The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Instagrammer

I was sitting in a conference, listening to an Instagrammer talk with pride about influence.

The example she gave? A follower had sent her a photo of her going to the exact same spot that she went and taking the exact same photo – down to the hand jauntily placed atop a straw hat – with a similar whimsical caption to boot.

She talked about how her followers have told her that they don’t even care to read about a place — they just want the picture. And that, as someone who’s always loved the written word, is a bit sad.

If you went to the Maldives and didn’t stunt for the ‘gram, did it even happen?
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But she’s not wrong. A full 40% of millennials say they travel first and foremost for Instagrammability. I certainly can’t fault anyone for taking photos of their trips or themselves. But it’s the prioritization of Instagrammability over the other more rewarding aspects of travel that makes me sad.

Getting the photo shouldn’t displace seeing the destination itself. My best travel moments are often about chance happenings – special people I’ve met along the way, near-disasters narrowly avoided by kind strangers, fortuitously stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that ends up blowing my mind. But that isn’t what I show on my Instagram.

Is this carefree enough?

The problem with this set of priorities is that often, we go to a place with a picture already in our mind. This forecloses the openness to chance that I feel should be the very heart of travel. If we value Instagrammability over all else, I feel like we’re at greater risk of being disappointed. My dress isn’t as nice as hers, the shadows are all wrong, why does my ass look like that? 

Not the mention, I think we encourage a really unattainable version of travel: whimsical, problem-free, curated perfection. No wonder Instagram is considered by psychologists to be the worst form of social media for mental health.

Let’s take Morocco as an example of one of Instagram’s darlings. There’s no doubting that Morocco is one of the most photogenic countries I’ve traveled to: it’s pretty much Instagram crack. I see the same barrage of photos: cute outfits with a Blue City backdrop, camels winding paths through the Sahara as the sun sets, ornate doors left and right.

Sahara desert in Morocco
Desert vibes *sparkle emoji*

But I remember what a struggle traveling as a female in Morocco was for me: the constant sexualizing comments, how locals refused to give directions (in English or French) in hopes of squeezing a buck out of me, the uncomfortable night in the Sahara where I woke up to my guide just inches from my face while I slept, when I felt dangerously close to the situation approaching sexual assault.

And then I think of all the whimsical photos taken in the same places where I struggled so hard with no context given. While I don’t doubt that people can have – and have had – different, very positive experiences in Morocco, I also am fairly confident that their photos don’t tell the whole story.

Mine didn’t. It wasn’t until I sat down and poured my heart out to my blog that I felt like I had actually told the true story of Morocco, good and bad. But someone looking at my photos would have thought that everything was just magical.

I’m writing this from Canggu, Bali — which is undeniably beautiful. But I can’t help but notice how what used to be a sleepy seaside village is now basically an Instagram playground. Add a colorful wall with a dreamy saying and bam — busy every day. Add a swing, and bam — Instagrammable. I’ve literally been told at one restaurant here, before I had even looked at the menu, that I need to spend a minimum amount to take photographs. I fully intended to order a meal (and I did), but this experience really rubbed me the wrong way. 

You better like this photo, cuz it cost me 100,000 rupiah.

That’s why I think that the vast majority of Instagrammers, myself included, encourage a really unattainable version of travel. Valuing photographability rather than its other merits – its history, its culture, its potential for adventure, its food, its people – encourages a disengaged and potentially irresponsible form of travel.

It seems everyone wants to be a travel Instagrammer these days — and with paid campaigns focusing so heavily on Instagram, it’s not surprising. But the result of this is that I’ve really noticed the blurring of the line between fashion and travel, especially for female bloggers.

Wait, you mean this isn’t what Instagram wants?

Half the Instagram shots I see of women seem to be just as equally about the dress as the destination. The location almost seems to be a backdrop for their lithe bodies or beautiful clothes. Meanwhile, male Instagrammers never seem to dress up for their photos. They’re allowed to just be landscape photographers… or in many cases, they frequently feature female models who look way better in hiking clothes than any mere mortal can ever hope to look.

I’m pretty sure you’ll never see a dude carrying a change of clothes so they can have the perfect look atop a mountain they’ve just climbed, but that seems to be par for the course for female bloggers. Not only is this annoying as fuck, it also places an expectation and an undue financial burden on female Instagrammers to keep buying new “Instagram-friendly” clothes to complement the destination.

