Once, in the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I got stoned and ate cheese fries in a hot tub. It felt like the height of luxury, eating while soaking. But now that I’ve had frozen Snickers bars and champagne in an infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean—not that my Instagram followers will ever know this, mind you—I know how much higher the bar can go.
In the first case, the year was 2001, and there was no such thing as Instagram. In the second, it was 2019, and I chose to pretend Instagram didn’t exist, even though Oahu’s Four Seasons Resort at Ko Olina, the kind of place influencers stay, had invited me to live like an influencer—free lodging! free meals! free cabana stocked with products I definitely did not take home!—for four days.
My recent trip to Hawaii wasn’t my first time there. A few years ago, in Kauai on our honeymoon, my husband and I tried surfing. He took a photo of me standing up on the board in my rash guard, exhilarated. Afterward, in the parking lot, I posted the photo to Instagram. It took a minute or two to load, and waiting for that line to extend from left to right dampened the thrill of the moment. By attempting to package the magic for my Instagram followers, I killed it.
When I’m on vacation, I become so conscious of how I’ll broadcast the experience of swimming in a geothermal pool or diving off a cliff that I don’t soak anything in. It’s hard to separate what actually sounds fun to me from what seems fun to other people. Would I still lie with my toes in the sand if I couldn’t post an obligatory photo of them?
I wanted to know what it would feel like to do something for the gram without ‘gramming it. So on this trip I promised—myself and the editor of this story—I wouldn’t post anything on social media.
My sister-in-law came with me, and when we arrived, I snapped a photo of the view from our balcony, of a deep-blue pool and white-sand lagoon, and texted it to our family to let them know we’d made it. I sent one more photo of us dressed up for dinner on our last night. I *did* Instagram-stalk a fellow diner who turned out to be a quasi-celebrity pastor. But otherwise, I stayed off social media entirely.
On our first night at the resort, we drank mai tais served in Spam cans—actually Spam-can piggy banks—with crushed ice and little umbrellas. “Going ham!!!” would be a good caption, I thought. The cocktail was strong, and I couldn’t finish it. On any other vacation, I probably would’ve posted about it anyway, not mentioning that I took just a few sips before setting it aside. I would’ve felt, if not like a total fraud, somewhat performative, preferring likes for a photo that didn’t fully capture my experience to no likes at all. Honestly, not posting it felt more like a relief than a missed opportunity.
The next morning, we hiked along the ocean to what felt like the edge of the earth, where we saw a monk seal sunning itself in the tide pools. I got very sunburnt, which is normally something I would make fun of myself for on Instagram before anyone else could. We got yelled at for getting too close to the monk seal (accidentally), and the old bunker we perched on to take in the view was full of trash. I could’ve curated the hike for Instagram in a way that made Mother Nature seem #flawless. Not posting helped me make peace with the fact that the hike was more of a mixed bag IRL than it would have seemed online. And that helped me feel closer to humanity: I was just another burnt tourist in muddy sneakers, no more—or less—special than anyone else.
Later on, we had the whole spa to ourselves for an hour, then got beachside massages and a private tour of the cosmos from an astronomer with a GPS-enabled telescope. Phone in hand, I might have mentally focused the tilt-shift lens on my sister-in-law in her white bathrobe on the bright-green lawn. Without it, I noticed how springy the grass felt underfoot.
On our last night, we ate dinner outside as the sun set, and it was like a Thomas Kincaid painting but for the millennial set: glasses of rosé, a small chapel for destination weddings, the women in Reformation dresses instead of petticoats. Keeping this all to myself was what I imagine it’s like to be in the Bachelorette fantasy suite versus on a one-on-one, a private opportunity to feel grateful without having to perform gratitude. To feel blessed minus the hashtag is a blessed feeling indeed.
I’ve long struggled with simply enjoying a moment, but social media has exacerbated that; I’m always trying to experience a thing while also trying to pinpoint the parts that will make people laugh or love me or, if I’m being honest, realize just how revengefully well I’m living. Doing something amazing and not posting a photo of it felt like panning for gold knowing that I couldn’t keep the nuggets afterward. It freed me up to focus on the activity and not what I’d have to show for it.
Soon I’ll be returning to Hawaii, this time with my family. I’m torn about whether to stay off social media again. I’m smitten with my daughter and the islands, and it will be hard not to want to shout that from the lanai. Yes, it’s almost impossible to be present when you’re in two places at once, both on an island and on your phone. And, if you’re relatively self-aware, it’s hard not to feel fake. Curation connotes museum or boutique, and I don’t want to run either. Even if your personal brand is IDGAF, it’s still a brand.
I actually do give a fuck. Many fucks, in fact. I think that’s partly why we tell stories (and post Stories): to connect. Maybe choosing a filter is like choosing a narrative point of view, and posting a picture of the Bulgari toiletries in your hotel bathroom is a way to say can you believe the world can be this comfortable sometimes? Maybe it’s affirming, or toxic, or something in between, depending on your inherent sense of self-worth. I wish I felt either love or hate about it, not both.
Toward the end of a day spent in the pool, my sister-in-law and I finally got in the ocean. As we waded in, we watched a man photograph a woman on a stand-up paddleboard. She stood stiffly, oar and grin locked in place, looking like an Athleta ad. I hadn’t bothered to wear makeup or get a bikini wax or a pedicure, and I felt pleasantly feral. A cabana boy handed me an ice pop, and I let it melt in the sand as I swam without bothering to pose with it first.
Afterward, I dove into the infinity pool, and when I came up for air, hair plastered to my head and slightly buzzed from the champagne, I pictured myself through the lens of the young platinum-haired couple photographing each other with a waterproof camera. Did I look happy? Pretty? Like someone who doesn’t care what I look like? There are no pics, but it definitely happened.
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