Contrived Perfection: Why You Won’t Find Me On Instagram

In January 2015, I signed up to a little app called Instagram.

I remember vividly the joys of waking up in the morning, grabbing my phone from the bedside table, and scrolling down my feed to see what had happened in the Insta-sphere overnight. I would schedule when to upload my pictures with an almost neurotic zest, and the photo editing app VSCO became like second nature to me. Even in the days before the Ginger Passports, I followed an impressive selection of travel bloggers; some of my favourites were Lauren Bullen of @gypsea_lust, and the curated @dametraveler. I would be lying if I said that the jaw-dropping photography I saw through this platform didn’t in part inspire me to create my own travel blog.

Cut to late 2016.

“Why don’t you give that bloody thing a break for once?” asked my boyfriend as I was checking my phone for the umpteenth time to see who had liked my latest gram. It took me a moment to mentally pull away from the screen and engage with what he was saying.

He wasn’t exaggerating. I unwittingly seized any opportunity to disconnect from my immediate responsibilities and immerse myself in the app – a disconnection that is somewhat ironic, coming from a social application designed to facilitate connection. I didn’t pay him much heed at the time, but it wasn’t long before I began to really consider my participation in such a community. It wasn’t until it reached the point where I scrapped a potential trip to Portugal because I couldn’t find transport to a particular Insta-worthy location that I deleted the app in cold blood. My hard-earned followers and hours of arduous planning and aesthetic calculation circled down the drain.

Deleting Instagram was the best decision of my online life.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. It took a wee while for me to adjust back to life in the slow lane. For several weeks after, I still couldn’t meet a friend for coffee without being distracted by which filter my chai latte would look best under. I remember panicking when I booked my flight to Madrid because my ticket said I was seated on the aisle, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to post epic views from out the window. It took me a decent five minutes before it dawned on me that I no longer had to bother with any of that stuff. But at the end of the day – and one and a half years later – I can sincerely say that I do not regret my decision to leave that community.

It seems that I’m not the only one harvesting bones to pick with the social media giant. Time magazine published an article in 2017 called ‘Why Instagram is the Worst Social Media For Mental Health‘, and I couldn’t agree with their findings more. Studies show that the psychological distress fostered by the app can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression. An individual in the article commented that, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough, as people add filters and edit their pictures in order for them to look ‘perfect’.”

This is where I segue into why I am denouncing Instagram. The main problem I have with it is that it paints an unrealistic portrait of life. In the context of travel bloggers, this means a feed saturated with photos of ‘contrived perfection’, to quote former internet celebrity Essena O’Neill. Success on Instagram for travel influencers has been reduced to a formula: devastatingly beautiful model + turned away from the camera + isolated location + heavy editing = triumph. Anything outside of this formula is far less likely to garner such a positive response.

If you’re unconvinced, just take a look at the grams below. These are some gorgeous snaps taken by Jessica Stein of Tuula Vintage, Nicola Easterby of Polkadot Passport, Brooke Saward of World of Wanderlust, and Kiersten Rich of the Blonde Abroad. They also happen to meet the criteria stated above.

These photographs do not represent the the reality of travel blogging, nor of these travel bloggers’ lives. But when all anyone sees is the final product, you can’t blame them for thinking that. You can’t blame anyone constantly inundated with this sort of media not to question their own life, and by extension, their own self-worth. In a social culture that thrives off conspicuous consumerism, how we present our lives can become a reflection of their value. Digital manipulation and selective presentation can be dangerous.

I want to make it very clear that I do not for one moment think that these Instagrammers have their success handed to them on a silver platter. Nor do I for one moment think that their work is shallow or meaningless. People simply don’t understand the hard work that goes into ‘making it’ in this industry. I follow all of the blogs and read all of the content produced by these women, and I cannot even begin to imagine the sheer amount of time, effort and money that goes into these pieces. I don’t just follow these women, I look up to these women – just not for the pretty pictures you’ll find on the ‘gram. If you want to further understand why, take a moment to read about Jessica’s experience raising a newborn daughter diagnosed with a rare chromosome disorder, Brooke’s take on sacrifice and personal values, Nicola’s advice on how we can stop letting animals be abused for tourism, and Kiersten’s guide on how you can volunteer abroad.

I am not here to drag these women down; I am here to offer a critique as to how Instagram removes pictures from their context, and purveys an exclusive, one-dimensional, one-size-fits-all view of traveling.

“I joined Instagram relatively recently, mainly to look at travel photos of places and people around the world… but was disappointed (by) how many of the photos seemed to follow a particular format. A thin, blonde, white girl stands in a floaty dress, her back to the viewer, in a seemingly preordained beautiful location. Off camera, a queue of other ‘influencers’ wait patiently to get the perfect shot.”

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett for the Guardian

Columnist and author Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is onto something. As she continues to write in her article on how Instagram is sucking the life and soul out of travel, “when most travel photographs on Instagram begin to look like fashion editorials, you have to wonder whether anyone is learning anything.” Call me old-fashioned, but I like to think that travel should be an opportunity first and foremost to educate yourself on life beyond your front gate. Only a privileged few even get the chance, so why would you waste it on somebody else’s aesthetic taste?

