Women are on social media and in the outdoors?! This can’t be real life!!!

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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!

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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!

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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:

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”?

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.”

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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**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

Wild about Wild? A Thru-Hiker’s Book Review and More.

If the shoe fits?

“I am a solo female long-distance hiker, but I’m not Cheryl Strayed! Wild is not a book about me! It’s not even a book about backpacking!” was what I wanted to scream from the mountaintops every time someone on the PCT asked me if I’d read Wild.

  • Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
  • Author: Cheryl Strayed
  • Publication Date: March 20, 2012
  • Print list price: $15.95
  • Weight: 5.6 oz, 315 pages
  • Kindle edition: $3.99

“Have you read Wild?”  It was always asked with the best of intentions. It was an attempt to start a conversation with the wild creature known as a thru-hiker (someone that had spent months on the trail, away from the world of small talk). Surely, as a solo female hiker on the PCT, I must have thoughts and opinions about Wild, right? There were just two problems: 1) I’d been asked that question hundreds of times before, and 2) I wanted to have a meaningful conversation about it, it’s impact on the trail, it’s impact on me, or it’s impact on the person asking,  but there were a lot of assumptions that we needed to sort out before we could get started…

Biography/Memoir Rating (9/10):

  • Wild is a book about grief, loss, addiction, and self-discovery. Wild is a memoir about Cheryl Strayed.
  • As I read Wild, I was amazed by the brutal honesty with which Cheryl Strayed described the low points in her life: her grieving process, her depression, her addiction, her marriage, and her incredibly flawed coping mechanisms. I both admired that brutal honesty and found it alienating. I didn’t want to be dragged through the ugly parts of her life, forced to watch helplessly as she self-destructed. That brutal honesty, however, is what made Cheryl Strayed’s character incredibly human, and made her story incredibly powerful. As the story transitioned from self-destruction to recovery, I found myself beginning to really care about her character. I winced at her blisters, her grief, and her inexperience. I shook my head and cringed at her bad decisions and incompetence. I understood her fearlessness and her solitude. I smiled at her bravery, her stubbornness, and her friendships. By the time the book ended, I was glad that I’d read it. Wild felt like a very honest story about one woman’s battle with grief and growing up, and I both enjoyed and respected it for what it was.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read this book if you like memoirs and stories about personal growth and recovery.
    • Don’t: read this book if consistently poor decision making bothers you.
    • Don’t: assume that your backpacking friends will automatically love this memoir.

Adventure/Travel Book Rating (5/10):

  • Wild is not a book about backpackers/backpacking. Wild is not a book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
  • When I first read Wild, I was under the mistaken impression that I was picking up a book about backpacking and the PCT… As I began reading the book I was immediately disappointed. Despite the hiking boot on the cover, and the mention of the PCT in the title, Wild was shaping up to be drama, and not the adventure I’d hoped for! It wasn’t until Chapter 4 that the stage had (painstakingly) been set, and the hike was on… the story was still about Cheryl Strayed’s character development, but now she had a foil – the PCT… It was her interactions with that foil that made the book engaging and interesting to me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: skip the first three chapters of the book if you are having trouble getting into the back story. She explains enough within the context of the hike that you probably won’t feel like you are missing anything later.
    • Don’t: expect Wild to be about backpacking and/or the PCT.

Backpacking/Wilderness/PCT Guidebook Rating (1/10):

  • Wild is not a book about how one should conduct oneself in the backcountry. Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild is not the image of the responsible outdoorswoman and backpacker that we, as a backpacking community, would like to represent us in popular culture.
  • As I read Wild it seemed like it could be the guide for “what not to do” in the backcountry. For example, the famous scene where Cheryl throws her boot off a cliff… Is it good storytelling? Yes. Is it appropriate backcountry behavior? No. It’s a gross violation of Leave No Trace ethics… No matter how upset and/or frustrated you are with your gear, if you carry it into the Wilderness, you need to carry it back out with you. It irritated me that in the book Cheryl Strayed didn’t just own her bad decisions, she seemed to take pride in them!
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: Check out Yogi’s Guide if you’re looking for a guidebook for the PCT.
    • Do: Check out the PCTAs wilderness tips if you’re looking for some general hiking/backpacking advice.
    • Don’t throw any of your stuff off of a cliff!
    • Don’t wander aimlessly down random jeep roads in the desert! Cheryl Strayed was incredibly lucky that her forays down random jeep roads ended as well as they did… dehydration and getting lost in the desert are huge and potentially fatal issues!

