How pressure to take selfies can influence travel experiences

Photo from The Guardian

Photo from The Guardian

Why did I feel like my trip to Paris while studying abroad would be a disappointment if I didn’t get the perfect selfie in front of the Eiffel tower? Why do I have more profile pictures of me in Rome in front of famous monuments like the Colosseum, where I spent 3 days, than I do in Florence by Palazzo Vecchio, where I spent 9 months?

Why do pictures in front of the leaning tower in Pisa or in front of a royal red phone booth get more “likes” than pictures in front of equally beautiful but less well-known churches in Florence or mosques in Istanbul? Do these pictures matter if we don’t post them on Instagram or Facebook? Would we even still take them? Why was I more proud of my Istanbul pictures than my London/Paris/Italy pictures?

After studying abroad in Florence, Italy for a year, and visiting many famous European destinations while I was there, and then observing students from my university uploading pictures from the exact same places a year after I visited them, I have started to ask myself the above questions.

It is no secret that a Facebook friend changing his or her profile picture to a selfie in front of a famous monument is exciting and will illicit more “likes” than a regular selfie in one’s hometown. But why are these pictures so important to us? Is a trip to a famous destination not as valuable if one cannot post pictures from it on Facebook or Instagram? Is social media photography changing the way we experience travel?

Based on my experience, I would say yes.

While I was studying abroad, I would become very anxious if I didn’t have a perfect potential profile pic after each of my weekend trips (“how will people know I went somewhere really cool if I don’t have a sweet selfie to prove it??!!!” – my thought process).

My best friends and I almost killed each other out of exhaustion and frustration when we sprinted across Paris after a long day of walking in order to get better “selfies” in front of the Eiffel Tower. (We did succeed, posted the obligatory selfies, and did get many likes – but those photos don’t at all convey the stress we experienced while taking them).


One of those same friends and I spent an afternoon in Pisa for the same reason – not to experience it as a unique Italian town – but to obtain the iconic leaning tower selfies that you’re not supposed to leave Italy without. We probably wouldn’t have stopped there on our way to the airport if such photographs weren’t important to us – and to our social media presences (where our lives must always seem awesome).

When I went to Istanbul, Turkey, on another weekend trip, I found myself equally enthusiastic about capturing awesome monuments in selfies, but with even more pride than usual. Not only was I adding to my stockpile of photos in front of iconic religious architecture (The Blue Mosque – wow), but I was also getting potential profile pics that rarely anyone else on my Facebook news feed would have. Why did I care about this? Are Facebook likes and travel competitions to be won? Is there some sort of award to be won by having a profile picture that makes other people envious of you but “like” your posts at the same time?


No, there is not. There’s no award or winner in Facebook, or travel. This compulsion to compete with others who are posting profile pictures and getting hundreds of likes only serves to make us feel inadequate when we read our news feeds. And it seriously takes away from the goals of travel in the first place: experiencing a new place, learning about the local culture, and expanding our knowledge of the world – not rushing around cities and arguing with friends to get the best pictures (unless you’re on Top Model, and it’s fun to watch).

I have been one of the worst offenders of this “braggy” use of social media, but now that I have observed others’ study abroad photography, I am much more aware of how I convey exciting life experiences. We all do awesome things, but that doesn’t mean we have to use social media to make other people feel not-awesome.

Do people feel compelled to obtain selfies in front of ALL important monuments in tourist destinations? Speaking from my own motivation, I would say no. I cared a lot more about making sure I got a prime selfie in front of the Colosseum than I did about getting one with the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – even though both monuments have substantial historical significance and are ‘important.’


So why did I care about my Colosseum profile pictures more? I would call this the movie-magic phenomenon. How many movies, TV shows, books, posters, and other images feature the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, and Big Ben? Enough to socialize our generation to believe in very stereotyped narratives about these places – that they are full of romance and magic and action, that we fantasize about experiencing in these locations someday.

According to the images we see before travelling, Italy is the place where women fall in love on Vespas and gladiators kill each other, the Colosseum as their backdrop. France is where happy couples walk through flowery streets, holding umbrellas, the Eiffel Tower in the background. England is where Harry Potter and James Bond do courageous things with red buses, phone booths, and Big Ben in the background.


So when we tourists visit these places we have seen on-screen so many times, they become iconic to us, and we want to feel that magic, too. We want to enter the scenes of our favorite European movie moments. (I wanted to live the Lizzie McGuire Movie in Rome, damnit!). So we get our pictures taken in the phone booths (thanks for helping me take the perfect shot, mom) and next to the fake gladiators in Rome. But this is also probably why less-movie-romanticized monuments like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio or Istanbul’s equally beautiful mosques show up less frequently in selfies and profile pictures. We don’t have narratives about them from our media images, so if “likes” are the currency, a picture with these historic places seems less valuable.

My recommendation, then (if you’re still reading – thanks!), is this:

The next time you travel, embrace the awesomeness of the PLACE first, instead of worrying about how cool your Facebook album will be afterward. Enjoy the local cuisine. Learn some words in the local language. Appreciate the art and architecture. Not every memorable moment has to be photographed. You will relax and enjoy yourself so much more.

