How the travel industry fails to represent real women
hey, that's not what women travelers look like...
In this newsletter: an opinionated take on how women are represented in travel media. With your paid subscriptions we’ve supported important non-profits, including the Lilith Fund, World Central Kitchen, Refugio Animal Holbox, Womankind, Girls Write Now, Women for Women, Heart of Dinner, and Black Mamas Matter. If you’ve found your way here but are not yet subscribed, let me help you with that:
It’s night time in New York and I can be found editing a travel story, per usual. As I begin to search for images to pair with this evening’s guide for solo traveling women, I’m struck by a disconcerting reality: all the images popping up in my search look nothing like real women who travel. I journey from Shutterstock to Unsplash to Pixabay and am offered a never-ending parade of twenty-something, fair-skinned, blonde-hair, skirt twirling models in stock photography that does nothing to represent real travelers.
I can chalk this up to the stock image sites, but rather, I know it points to a much larger issue within the travel industry itself. If I search “Black woman travel,” I am served images of tribal women in Africa standing against huts. If I search “Latina traveler,” I am faced with curvaceous women—a lá Sophia Vergara—posed against a lacquered bar, wearing skin-tight dresses. If I search “senior woman traveler,” I am confronted with images of little old ladies donning khakis and posing on cruise ship balconies.
If I search “woman at the airport,” I see a collection of women in high heels and red lipstick waiting for flights as though they’ll be strutting the runway. If I search “woman traveler,” the results prove completely devoid of diversity, race, age, body type, or personality. The photos paint a picture; one that seems to say traveling is limited to the young, beautiful, and white.
These photos are a symptom of a larger problem; one that extends far beyond the stock imagery but is often seen in travel media. The issue with these images is how their portrayal excludes most women today. The lack of diversity in travel advertising, for example, is a gross underrepresentation of the power of Black travelers who—according to a study from MMGY Global—spent upwards of $109.4 billion on pre-pandemic travel in 2019. When the depiction of a traveler fails to represent the actual people traveling, you create an experience that can be exclusionary to many, including the BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, plus-size, and disability communities.
Of course, tonight is not the first time I’ve been confronted by the travel industry’s portrayal of women. After all, when the majority of travel publications are founded and/or edited by men—despite women compromising more than 70 percent of the travel consumer base—it’s unsurprising that the female traveler is represented as being sexy, young, white, and thin.
The personification of “the girl who travels”—made popular a few years back by a user-uploaded video set to the soundtrack of “Ain’t No Sunshine”—keeps popping up. A girl who travels implies a young, free-spirited woman who can’t be tamed by men and therefore is branded with a warning: don’t fall in love with her. She is a manic-pixie-dream girl seen through the male gaze; a romanticized vision one falls in love with on the streets of Bangkok but ultimately lets slip through their fingers.
The flaw in this archetype is how limiting it can be, and how dangerous an impact it can have on both the industry and on aspiring travelers who fail to see themselves represented. Travel should not be about one’s appearance, wardrobe, body type, age, skin color, weight, or hairstyle. Rather, travel is a celebration of culture and the authenticity that exists behind it; it exists to bolster humanity and connect us, not create divisions.
Thankfully, a slew of women-founded groups and networks are working to combat these limited representations by ushering in a more diverse look at travelers today. There’s Annette Richmond and her group, Fat Girls Traveling, which promotes body positivity amongst travelers and celebrates plus-size women. There’s Evita Robinson and Nomadness, who is the founder of the largest Black and Brown travel community in the industry and is a relentless advocate for Black travelers and their representation in the travel space.
There’s Beth Santos of Wanderful, whose women’s travel network not only connects travelers worldwide, but hosts a slew of virtual and in-person events that speak to important issues like race, diversity, and representation. And there’s tour companies like Olivia Travel, which organizes LGBTQ+ only tours and works to connect LGBTQ+ travelers.
These grassroots organizations look to fix an industry whose roots were often racist and exclusionary, to begin with. Let these women be your role models. Let us stop celebrating the male-fantasized archetype of women travelers and stop bolstering the narrow image of what a traveler looks like. Instead, let us define what it means to be a real woman who travels on our own terms.