The psychology behind Instagram proves to be particularly interesting. An article by Wolf Millionaire outlined several cognitive mechanisms by which we might understand the addiction of this app. According to the article, Instagram activates the reward centres in our brains; by sharing our goings-on with our followers – and subsequently receiving positive feedback in the form of likes and comments – we are reinforcing the activity. The reciprocity effect comes into effect here, whereby we exploit the habit of returning favours to people who have helped us in some way. In the context of Instagram, this means that when we like someone’s picture, we eagerly anticipate that person liking one of ours back.

But that is not to say that all of these cognitive mechanisms are ultimately beneficial. Relative deprivation refers to the psychological phenomenon whereby we compare our lives to other people’s. This is an occurrence which wreaks havoc on our mental health when we forget that what we see on Instagram is the cherry pickings of people’s lives. For every envy-inducing photo of a stunning travel blogger posing beneath the Eiffel Tower, there are a dozen others where people kept walking into shot, the wind was blowing her hair into her face, or a cloud wasn’t cooperating (trust me, I’ve been there). This relative deprivation is possibly the biggest influence regarding why I decided to call it quits on Instagram; I didn’t even know I was committing it until I went cold turkey and realised that suddenly my life didn’t seem so drab anymore.

Recently, Instagram have also changed their presentation algorithms from a chronological system to one that favours the big guns in the industry over the underdogs.  As Sara Melotti of Behind the Quest wrote, “What once used to be about content and originality is now reduced to some meaningless algorithm dynamics and who has the time and the cash to trick this system wins the game”. Some might argue that there is nothing wrong or unethical about this – after all, that’s just the nature of business. But does this mean we should continue to support this? Or should we protest against the implications? This raises another provocative question: whose responsibility is it to make a change? Should Instagram really bear the moral burden, or is it up to its users?

 

I am fully aware that Instagram is not just one of, but perhaps the most valuable tool by which to grow your brand. It is essentially a platform that has enjoyed a front row seat in the shift from traditional forms of advertising to something that blurs the lines between marketing and reality. If I decided to bite the bullet and create another Instagram account, I can almost guarantee that my follow count for the Ginger Passports would grow exponentially. I would probably gain more access to sponsorships and other resources that I could convert into the means to travel without breaking the bank and making other financial sacrifices. Nearly eighteen months on from when I launched this blog, I probably still wouldn’t be bending over backwards to try and secure business partnerships. Life would probably be a hell of a lot easier.

But life also isn’t lived under a filter.

As of the time of writing, my advertising is pretty humble. I rely on organic growth and the conviction that meaningful, thought-provoking content will convince readers to come back time and time again rather than closing the tab for good. I focus on creating content for my blog rather than social media so that I have the luxury and accommodation to actually communicate my thoughts and go beyond the aesthetic. I have made a conscious decision not to make myself a feature of this blog, but rather to showcase places and other people who I believe can make a bigger and better impact. At the end of the day, I am a writer.

Instagram is an incredible platform that holds the potential to introduce the world to unknown talent and artistry. However, it is also a tool that is used and abused. Sometimes I think that it’s sad how such a masterful invention is coupled with such harmful, negative side effects. Imagine the relationship we would have with Instagram if we all understood the implications and actively worked against them. But in practice, this would never happen, and so I am investing in what I personally believe to be a much better alternative: platforms that encourage discussion above all else.

Maybe abstaining from Instagram is going to be the downfall of my blog. Maybe abstaining from Instagram is the only thing holding me back. But I’ve made my bed, and – considering that it is something I wholeheartedly believe in – I guess I’d better lie in it.

There’s no filter for that.

If you’re hungry for another opinion piece, feast your eyes on Why I Hate the Word Wanderlust. It’s still one of my favourites to date.

Photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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5 Things You Need to Do When Sick on the Road

When I arrived in Cairo for three weeks in September, my view for the first five days was the toilet bowel. A particularly evil bout of flu had descended upon my immune system, and the very first thing I ate in the country – vegetarian pizza, if you’re interested – invoked an unpleasant case of food poisoning that manifested from both ends. For five days, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, and a whole lot of snot were my introduction to Egypt. Charming, I know.

When you travel, sickness is an inevitability. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling to Iceland or India; exposure to foreign viruses and bacteria that you body may not have developed resistance to are enough to bring even the healthiest to their knees. Furthermore, it is all but impossible to travel without navigating dreaded public transport systems, and those environments are an orgy for bugs.

The prospect of falling ill can be especially frightening if you are embarking on a holiday with a very time-dependent itinerary. Fortunately for me, that wasn’t the case in Egypt. However, I have been in that situation before (shout out to bronchitis in Cambodia), and understand that it is very stressful and calls for some quick decision-making with financial consequences. That stress is only amplified if it is your first time solo traveling without ‘adult’ authority. Trust me, we’ve all been there.