Needs more maxi dress.

I’ve literally seen Instagrammers change into dresses on a bus then hike through muddy hills for half an hour in a maxi dress. Granted, their photos were beautiful, but it seems to be a ridiculous double standard which places an undue burden on women. Not only do we have to go to cool places, but we have to look beautiful, have perfectly tousled hair, and a stunning dress (bonus points if it’s backless) to get that perfect Instagram shot. Framing a shot that you are in is simply more work, especially if you are traveling sans Instagram husband and need to frame the shot yourself with a tripod and remote. Which is fine if that is the photo you want to achieve, but I just think it’s unfair and harmful to women that this is the norm rather than the exception.

In case this comes across as someone trying to seem holier than thou, I’m just as complicit. I’ve found myself tapping to save things to my collections, hoping to replicate a cool photo. I’ve hesitated to post shots I loved that I knew would flounder on Instagram, like portraits of tobacco farmers in Cuba. I’ve found myself buying cut-out back dresses just because I know that will make my looking-away-dreamily photos just a bit better. I may or may not own a straw hat.

Straw hat, check. Off the shoulder romper, check. Now all I’m missing is a watch facing on the inside of my wrist.

Instagram is great for inspiration and discovery, don’t get me wrong. But beyond just the way it messes with our minds, I also worry that it creates an unsustainable future for travel. Take Norway’s Trolltunga, for example. The Insta-fame of this natural wonder has ballooned its annual visitors from 1,000 to 100,00 – literally, a 100x increase in a mere five years.

Other sights are similarly grappling with how to handle the impact of the Instagram generation. Zion National Park, Barcelona, Lake Louise — they’re all wondering how to handle the influx of tourism and bad behavior (littering, poor hike preparation, dangerous posing) that social media is bringing.

Confession: I bought this bright coral bikini as soon as I got invited to Maldives, just because I knew it’d be fire against that turquoise water.

Sometimes, scrolling through Instagram feels a bit like Groundhog Day. Cinque Terre. Mykonos. Marrakech. A Daniel Wellington watch. Iceland. A smoothie bowl.  The Maldives. A manicured hand cradling some latte art. And repeat.

These photos are usually presented without context — captions often seem lifted just straight from a never-ending Word document of wanderlust quotes.

I can attest that no matter how beautiful an Instagram feed looks, travel is full of ups and downs. And for those of us who call ourselves bloggers, I feel we have a responsibility to represent travel honestly and accurately – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and that the atlas has more pages than the “Explore” feature of Instagram would suggest.

18 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Instagrammer”

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I think we are all guilty of having similar feelings, yet still conforming to what we are supposed to do on Instagram. I don’t like the platform because of this and have taken a step back in the last year as a result (funny enough, my account has grown ten-fold since taking a step back). I’m a bit different as I don’t really travel to take a load of photos of myself. I often come back from a trip with none. Not intentionally, but I’ve been traveling since I was like 2 and taking pics of myself was never a priority over capturing other things I love on camera. I don’t have an Instagram husband and I really dislike the term.

    All that aside, it scares me thinking the toll a social media platform has had on places from a tourism perspective. I am happy to see people traveling, however, traveling for nothing but a mere photo (which the majority of people are doing) is unsustainable. Like you mentioned Trolltunga… when I lived in Norway, that hike was a secret. Hardly anyone knew about it. Now it is public knowledge and even if a person can’t pinpoint where it is, they have seen the photos. It’s incredulous.

    While I don’t think Instagram is going by the wayside anytime soon, I am glad to see that they predict 2018 to be the year that people don’t really check out ‘feeds’ anymore and go more for their live features and stories. I really hope this brings back an authenticity that has become removed from the feeds and stylings of these photographs throughout the years. I constantly see Instagrammers lately writing long-winded captions about how they don’t conform and how they don’t like how things are not portrayed accurately on others’ feeds. To me, if you have to rant about it on Instagram, you’re likely part of the problem and need to take a step back and see things from a bigger picture. While this has little impact on me as a travel blogger (which I am first and foremost- if someone takes Instagram away, I’ll still be around and I’ll still have my audience), it does impact me as a digital marketer and SMM… so I speak pretty passionately about it when I get on rants lol.

