How Instagram Is Skewing the Way We Talk About Women in the Outdoors
When Gina Begin founded Outdoor Women’s Alliance in 2007, it began as a vehicle for women to learn from each other on all-female adventure trips. Back then, she recalls, no one cared about how their hair or clothes looked in the backcountry.
Ten years later, in a new era of social media, the portrayal of women in the outdoors has taken a turn for the fabricated. Instagram users have likely noticed the images of perfectly coifed women in fashionable outdoor apparel staring out at sweepingly beautiful landscapes. As these hyper-curated photos saturate feeds in glory shot after glory shot, they are shaping the representation of women in outdoor adventure.
Of course any trend that inspires women to explore is a good thing, whether hiking one mile or 15, paddling a flat lake or big whitewater. But what message do these portrayals send to women about what outdoor adventures “should” be?
When it comes to outdoor sports, the way we look isn’t what keeps us alive on the wall or dropping into the avalanche chute. That’s where skill, determination, and experience comes in. The social media-ization of adventure lifestyles has blurred the line more than ever about what’s realistic and what’s not.
If Instagram were to be taken at face value, it would be easy to feel bad about not having perfect hair in the midst of an adventure. In the outdoor community, concerns about the rise of hyper-curated Instagram feeds are many: from whether this trend excludes women looking to get into sports because they don’t look a certain way, to the possibility that it invites disaster for underplaying the seriousness of venturing into the backcountry, to whether it undercuts the gravity of women’s accomplishments in outdoor adventure sports.
“It’s the effort behind the adventure that’s incredible; we don't need to dress it up,” said Begin, the founder of Outdoor Women’s Alliance (OWA). “Doing so removes the focus from the strides we're making as women outdoors and puts it back on that age-old media fallback: our looks.”
Countering this trend are several women-run adventure platforms, including OWA, that see a responsibility to post images that emphasize skills, experience, and accomplishments — and relegate looks to the backseat.
When OWA hit Instagram in August 2014 as @outdoorwomen, they were one of only two women’s adventure accounts. Now with 216,000 followers, OWA is leading the charge in realistic social media portrayals of women in outdoor sports.
As a nonprofit media and adventure collective that engages, educates, and empowers women worldwide, OWA aims to convey strength and accomplishment on its feed. For every glory shot it posts, @outdoorwomen posts seven or eight images of what it actually took to get to that victorious moment: chalky hands reaching, the icepick making purchase, boot-packing the couloir.
The account shows the details of adventures to communicate that the backcountry is a serious place. OWA celebrates women showcasing their skills, whether they’re learning, leading, excelling, or (in true homage to realistic adventures) in the midst of mission fail.
And those glory shots that @outdoorwomen does post? They don’t tend to include the miraculously clean outfits or the iconic flowing hair of a typical #alpinebabe image. The standard @outdoorwomen victory photo portrays women who are pushing their limits in the backcountry to increase their skills and confidence at doing something they’re passionate about.
“Let’s show that we worked for that summit and not be ashamed of it,” says Begin. “We wear our sweat and our dirt and our blood as badges of pride because we earned them through effort and skill.”
Of course users like to see attractive people and beautiful scenery on their social feeds. Any Instagram content creator worth their salt, including Begin, recognizes that photos need a certain appealing aesthetic to attract a following on Instagram. But OWA’s aesthetic trends toward authenticity rather than eye candy — and the numbers show that it does perform well. While it might seem like #alpinebabes (282,000 posts), #wildnernessbabes (264,000 posts), and #mountainbabes (65,000 posts) are taking over Instagram, OWA’s signature hashtag #outdoorwomen tops out with a whopping 987,500 posts.
There's no “right” look
Irene Yee, @ladylockoff on Instagram with 42,000 followers, is a vocal proponent of the importance of authenticity in images to increase women’s participation in outdoor adventures. She calls her photography of women scaling rock walls in the Southwest, “climbing for the rest of us.”
“Most climbers aren’t pro climbers. They’re just taking the time to do what they love, and they’re making it work in their everyday lives,” she says. “You don’t have to live the iconic social media dirtbag van life to be a ‘real’ climber. You can be a weekend warrior, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Yee aims to emphasize that there’s no certain way that climbing “looks,” and her feed features women of varying ages, sizes, skill levels, and clothing and makeup (or not) choices. “My photography celebrates all outdoor women, and I’ve come to realize that they range across the spectrum. There are women who put time and effort into themselves and that’s phenomenal, and there are women who just don’t care, and that’s also phenomenal.”
Yee admits that she herself doesn’t fit the typical “outdoorsy” stereotype, with her technicolor clothing and dyed bright-red hair. In fact, she only got into the sport after seeing a picture of pro climber Sasha DiGulian with painted fingernails.
“I thought: you can be a girl and still rock climb?! I realized that just because I didn’t fit into the mainstream perception of what rock climbing is, that didn’t mean I couldn’t do it,” she says. “My red hair and bright clothing don’t affect my ability. Not all women are rugged, and we don’t have to be to go climbing and be passionate about it.”
Yee says fears about not fitting certain stereotypes, often exacerbated by social media, shouldn’t prevent women from participating in adventure sports. Her favorite shots capture the strength and power in a woman overcoming her own fears on the wall in the moment. Yee aims to showcase that women are not just beautiful, but badass.
Related: 3 Ways to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
When it comes to pro adventure sports versus recreation, Leah Evans knows all too well the impact that imagery can have on perceptions. As a professional skier sponsored by Patagonia with a public life on social media, Evans recognizes that she’s in the thick of creating those glory shots herself.
“If you look at Instagram platforms, it’s really easy to get down on yourself for not being that person who always finds those lines and skis those perfect turns,” says Evans. “But when you have a pool of imagery that’s accessible, it acts as positive reinforcement. And it’s in those spaces that inspiration lives, when you really begin to aspire to do things.”
That’s exactly what Evans aims for with the @girlsdoski platform on Instagram. Evans founded Girls Do Ski 10 years ago to grow the women’s ski community. She wanted to share her success with other women in the mountains, because she believes that sharing achievements spreads success and empowers other women — sort of like Shine Theory for big mountain skiing.
With small-group classes both on resort and in the backcountry, @girlsdoski seeks to provide a supportive community for like-minded women skiers of all skill levels. Evans views it as a tool for creating and strengthening the women’s ski community, and as such, she’s intentional about ensuring the feed feels inclusive. @girlsdoski showcasing learning, community, and the joys of skiing. The captions are raw and playful.
And it’s almost impossible to talk about the hyper-curated adventure lifestyle trend without bringing up the captions. You know the ones: “You only live once,” “follow your bliss,” “create your own magic,” and the like. These lines can certainly stoke inspiration — especially when paired with beautiful people in stunning landscapes — but they get back to the question of how realistic these portrayals are of adventures and lifestyles.
“Who you are and what you do is exactly the same,” says Evans. “Social media has created this middle person that doesn’t really exist.”
With both images and captions, Girls Do Ski works on cutting out that virtual middle person to get to the direct connection, with the theory that it translates to a tangible community of women who love skiing — a community that Evans is convinced makes women skiers a stronger demographic.
“Media, including social media, needs to catch up with women’s adventure sports,” says Begin. “We’re in this heyday where every brand wants us on their cover. If we’re the ones they’re chasing after, they need to pick up the pace, because we’re so much farther ahead.”