I’m writing out of order. We’re skipping Thailand, Australia and a night in Singapore that I probably won’t blog about anyway because I spent the majority of it in a windowless room about the size of a toilet cubicle. We’re leapfrogging over my flirtation with snowboarding in France, and how I now come complete with metal reinforcement after misguidedly believing in myself. “You can do it, it’s all about confidence, believe, trust yourself, just commit” Smash. Snap. X ray. Surgery. Turns out it’s not all about believing in yourself. It’s about competence and co-ordination and balance and judgement and skills.
I’m in Canggu in Bali although I could be anywhere. For the past week and a half, I’ve felt a building sense of unease, and yesterday it imploded. I now find myself lying in bed at 11:30am, feeling like an embittered troll blogging about how I despair of all humanity. Off we go then.
We went to the Panama Kitchen for lunch. I will say one good thing about Canggu: the variety of food is excellent. Whether you want Japanese or Hawaiian or Italian or activated charcoal and spirulina in a cocktail glass with a sprig of mint and a half-moon of pineapple balanced on the rim… You’ve got it.
But back to Panama Kitchen. We walked in. It was delightful: whitewashed walls with creeping greenery, a pool with loungers, an open veranda with bamboo furniture. I’m pretty sure there’s a plastic flamingo on the lawn somewhere. Yet pinned to the many palm trees were signs – “No Excessive Photography”. Seemed like a weird thing to say.
As we walked in, a girl was sat at table applying lipstick under the glare of one of those illuminated inverted umbrella things that were set up in the school hall on photo day. We passed by and sat down to feast, appetites graciously provided by mild hangovers.
Whilst I was mid chicken wing, the girl got up with a full face of make-up and metallic heels and strolled over to the bar. A man crouched on the floor with a camera. She stood looking less than bored, but as the man pressed the shutter button she suddenly exploded in to life. She span her body coyly to the left as if she’d just been spontaneously caught having the most fun recorded by all of humanity. Her face radiated obscene happiness for a fraction of a second. And then it died. It totally disappeared. The vacancy returned to her eyes and I felt as if I had been the only one that had seen this because everyone else was carrying on as normal and what the fuck: had I just witness a glitch in the matrix, a momentary blip in the emotional programming of the human race? Then it happened again and again and again and again. Many, many shots, each one as jarring as the last. Afterwards, she sat alone at her empty table and swiped robotically through her phone.
She wasn’t the only one. As soon as she was done, another one came along. Her sunglasses remained firmly in place despite being indoors. She was wearing crisp clothes and thick makeup that would soon be ruined by sweat.
In the garden it got worse. Two others were conducting shoots – one girl in a bikini lounged deliberately around a pool she would never swim in. Another posed on a high wall, draping her leg with a precise point of the toe and a studied nonchalance. She and her cameraman said nothing to each other. They worked through the routine in grim silence.
In the time it took me to finish a cup of tea, three more couples came in. The girls were walking ahead with disinterest and each was accompanied by a man lumbering behind her with a large camera bag.
I thought ahead to the images that would be posted later on Instagram. I imagined the young girls who would scroll through them getting the bus to school on a February morning thinking about how they measured up.
Self esteem in young women feels like the rarest, most fragile commodity on earth. As these girls draped themselves like objects, building such tremendous falsehood, it felt like some kind of betrayal. This cannot be healthy. For anyone.
I’ve considered every objection to this I can. I don’t want to be another “Oh god, isn’t modern life shit and isn’t the world terrible?” I don’t want to be a snob. I’ve asked people about their thoughts – “This is their job” people reply. “It’s just like advertising.”
Is that an excuse? Does this mean I shouldn’t be critical of it. I’m not sure it is. There are plenty of jobs I feel like I can still pass judgement on.
Am I putting travel and lifestyle Instagrammers on the same playing field as tobacco lobbyists and arms dealers? Probably not. The point I’m trying to make is that you can’t use the excuse that something is a job to imply that it’s not morally questionable.
But after all this, I’m not saying it shouldn’t exist. I’m not saying that it should be banned. I’m not even saying that disclaimers should be pasted over all the photos saying THIS IS V. MISLEADING. I just want to add a quiet voice to a conversation about how normal it is for life to be peppered with crises of confidence, of doing things that you don’t like, of disappointment and anticlimax. Sometimes you’re lying in bed in broad daylight with nothing to inspire you but impotent loathing for humanity. That’s normal. Isn’t it?
This post comes accompanied by a stock image I found named “Nice Toad 2”. It felt right.