    I could say a lot more- just trying to keep things tactful. Thanks for a great post <3

    • I agree 100%. I’m definitely guilty of trying to be that “Instagram girl” – I guess as a newer blogger, I saw that it was bringing me success to work within the formula that worked… but it was leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I guess I still like to take photos of myself (I am a bit of a narcissist, I suppose) but I want to de-emphasize that in the coming year and become more creative with my photography and videography in the process.

      Like you, I’m also glad that they’re projecting 2018 to be ‘year of the stories’ as I think the ultra-curated feeds are just like crack for people’s inner self-loathing tendencies. Like I’ve actually gotten mad at myself for my inability to make a nice-looking breakfast flat lay. It’s so ridiculous and yet for so long I kept torturing myself with it. It made me realize I really need to rethink my relationship with Instagram and the reasons I use it. Trying to replicate what’s successful for other people is nearly impossible and I’m probably better suited forging my own road, even if the rewards are less immediate, y’know?

      Thanks as always for your thoughtful comment on the subject <3

  2. I really have a love-hate affair with Instagram. The first year I used it religiously, loved it, and was on it all the time. I only post places (haven’t posted a pic of myself since March), and I try to provide some info in the caption about why I’ve chosen to highlight this place. But I feel like I get way more interest (if a smaller audience) from stories. Stories aren’t about perfection, they’re about action. So I think I’m going to try to craft better stories in 2018 that are still spontaneous and true-to-life, and not worry about the pictures in my feed. I’ll keep putting up the pictures I want and not worry about their reception.

    • Yeah, that’s why I’m going to try to throw myself more headlong into the stories this year, and try to give fewer fucks about the posts I put up on my actual feed (since Instagram never shows them to any of my actual friends anyway). I’ve been saying that for months, I know 😛

  3. I love this post, as scary as the facts you bring forth are (especially on the sustainability of certain places when faced with rampant tourism). My Instagram was very small scale but I hadn’t enjoyed using the platform since about 2013 and I haven’t looked back since deactivating it a couple of months ago. I don’t spend nearly as much time mindlessly scrolling on it and am saving so much on data. Photography is a fabulous hobby and I love it, but I wanna travel for the story, not the picture. Good luck with finding some balance! And that coral bikini really does look good against them turquoise waters.

    • Yeah the overtourism aspect is what scares me most. And then the flip side of that is undertourism in regions that could use it more, but aren’t as popular because influencers haven’t made it as “Instagrammable.”

      I’m actually really jealous that you deleted your Instagram. Unfortunately trying to hack it as a full-time blogger means accepting it for now, while waiting for it to die a slow Twitter-like death. I’ve decided though that I want to use it to show that places that aren’t usually seen as “Instagrammable” actually are — and that anything is Instagrammable if you, well, upload it on Instagram 😛

      • Haha yeah it is a perk of having a day job outside of blogging. I don’t think that death is too far away, at least, so hopefully that day isn’t too far away. 🙂 And agree – it does become Instgrammable by the simple fact of making an appearance on the platform!

  4. So much yes to this post! I know it’s been trendy for a while, but I still find it hard to comprehend that people actually change into dresses to hike up a mountain?! You couldn’t pay me to do that. Kudos to you for being completely transparent and working to share the highs and lows of travel – it’s definitely needed this industry!

    • Yeah, it’s just so blatantly false and it drives me crazy that this somehow has become normalized. I love a good dress as much as the next person and have my girly side for sure — but come on, be context appropriate (and safe!) It just creates such an unrealistic image for others. Anyway, thank you for your comment!

  5. I had to delete Instagram for my mental health. I like learning about friends’ and families’ lives either in person, over the phone, or through email/text messages. I was getting upset that I learned so much about my close friends and family just by scrolling, and that I wasn’t reaching out to anyone anymore and people weren’t reaching out to me. It’s like, “want to know what’s going on with me? Check Instagram.” I deleted it pretty soon after I got engaged, knowing that I’d be expected to post wedding stuff. I think it’s a very difficult platform for both bloggers/influencers and for non-working users. At least for those of us that would like more depth in our contact with people, as your posts so beautifully talks about. Thanks for shedding light on your experience with this addicting app!

