Kayak: 34% women (37 men, 19 women, n=56)
- REI: 38% women (37 men, 23 women, n=60)
- Mountain Lite: 30% women (32 men, 14 women, n=46)
- women portrayed tended to have long, blond hair
- Mountain Hardware: 26% women (34 men, 12 women, n=46)
- Patagonia: 28% women (42 men, 17 women, n=59)
- massive gender bias in depicted activities
- Backpacker Magazine: 46% women (31 men, 27 women, n=58)
- Outdoor Research: 18% women (50 men, 11 women, n= 61)
- photos of women biased towards looking more staged and less rugged
I was stunned by what I found… although I hadn’t noticed it before, the gender distribution in the sponsored outdoor media I looked through was not 50:50 as I’d assumed! Of 340 sponsored photos, 36% (123) were of women, and 64% (217) were of men… If anything, these numbers seemed to imply that there are more men ‘faking it’ than women! Although all of the companies portrayed more men than women, three of the companies showed a startling bias in the way they portrayed women (Outdoor Reaseach, Patagonia, and Mountain Lite), trending towards showing women in less active, more staged-looking shots, with a seemingly strong bias towards portraying women with long, blond hair.
So, if you are asking the question, “Is this real?” there’s no reason to expect that the ‘outdoor women’ you see on social media are any less real than the ‘outdoor men’… Sure, if someone looks like they are wearing new, incredibly clean gear that may or may not be appropriate for the situation, it’s possible that the photo is staged, or that they are a novice, but that’s true regardless of the gender of the subject. It is also possible that if a woman looks freshly made-up, or if I guy looks freshly shaved, that the photo is staged… It’s also possible that they pride themselves on their appearance regardless of the situation that they’re in (I know women that carry make-up kits, and men that carry shaving-kits, even while backpacking).
“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.”
What it really comes down to is being an intelligent consumer of social media; do your research, know what you’re liking, and why you’re liking it. Stealth advertising, and targeted advertising campaigns are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our realities, and discussions about how we handle that now and in the future are important (this is the discussion that I believe “Op Ed: Is This Real Life? Outdoor Women on Social Media,” was really aiming it). The media (and advertising campaigns in particular) have a tendency to objectify and sexualize women in an attempt to increase sales, and discussions about how that impacts our culture and interactions with women and girls is important (this is the discussion that I believe Essena O’Neils original rant was targeted at).
Finally, let me sum up with my two cents about a question that almost always seems to come up when people are criticizing outdoors people (both men and women), who take pictures of, and post to social media about, the outdoors, “What is the purpose of going outside in the first place?” In my experience, the answer to that question varies a lot by person, and can even depend on the day… At the core, the reason that I go outside can primarily be summed up as “the pursuit of happiness”… Sometimes I want to get lost in the grandness of our planet; sometimes I want to connect with my environment; sometimes I want to disconnect from technology; and sometimes I want to create art by capturing the beauty of a moment in a carefully timed and orchestrated photograph that I can post to social media so that I can share a slice of the beauty and happiness I find in the outdoors with other people…
When it comes to hiking and taking pictures I get to do what I love, and I love what I do… Social media won’t change that.
**Note: I tried to count enough photos from each company to capture a broad enough sample to be representative of the overall content of the site; photos were counted consecutively, beginning with the most recent when I began counting; huge variability was present in sample sizes smaller than 10