Travel shouldn’t be about fulfilling stereotypical movie scenes or imitating previous friends’ cool experiences – it’s about learning new things and exploring yourself! If more of us focused on that aspect of travel, the like-worthy pictures would follow naturally anyway. 🙂

Now who wants to book a flight to anywhere with me?

– Meaghan

Striking Anti-FIFA Graffiti in Brazil – Do large scale international sporting events need to change?

Source: Huffington Post

Source: Huffington Post

The image at left, and the rest featured by this Huffington Post article are a sign that indigenous and under-privileged peoples and underpaid stadium workers of World Cup and Olympics host countries are fed up with being evicted from their homes, having government money spent on flashy stadiums, and being far from financially able to purchase tickets to these local games themselves.

Brazil is getting a lot of attention for its protests by people who think their government should be using funds for more valuable and long-lasting projects such as education and healthcare reform. Qatar is getting attention for its stadium construction workers who are DYING on the job because many of them were recruited illegally and can’t legally request more humane working conditions, leaving them to labor hard for long hours in Qatar’s desert heat. This isn’t normally what we think of when we visualize the grand World Cup.

Why are these issues gaining notice now, and casting a shadow on FIFA’s parade? Well, while most of us will be able to enjoy the excitement of the World Cup from the comfort of our couches and TV screens or at a pub (myself included), and some (millions) even have the means to attend the games in Brazil, there are many people who won’t be able to watch the games. They were “asked” to move out of their homes to make way for a new stadium, or they live in poverty and have to watch as millions of rich tourists flood their towns, benefiting from their government’s spending on this luxurious tournament. They’re not happy about this and they want people to know.

In South Africa 4 years ago, residents were promised that “legacy” would accompany the shiny stadiums in their towns, to help them develop, but they were misled:

They lied to us and betrayed us,” said Imaan Milanzi, a community liaison officer, pointing to a muddy hole in the ground surrounded by rubbish, bushes and banana plants.  Half a dozen people, holding battered old plastic paint tubs, had formed a casual queue, waiting for their turn to access the borehole – their one, trickling water supply.  “Things didn’t go as planned,” said Mr Milanzi, of the local government’s redevelopment plans. “They first promised to supply water, upgrade houses and roads. But they just built the stadium and disappeared.”

It should make us feel squeamish that our enjoyment of this event comes at the expense of the inhabitants of the host country. Why is so much money spent for our enjoyment, and not for the improvement of these inhabitants’ lives? Because events like the World Cup attract money, are glamorous, and in high-demand for funders, while combatting poverty is a difficult, less-glamorous task left to ardent non-profit organizations with limited resources.

Does this mean we shouldn’t still enjoy watching this World Cup that has been purchased for our enjoyment? I’m not sure. I know I will feel a little uncomfortable looking at the stadiums and advertisements for expensive athletic clothing, knowing that they are built and made on the backs of Brazil’s poor.

But I also believe that these world-stage tournaments are important arenas for nations to come together for a common purpose. I have never felt like more of a global citizen than while watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. So then, if so many people are unhappy with how these events are funded and constructed, but we as a global society want to continue enjoying them, the only possible solution is to reform how these events are produced.

Maybe, in order for a city to receive a bid, they must pledge to dedicate a (substantial) portion of the revenue they receive to immediate healthcare/education/infrastructure development, and show concrete plans to follow through. They could be required to ensure that the tournament has no negative infrastructure effects on the host city’s people (like so many Olympic/World Cup stadiums that remain unused after the games and become ruins rather than benefiting anyone).

It could also be a requirement that host countries hire their own local workers that they pay adequately and for whom they provide comfortable working conditions, prohibiting the importation of illegal foreign workers that are underpaid and put in danger. Will this lower FIFA’s and the host government’s profits? Probably. Will this make tournaments more morally acceptable to people affected negatively by them and bolster FIFA and the government’s credibility? I’d like to think so.

These are all only suggestions, and they are more complicated than I have described, but they are the direction I think international events like the Cup and Olympics need to seriously consider taking in order to avoid building anger and resentment and remain celebrated and enjoyed by all.

Women Are So Much More Than “Beautiful”

I want to apologize to all the women I have called beautiful
before I’ve called them intelligent or brave
I am sorry I made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit
from now on I will say things like
you are resilient, or you are extraordinary
not because I don’t think you’re beautiful
but because I need you to know
you are more than that
Rupi Kaur

This poem struck me. As a girl raised on Disney princess movies, I’ve always generally accepted that being called “beautiful” is an ultimate compliment, never to be resented.

But this poem really articulates a feeling I have developed throughout college: that I am a lot of other important things besides “beautiful,” and I am only called “pretty” or “beautiful” first because I am a female. Male coworkers don’t greet each other by admiring how handsome the other looks. But it’s a lot more normal for women to simply comment on the beauty of each other’s hair or outfits before admiring each other’s other strengths in conversation: wit, bravery, resiliency, intelligence, passion, etc.

From now on I will make it my goal to think of and talk about other women in this way first, before thinking about them in terms of “beautiful.” Real societal change will happen when both women AND men start to do the same.

This will take time, as the media examples that socialize us to see the world around us catch up to equality-based thinking (how relationships are portrayed in movies, how women relate to each other in our favorite TV shows – these all reinforce and shape how we view relationships in our real lives). Once these examples are more equality-based, more people’s mentalities will be, too. And I am excited for that era.

– Meaghan