Conversation Starter with the Thru-Hiker You Just Met (0/10):

  • One of the most common questions thru-hikers on the AT and on the PCT get asked is: “Have you read Wild?” This is especially true if you are a solo woman backpacking in the woods. Even though it is a well-intentioned attempt to start a conversation, it often ends up feeling awkward and complicated. After the first dozen or so Wild conversations I had, I gave up any illusion that the conversation I was entering into was going to be about the book… I was probably going to hear a vilification of Cheryl Strayed, an idolization of Cheryl Strayed, or imagined horrors about the throngs of inexperienced people (especially women) Wild was going to inspire to invade the Wilderness.
  • The biggest problem I have with Wild conversations is that they are usually laden with preformed assumptions and biases about backpacking, about the hiking community, about women, and about me.
  • Recommendations:
    • Do: read Wild if you are a thru-hiker. Lots of people are going to ask you about it, and if you’re going to express an opinion about the book, you should read it first.
    • Don’t: ask the thru-hiker that you’ve just met on the trail if they’ve read Wild. Try asking them what they love about the trail instead.
    • Don’t assume that Wild is what inspired my thru-hikes.

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Ask a Solo Female Thru-Hiker!

  • When people say that Wild is inspirational, what do they mean?
    • They mean that Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, or that her character is inspirational.
  • What goes through your head when somebody says, “Wild was so inspirational, is it what inspired your hike?”
    • Why would they assume the Wild inspired me to hike the trail? Even though Cheryl Strayed’s story is inspirational, her hiking/backpacking skills come closer to terrifying me than inspiring me.
  • Why does it bother you when they assume that Wild is what inspired you to hike?
    1. It bothers me because Wild isn’t what inspired me to hike.
    2. It bothers me because I am an experienced backpacker (I’ve been hiking and backpacking for 30 years). When people assume that Wild is what inspired me to hike, they’re assuming that I am relatively inexperienced since the book didn’t come out until 2012.
    3. It bothers me because I am a woman. Even though both men and women on the trail end up having Wild conversations, men typically don’t get asked if they’re just like Cheryl Strayed, and men typically don’t get asked if Wild is what inspired them to hike. Why? Because backpacking is culturally accepted as something that men do, whereas women backpacking and hiking (especially) solo is contrary to traditional gender roles… Both my mom and my dad were my backpacking role models, not Cheryl Strayed.
  • Do people actually say, “You must be just like Cheryl Strayed!”
    • Yes, I’ve had it happen more than once. My immediate thought is, “Not all of the women on the trail are inexperienced, incompetent, heroin addicts, looking for sex and searching for salvation! I’m not any of those things! Why would someone think that I am just like Cheryl Strayed?” But I calm myself down and answer my own question. They think that I’m just like Cheryl Strayed because I’m a woman, I’m a backpacker, and I’m alone. Both Cheryl Strayed and I are much, much more than that… It sells both of us short…
  • Why is Wild controversial in the backpacking community?
    • The backpacking community is concerned that Wild will inspire droves of inexperienced people to explore the backcountry in irresponsible ways. We were all inexperienced once (and should always leave room for learning), and goofing up is part of learning, but we want to encourage people to learn to share our love of the Wilderness and the trail as responsibly as possible… Cheryl Strayed’s character in Wild doesn’t always provide the best role model for that.
  • Are there other things that you dislike about Wild conversations?
    • Yes! I love the freedom and independence that backpacking (and doing it solo) affords me… freedom from societies rules about what I should be, what I can do, and how I should act. For many people, reading and discussing Wild allows them to experience some of that freedom. Unfortunately for me, conversations about Wild on the trail are often harsh reminders that I’m not as far away from societies biases as I think I am. Even though Wild consciously contradicts some of those biases (e.g. the idea that women shouldn’t travel alone), it accidentally reinforces others (e.g. women are incompetent and women that have sex are sluts).
  • What is your favorite thing about the Wild conversations that you’ve had?
    • I love it when people tell me stories about Wild and how it inspired and/or empowered them. Watching people grow to the love the outdoors and the sport that I love is an amazing experience. I think that it is great that Cheryl Strayed and Wild are inspiring people to get out and hike. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world to discover that I have inspired someone to get out and hike and I appreciate anything that encourages people to share my passion for the Wilderness and the trail.
  • Did anything in the book really resonate with you as a long-distance hiker?
    • A lot of people ask me what I think about as I hike, assuming that I am thinking about the world’s problems (or at least my own), but in reality a large percentage of the time I’m hiking I have fragments of songs stuck in my head. Cheryl Strayed describes that really well when she says, “I found my mind playing and replaying scraps of songs and jingles in an eternal, nonsensical loop, as if there were a mix-tape radio station in my head.” Fragments of songs would get stuck in my head and just play over and over again as I hiked… Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose from Janis Joplin, and slight variations on The Ramones, I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes. Oh no no no no no were some of the most frequent offenders. Sometimes I would just re-write the lyrics to songs as I hiked, like Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, which became my hiking ballad, Heart of the Mountains or Queen’s Bicycle, which become Calories.
  • Did anything in Wild really resonant with you as a solo hiker?
    • Yes, when Cheryl Strayed wrote about one of her conversations, “You’re not alone, are you?” … “And what on earth does your mother have to say about that?”… “Aren’t you scared all by yourself?”… I found myself nodding vigorously. I’ve had even more conversations about being alone on the trail than I’ve had about Wild. I’ll have to share my thoughts and stories about that in a future post, but I will say this: I didn’t set out to do my thru-hikes alone, I set out to follow my dreams… learning to be comfortable doing that alone has been one of the greatest gifts the trails have given me.

