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Illustration by Jamie Bennett

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I stood in the most romantic place on Earth when it hit me: I didn’t want to be here any more.

I had left for Europe with a goal. Armed with a bag full of camera gear, heavily dog-eared books about writing, a list of blog posts to be written and images to shoot, I set out to “get great content.” I work as a creative entrepreneur in the food industry creating visual and written content for companies, I teach clients how to create their own work, I take some sponsored posts and have been paid to write blogs. What came next was the idea to expand this to the travel industry. As a former expat with a lifelong affliction of wanderlust, it was a no-brainer. I studied how to position myself as a travel influencer and felt a new sense of purpose, poised to tackle this next big thing on my forever growing bucket list.

And then I landed in Paris.

I was surrounded by bloggers, wannabe bloggers, influencers and “ask me how I quit my 9-to-5” nomads. The scenes that unfolded around me were heartbreaking and soul-crushing. No longer was it acceptable to take a quick snap in front of a landmark or a scene that catches your eye. No, you must be wearing a perfectly co-ordinated outfit, with black Chanel purse in hand, a matching branded shopping bag in the other, perfectly positioned so the logos are visible with your neck outstretched into the infinite beyond, creating an image of inspirational wonder and awe. #Doyoutravel?

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I saw women walking whimsically, an arm outstretched behind them, their floor-length pink skirts billowing in the wind. Their boyfriends took their phones and snapped away. Different angles. Different heights. Different vantage points. The same photo again and again and again. She would review the images and after some frustrated words, take her next pose and the process would start over again. A bag full of discarded clothes lay outside of the frame and, after a quick costume change, the scene would repeat as if stuck in some infinite loop or glitch in the matrix.

I watched three women get changed in front of the Eiffel Tower. One brought a pop-up tent. The others slipped new outfits underneath their clothes and pulled off the old ones. No one batted an eye. There were fake picnics in the park. Perfectly co-ordinated scenes: cozy blankets set out with matching plates, an abundant spread of food, bottles of bubbly and other products, labels all turned out so that it was crystal clear what was being consumed. These picnics were attended by groups of seamlessly styled women having a grand time: laughing and infinitely clinking tall glasses of bubbly but never drinking. Not one sip or bite was taken during this “impromptu sunset picnic with my besties” that they were enjoying. Or that they wanted you to think they were enjoying. Minutes later, more women passed with linked arms, “walking” together, smiling, laughing and throwing their heads back in fits of joy. They weren’t walking at all, but when the image hits social media you will think they were.

I noted the same things happening in different cities and other countries. The hardest one to witness was a mother and a friend dressed in matching outfits while a young girl about 10 stood and took their photo over and over again. “I’m too fat in that one! Take it again but don’t shoot upwards this time!” It broke my heart to watch this unfold, wondering what this little girl was absorbing about images of beauty and expectations of life.

I took photos of all these encounters but I ended up deleting them. I couldn’t in good conscience post them because it doesn’t sit well with my beliefs and values. I strive for blatant honesty and real moments, but I also believe strongly in empowering women, and with that comes a dedication to never tearing each other down. My thoughts aren’t about them specifically, they are about what we value, produce and consume as a society, what we aspire to and what we measure our self-worth and success against.

Maybe I needed to come back to Paris to realize I wanted nothing to do with that. The influence. The following. The fame. The constant shovelling of fake realities down your audience’s throat. I used to think I did. So much of my content and creativity in recent years has been channelled into the purpose of providing what my audience wants to see and what they need to learn. Except when you are working as an “influencer” it’s never just what your audience wants, it’s what the companies, products and brands want your audience to want.

I don’t want to influence my followers to buy things or to tell them what’s right to want, to desire and strive for. People’s thoughts, ideas, values and hopes and dreams are not owned by a company, a product or an influencer. They are theirs alone.

I do, however, still want to bake and travel and write and shoot my ideas and projects. I want real life. I don’t want to rush around to tick boxes on an endless list of must-see items I’ve absorbed via social osmosis. I want all I aspire to, aim for and share with others to be real experiences, things that hold value for me.

The next time you scroll past someone’s post and think how fab those girls’ drinks in the park must have been, also think about how long it might have taken before they actually experienced the moment and if they even did.

Isn’t it time we all sober up and stop posing, stop pretending and simply start living?

Jennifer Hulley lives in Hamilton.

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