Although I like to think I am a reasonably healthy person, I fail to remember a single trip where I have not suffered from illness at some point or another. So – for all you panicking sick folk out there – here is my advice for what you should do if you fall sick on the road…

Should I say it a little louder for those in the back? Buy. Travel. Insurance.

Okay, so this tidbit is more preventative that reactive. But nevertheless – invest in a decent travel insurance plan! When I left New Zealand, I spent over NZ$800 on a one year comprehensive travel insurance plan. This covered medical expenses, baggage, personal liability – you name it. At the time, I was kicking myself. Why on earth did I pay nearly one thousand dollars for something that I wasn’t guaranteed to need?! But lo and behold, I had claimed for more than what I originally paid in those first three months.

As long as what you are suffering from is not a pre-existing condition, you will be able to be compensated. That means that you should never be in a position where you are unwilling to see a doctor or buy medication overseas because you hadn’t factored the extra expense into your budget. Furthermore, the worse case scenario is no longer fraught by such financial consequences. To conclude, travel insurance is never a bad idea.

When I was in Cambodia, I woke up one morning to find that my throat had fallen victim to acute bronchitis. It was during the last two days of a month-long tour of Southeast Asia, on the home run returning to New Zealand. I couldn’t eat for the pain, and every few minutes, I would stumble towards the bathroom and hack up snotballs. Unlike my Egyptian anecdote, I had a whole two days of full itineraries ahead of me, and the prospect of soldiering on in such misery made me want to curl up in bed and cry.

As it happens, that’s just what I did.

Well, I didn’t cry, but I curled up in bed and didn’t leave the hotel room for 48 hours. Whilst it certainly wasn’t easy having to ring up our tour guides and cancel everything last minute, my body thanked me for the sacrifice when I managed to make the flight home under slightly more bearable circumstances.

Sleep is one of your leading weapons when facing illness, as it helps rebuild your immune system and fight infections. It is really important that you listen to your body during times like these, and catch the sleep you need when you need it. Even if it means having to cancel day trips and outings like I did in Cambodia, you will enjoy the rest of your trip to a much greater degree.

Another reason you should stay in bed is that it reduces the likelihood of other people getting sick. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people who are clearly ill insist on going about their day like nothing is at stake. I get it – there are situations where you simply cannot afford to miss something. But there are also plenty of others where you are doing yourself and everyone else a favour by staying in bed. Rampart bugs relating to travel can be particularly contagious, and if one person in the group falls ill, there’s a good chance others will too.

This doesn’t really apply to countries like England or the United States, but if your travels take you to slightly less developed places (for lack of a better term), then listen up.

Drinking tap water is a big no no in less developed corners of the world as microorganisms in the water can make you very sick. It may do no harm to the locals, but that is because their systems are familiar with the bacteria, and you should not follow suit. Bottled water isn’t a huge expense, and you’ll find crates of the stuff at corner shops on every street. Bear in mind that this rule also applies to things such as brushing your teeth and rinsed foods; this blog post is a really neat resource for everything you need to know about safe and unsafe drinking water when traveling.

On the health front, drinking plenty of water when you’re feeling under the weather is a must. Symptoms – such as vomiting and diarrhoea – dehydrate the body, and make you feel much, much worse. It’s also important to drink lots of water to ward off high temperatures.

The last thing you will want to eat after an intense pukefest is some extravagant, spicy, cultural dish. To be honest, you probably won’t want to eat anything; but alas, your body needs nutrients and energy to do it’s thing.

The key here is to try and find a balance of bland, ‘easy’ foods that you can stomach, whilst still being relatively healthy. My personal go to’s are apples and dry toast, but I have also heard that papaya, yoghurt and chicken soup are also good alternatives (but hey, as a vegetarian, I’m not exactly preaching the latter).

Last but not least, do not shy away from contacting a doctor. Sometimes when you’re on the road, and away from the comfort and familiarity of home routine, paying a visit to a doctor can seem downright out of place.  But the good news is that wherever you venture, there will always be a medical professional there to help you. Sure, there might be an extra cost – but you’ve got travel insurance, right? 😉

If you are staying in a hotel, most will have a service where a doctor will pay a house call. If you are worried or in a lot of pain, don’t be afraid to use this service. Even if you’re in a foreign country, there are almost always medical services catering to English-speaking tourists; and if you’re reading this blog, the chances are, you speak English.

The major advantage to consulting a doctor abroad is that you can find out exactly what is wrong with you, and how to deal with it. You will likely receive a prescription for medicine that you cannot access over the counter, and your recovery time will be shortened. When I fell ill in Cambodia, a doctor visited my hotel room, quickly conducted a series of blood tests, and then returned an hour later with a full sheet of results and recommended treatments. It was convenient, to say the least.

Travel is challenging enough when you’re feeling fit. Becoming sick when you’re outside of your comfort zone can push you to the limit, but it doesn’t have to be such a nuisance to sort out. The main thing you need to remember is to buy travel insurance before you depart; that way, regardless of what happens, there should be no barriers to treatment and recovery. Once that’s taken care of, the rest is downhill, no matter what the world throws at you.

For more travel advice, check out the following blog posts on the Ginger Passports…

Photographs courtesy of Unsplash

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