One of my favorite quotes from Wild is, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told…” Not only did Cheryl Strayed tell herself a different story, she shared that story with the rest of the world. The fact that Wild is giving people, especially women, the courage to tell themselves new stories and to live new dreams is inspiring. Some of the backlash against Wild in the backpacking community is from fear – fear that in the aftermath of the movie the trails will be flooded with “Girls gone Wild!”, fear that new hikers/backpackers will hurt themselves, hurt the trail, and hurt the Wilderness… I think we need to stop telling ourselves those stories and start telling ourselves a different story… a story about millions of new people inspired to learn more about the wilderness, a story about people getting outside and walking, a story about renewed interest in the preservation of the PCT and other long distance trails… A story about trails where both men and women, novices and experts, old and young, can come together and explore their dreams!

Check out the Wild book review my friend Invictus (AT 2013) wrote!

Update: For different solo female thru-hikers take on Wild check out this article on Jezebel.com

The beginning of the end (PCT Days 139-141)

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It’s funny, we still have 500+ miles of trail left, but crossing the Bridge of the Gods and entering the state of Washington… it feels like the beginning of the end… People are starting to make plans for what comes next, people are scheduling flights home… The nebulous finish time is starting to coalesce into a fixed date when people are going to meet us at the border.

Though part of me looks forward to the end, looks forward to the soft beds, the running water, the smiling faces of loved ones… Part of me rebels against it all. I love this life, the freedom of it, the adventure of it… I’m spending everyday out in the woods, on the trail, on an amazing journey of beauty and discovery… I’m not ready for this dream to end… I’m not ready to seek new dreams yet… I’m still in love with this one.

I took a zero day (hiking zero miles) in Cascade Locks to eat, to rest, to recover, and to delay the inevitable… Entering Washington was the beginning of the end of this journey, and I knew it.

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I watched a bunch of Disney movies as I lounged around in the oh so soft bed. They all seemed to have the same theme… Leave home, go explore the world and have grand adventures (growing up in the process), find your Prince Charming, marry your Prince Charming, and live happily ever after (ie create a new home and have kids so that your kids can repeat the cycle).

As I watched Tangled one scene seemed particularly apropos: “What if it’s not everything I dreamed about,” Rapunzel asks. “It will be,” replies the ever suave Flynn. “And what if it is? What do I do then?” asks Rapunzel. “Well, I guess you go and find a new dream,” replies Flynn.

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Right after their dialog there is an amazing display of floating lights, which is, in fact, everything that Rapunzel dreamed it would be… Just like my thru-hike has been everything that I dreamed it would be, and more.

I wish that the movie had ended at that moment… The moment where Rapunzel was filled with happiness and amazement, at the culmination of her journey, and where *her* dream had led her. Instead, the movie had to move beyond that to the societally prescribed dream… Apparently a Prince Charming is still required in order to have a happily ever after…

They were so close to being on the mark… If they’d let the happily ever after be her discovery of her new dream, or the beginning of her journey to find her new dream, that would have been amazing! Telling young women that they can be amazing, and have amazing journeys, and amazing lives regardless of whether or not they find an awesome partner to join them on their adventures… That would be truly revolutionary!!!

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Hiking both the AT and PCT solo has been incredibly empowering. I am a woman, and I can have incredible journeys, adventures, and dreams on my own. Would I like to find someone to share my dreams and adventures with someday? Yes, that would be awesome. Am I going to put my life and my dreams on hold waiting for Prince Charming to come charging into my life? No!

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I’m going to keep living and keep dreaming… I don’t know which dreams await me, but when this dream is done, I’ll find another dream to chase after… The happily ever after is in embracing the journey, finding your dreams, chasing them, and recognizing and cherishing all the beautiful moments that you find along the way… And that’s something that you can do alone, or with other people by your side.

I crossed the Bridge of the Gods and left Oregon behind. I was in Washington and it was the beginning of the end, and it was hard, both emotionally and physically… Just 550 miles to go… Then what? Then it will be time to celebrate and to find a new dream. Until then, I will try to cherish and enjoy all of the beautiful moments I have left on this amazing adventure!

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