    • Yeah, I know, it’s crazy that Instagram is like our source of news for friends and family. And I think it can create such an unrealistic experience, like a “highlights” reel of your life — with no context, it’s easy to make people feel inadequate or compare themselves in a way that’s unhealthy. Unfortunately with bloggers and influencers it’s unrealistic in another way. As someone in the “industry” I feel strongly that the rise of people who make their WHOLE living off Instagram distorts integrity and makes the whole platform just one giant ad, but masquerading as a real life that you can emulate. Like no one thinks that a photo in a magazine is a real depiction of life, but somehow people feel that way with Instagram influencers, even if it’s an ad just the same as in a magazine.

      It just seems like a recipe for disaster for young people’s mental health. I think about myself and how impressionable I was by stuff like Livejournal when I was a teenager, and then I’m SO grateful that I grew up in the sort of in-between social media gap and Instagram wasn’t even a thing for me until near the end of my college experience. If I had had that in high school I’d probably still be in a loony bin haha 😛

  6. I loved this post! Thanks for being super real about it. I feel like a lot of people are hesitant to talk about the subject because they’re worried it’ll look like they’re throwing stones or something.

    It bummed me out to read that Instagram is the worst of social media for mental health. I can understand why that’s the case, but it seems so within our control, collectively! It’s an incredible tool for documenting and sharing your experiences, and finding joy from sharing in others’ experiences– if everyone is being genuine. I guess I should post more of the ugly side of traveling, too, huh? Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking!

    • Thank you for reading! And I totally get that – I was a bit hesitant to publish because I don’t want to diss other people’s business models, everyone has their own path, but I do think it’s important to also look at it from an external point of view and think about what messaging we’re giving. I think the disconnect comes between Instagram being an aspirational platform yet people treat it like it’s reality. I do try to give a little behind the scenes, highs and lows, etc. I think also with Instagram stories and now IGTV it’s more in our power to show the other side of Instagram that doesn’t make “the grid”, giving people a more well-rounded idea of what our lives are like, etc. I’m not so good at updating my IG stories (mostly out of laziness) but it is what I prefer these days as I have so much stress about what is “Instagrammable” and what isn’t.

  7. Thank you for this refreshing blog — I’d like some real photos please. All of these posts of unattainable locations, dresses, bodies, photographs, cameras, etc. drive me crazy. For god’s sake, just enjoy where you are already. I have been in beautiful locations and watched girls tumble off of tour buses (or out of cars, etc), set up a selfie or have someone else “capture” the perfect photo and then leave — without even looking at the view or exploring the village or the historic monument. Thanks for your directness.

    • Thank you for reading, Nicole! I agree about the unattainability – as someone who suffered from an eating disorder many of my teenage years, this comparison game really gets to me. So I’ve stopped playing the game, basically, and if I have a really exciting idea for a photo that I want to be in, I’ll take it, but mostly I prefer to be behind the lens and experience things more in the moment.

  8. THIS! This is precisely what I’ve always thought about Instagram and Pinterest for years. Also, one of the reasons I put off starting a travel blog for so long. I hate to be photographed or to be brought out of “the moment” just to try to document it. And as much as I’m fond of color-matching my footwear and shirts and bracelets, I quite frankly don’t give a flying fuck whether my outfit matches the architecture or the lush rainforest I’m too busy gawking at.
    I’ve just found your blog, thanks to my bestie from Wander With Jo, and I’m ecstatic to have found content that is entertaining, rather than just fodder for the search engines. Travel blogging has become almost strictly about pretty pictures and ho-to guides to find those places, rather than the experiences behind those pictures. Thank you for (hopefully) making travel bloggers reconsider their priorities 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Jo! I’m glad someone else can relate to the feeling of hating being photographed, it makes me feel bizarre not fitting in in this regard or wanting photographs of me literally everywhere. Sometimes I want a photo, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel compelled to have photos of me from every angle and in perfect clothes. I also really value being comfortable and have sensory sensitivities, so the idea of wearing an outfit that feels uncomfortable just to take pretty photos for a portion of the day is not appealing to me. I know a lot of work goes into these photos, but it’s just not my thing, and I know many people feel frustrated not being able to live up to these standards, so I’m glad you could resonate with this post.


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