Take a look at Instagram and chances are those enviable travel accounts will begin to blend together in a disconcertingly similar way. The beautiful girl dressed impractically in a flimsy dress will be posing amidst igloos in Finland, the floppy-hat-donning travel blogger will be holding a yoga pose while on a beach in Thailand, the overzealous influencer will be holding her boyfriend’s hand (always off camera) as she walks out towards the Taj Mahal.
The suffocating similarity, lack of diversity and curated realities of today’s travel bloggers has set an impossible standard for travelers today, particularly women. With travel being a personal, often imperfect experience, a new crop of travel bloggers are looking to celebrate real women with real stories to tell. One such travel blogger is Annika Ziehen of Midnight Blue Elephant, who recently penned a post calling out the lack of diversity of travel Instagrams and spotlighting #realwomentravel. In an exclusive interview with Culture Trip, Ziehen speaks candidly about what inspired her post and the change she hopes to see among travel influencers.
Culture Trip: What inspired you to write this post?
Annika Ziehen: I think it was my own insecurities, actually. That whenever I look at Instagram there are very little accounts that I can actually relate to because I am not 20 and skinny with a perfectly tanned man by my side. I was sure that others must feel the same and more. What about people of color, older travelers, bigger sizes, people with disabilities? Surely for them the gap between what they are seeing on IG and their own lives must be even bigger.
CT: Travel influencers have become extremely stylized to the point of resembling fashion spreads. What do you think is the impact of such curated portrayals of travel on the average person?
AZ: I used to work in the fashion industry, so I am able to differentiate between what is shown in a photo and the realty behind it. The same goes for Instagram; I think it is about variety—not only of the people in the pictures but also in the approach, the style and how you curate an account. So many accounts just look the same—same location, same filter—and I think that makes the average person insecure.
CT: There has been a spotlight on women’s rights in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Do you think that this will have any effect on how women portray themselves on social media moving forward?
AZ: I think women should feel free to portray themselves however they want to, while also realizing that (depending on the cultural context) certain things may not be appropriate. For example, running around in a bikini in Marrakech doesn’t make you a feminist but rather a disrespectful traveler. Regardless of the #MeToo movement, men who have previously harassed women or overstepped the line are not going to change overnight. As unfair as that is, women have to deal with that in real life but also when we present ourselves online and the fact is that you will probably get more unwanted comments and attention by men if you frequently pose in your bikini. I am not judging this, but I personally wouldn’t want to make a career out of it or better said, I want to be known and followed as a travel blogger and Instagrammer for other talents than my boobs.
CT: In compiling a list of real women travelers on Instagram, what did you look for?
AZ: A good mix as I didn’t want to leave anyone out (which is obviously really hard and almost an impossible task). I looked for beautiful photography, a great story or a different approach—like Victoria’s account from Follow Me Away—I also looked for accounts with a certain following to show that there is diversity among professional travel bloggers and influencers.
CT: For many, being “real” on Instagram is seen as revealing what actually went into curating that perfect photo. How do you define being “real” on Instagram?
AZ: I like stories with the pictures because I think a story can sometimes put a pretty, seemingly perfect shot into perspective. What was really going on in someone’s life at this moment? But I will admit that the term “real” is problematic in this context because I am well aware that we are all real and have our own story, even if we lead a seemingly perfect life on Instagram. “Real” for me is more about diversity on Instagram.
CT: Publications, such as CN Traveler, have done features on how Instagram is ultimately ruining the travel experience. As a Travel Blogger, what are your thoughts on this?
AZ: I think people need to understand that some use Instagram as a personal tool and others as a business and with the latter you have to take it basically as a pretty magazine feature. Does that inspire you? Great! If it doesn’t, don’t look at it. I think people need to be smart enough to look behind the pretty picture and understand that they are looking at a catalogue image that will only show a pretty side of something. If you can’t take it with a grain of salt then yes, you might be very disappointed. However, I don’t think that is an Instagram problem but basically holds true for all sorts of marketing materials, such as ads, magazines and even TripAdvisor.
CT: You mention in your article that Instagram can stir feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness, how can someone share enviable Instagram posts without causing such negative effects?
AZ: We ourselves are responsible for our feelings of self-worth; however, once in a while it helps when the person shares something personal and shows a vulnerable side. A great example is Jessica Stein from Tuula Vintage. I never liked her much because her life seemed so picture perfect—great looks, great job, great husband—but now she has a baby who is sick and all of a sudden is showing a vulnerable side. While a horrible event led to this showing of vulnerability, it has made her much more relatable. So, showing cracks, flaws, and imperfections are a good thing.
CT: What would you like to see travel infliuencers change in the future?
AZ: I would like to see more people dare to be different—even if you are your stereotypical white, twenty-something influencer—and just see more more diverse Instagrammers being featured, seen and promoted.
CT: It seems advertisers may be partly to blame for the perfect Instagrams we see. How can travel influencers work with brands while still maintaining a level of authenticity?
AZ: I don’t think it is up to a successful influencer to do less or something different, but more for brands and consumers to realize that the face of travel is changing and is calling for more diversity.
CT: What are your top three favorite Instagram accounts to follow?