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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Monolithic Giants: The Great Pyramids of Egypt

France has the Eiffel Tower. Italy has the Colosseum. And Egypt has the Pyramids.

I don’t know what it is about these Egyptian megastructures that puts them on a tier above the rest. Maybe it’s the fact that they are the last surviving wonder of the world. But what I do know is that visiting this archaeological site has been one of my greatest aspirations for a very long time, and compared to my expectations, my actual experience did not disappoint.

History lesson! The Giza Pyramid Complex includes the Great Pyramids – Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure – guarded by the limestone sculpture known as the Sphinx. Located in the Sahara Desert on the outskirts of Cairo, the Complex was believed to have been built to house the remains of the Pharaohs (Ancient Egyptian rulers).

“The people of Ancient Egypt believed that death on Earth was the start of a journey to the next world. The embalmed body of the King was entombed underneath or within the pyramid to protect it and allow his transformation and ascension to the afterlife.”

The largest pyramid – Khufu – reaches a height of 138.8 meters, and is estimated to have taken 200 years to build. 200 years! It is also fascinating to learn that the Great Pyramids are precisely aligned with the constellation of Orion, which was associated with Osiris, the Ancient Egyptian god of rebirth and afterlife.

Did you know?

There are actually six pyramids that comprise the Giza Pyramid Complex, not three as is commonly believed. The remaining three (called the Pyramids of the Queens) are much smaller and located in a row behind Menkaure.

  

I had already been in Cairo for over a week before paying a visit to the Giza Pyramid Complex. This meant that I had grown accustomed to the pyramids dominating the horizon every time I ventured into the City of a Thousand Minarets. But as my boyfriend and I approached the gates to the site, I couldn’t help but feel consumed with awe at the monolithic giants towering over us.

I don’t think I’d ever get used to the level of (attempted) security in Cairo. No sooner had we pulled up outside the main gate than did three guards descend upon the car demanding to check us for any weapons or dangerous goods. After asking needlessly if we were married (🙄) they let us through. We parked the car at the foot of Khafre and began to explore.

The pyramids rise grand and resplendent from the cripplingly arid desert. The size of the individual slabs are enough to astound you, let alone the size of the actual structures. Given the sheer volume of security at the entrance, you’d expect the Complex itself to be meticulously patrolled; in reality, there are no barriers or guards, meaning you can climb onto the lower landings of the pyramids and get up close and personal with the ancient wonders.

If I had to choose one thing that left a negative impact on my time at the pyramids, it would have to be people (namely men) trying to scam you. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car before they swarmed upon us, offering deals on tours and souvenirs. One boy even followed us all the way around Khafre, relentless and dogged in his pursuit. If I took a picture of a camel, its owner would materialise out of thin air and demand some sort of payment. If I accepted a ‘free gift’ from a souvenir seller, they wouldn’t leave me be until I returned the favour in some (*cough*monetary*cough*) form. In all seriousness, if I had not been there with my boyfriend – an Egyptian citizen who speaks Arabic – I am pretty damn sure I would have been guilt-tripped or manipulating into losing a lot of money.

Tip

To avoid getting scammed, give a wide berth to people at the Complex who are not official employees. The only people you should be interacting with are those at the ticket booth and those at security (both at the gates and succeeding the ticket booth). Even if they flash you their ‘license’, people claiming that they will show you where to park your car, or that they take the tours included in the entry price (spoiler alert: bullsh*t), or that tickets have sold out and they have the only remaining pass, are just trying to empty your pockets.

But as far as bad experiences go, those men were a relatively insignificant one. If anything, they were amusing. I had the luxury of sitting back and relaxing as I watched my boyfriend’s patience slowly fizzle out like an old firework. It’s worth mentioning some of the good things that happened during my visit, such as the fact that hardly anyone else was there. This can be seen in the solitariness of my photographs, and has motivated me to write a blog post chronicling the deterioration of Egypt’s tourism industry… stay tuned 😎

Before I arrived in Egypt, I had been warned by friends and family members that I would stand out like a sore thumb. I had dismissed their words of caution, but the truth to what they were saying really hit me here. Foreign tourists were something of a rarity, and the fact that I have red hair and the complexion of a white walker probably didn’t help on that front. Many local tourists asked to take photos with me, and one woman physically grabbed me by the material of my shirt and held me still until she had taken a satisfactory number of selfies. My boyfriend had to drag me away from the growing crowd so that we could continue with our sightseeing.

After taking in the marvel of Khafre, I made the executive decision that we would embark on a camel ride. After riding an elephant in Thailand last year, I was bursting to get back in the saddle. (Yes, I realise that camel-riding is probably dodgy. Yes, I plan to educate myself on this topic. And yes, I understand that condemning my own participation only in hindsight not once, but twice, makes me a textbook hypocrite. I’m working on it.)

A few minutes later and we were climbing onto the backs of two camels. You don’t really appreciate just how high it is until you’re up there. I’d read that camel riding is a largely uncomfortable experience, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s nothing of that sort. Sure, you have to keep one hand firmly clamped on the horn of the saddle to save falling off, but hey, where else is the adventure? Led by a boy no older than thirteen, we padded back around to Khafre, snapped some more photos, laughed at the noises camels make (seriously though, have you heard them?!) and then meandered back to where we started.

The Great Pyramids are the beating heart of Egypt. They have survived for 186 generations and they will survive for many more. Standing amongst these giants was a simultaneously humbling and inspiring experience, and one I hope to recreate again in the future.

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