Instagram is usually built around blurring the line between fantasy and reality in all the wrong ways.
Scrolling through your feed now is like an endless barrage of monotonous everyday bullshit framed and filtered to look like perfect, impossible ideals of “authenticity.” Here’s this simple vegan meal you can make at home right now — if you’ve got all these specialized, expensive ingredients on hand! Anyone can hike across this beautifully remote canyon — if you’ve got six months of hellish marathon training under your belt! Spend your weekend getaway at this perfectly curated, artfully designed Airbnb — with no running water!
Then there’s Fairytale Instagram.
A sprawling and slowly growing niche of different fantastical subcommunities, Fairytale Instagram fully embraces the fact that social media is a platform for illusions. Yet unlike regular Instagram, its content creators, artists, photographers, and performers don’t care about tricking you into thinking it’s real.
And ironically, by interjecting pure fantasy and magic into your feed, Fairytale Instagram actually encourages us to tap into our truest, most authentic selves.
“Fantasy on Instagram is huge. From mermaids, to fairies, to princesses, superheroes. Instragram often features influencers with lives that just aren’t obtainable to most. But fantasy Instagram is all about imagination,” said the founder of Halifax Mermaids, known as Reina the Mermaid to her 34,000 Instagram followers. “No, you’re not going to be a real mermaid. But maybe seeing pictures and videos helps you escape for a moment into a magical underwater world you can see yourself in. We can all relate to using our imaginations to daydream.”
Because it’s made up of many different subgroups that don’t all interact with each other, it’s hard to say exactly when Fairytale Instagram began, how it grew, or where it even ends. But the general consensus is that these niches always existed, and the internet (particularly photo-based platforms like Instagram) allowed them to connect and spread their magic.
And their magic is turning Instagram into the best possible version of itself.
A return to the ancient through the Extremely Online
From fantasy photographers to mermaids, witches, and enchanted lifestyle magaziners, everyone agrees that the fantasy trend started gaining steam online about a decade ago. Notably, that’s around the same time shows like Game of Thrones, and later Outlander, normalized fantasy in mainstream culture.
Now entire cottage industries have sprung around these fantastical online communities.
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Popularized by Hannah Fraser in 2002, mermaiding not only became a verb but sparked new professions and businesses like fin-making companies, free diving groups, advocacy outreach, performance and entertainment schools.
“We’re part of a new paradigm of creativity-fueled global change through inspirational social media,” said Fraser. Like many other online mermaids, she uses her 130,000 Instagram following to advocate for ocean conservationism. “By bridging land and sea as a mermaid with a cause, I’m able to appeal to people through fantasy and empower them to see the possibility for a new, better reality.”
For her, mermaid content isn’t just more interesting than the stuff everyone else is posting on Instagram. It also invites viewers to express themselves and be more authentically themselves in the real world.
“It’s not only offering an escape from the boring and mundane online reality. I am talking about ways to actually bring that fantasy into your everyday lifestyle,” she said.
The irony of Fairytale Instagram’s appeal is how it uses our most modern form of communication to let us fantasize about a time before the digital age. Through online tools and communities, Fairytale Instagram reconnects people to the natural world.
That’s the case for Carolyn Turgeon, editor-in-chief of the quarterly print magazine Enchanted Living, which she describes as, “Martha Stewart but enchanted.” She herself spends most of her days indoors working on her laptop in Baltimore, finding respite from the noisy, always-connected digital world through a wide variety of fantastical content creators featured in the magazine (like witchy Etsy artist Terri Foss or fairy-like Russian crafters like Ellen Tyn).
Over the course of a year back in 2014, Enchanted Living‘s Facebook following grew from 100,000 to nearly half a million (with 191,000 on Instagram). And Turgeon noticed a strong theme in the images that their audience responded most to.
“It always goes back to that same imagery of nature totally devoid of modernity,” she said, whether it’s a cottage in remote woods, animals, human dwellings overtaken by moss, or women in fields with flowers in their hair.
Most of the comments, she found, are people inserting themselves into these storybook environments, wistfully dreaming of a life that’s simpler and more in tune with the organic world.
The same is true for TJ Drysdale, who teamed up with girlfriend Victoria Yore in 2014 to launch the popular fantasy travel account followmeaway (now boasting 104,000 followers, several thousands fewer than their traditional one).
He found that people respond most to simple yet grandiose landscapes that appear untouched by anyone else. That’s why he photoshops out any foot trails or established paths in post production, making it look like Yore was the first to ever discover these magical places.
While regular travel blogging on Instagram also fetishizes the fantasy of the hidden gem, it often comes from a desire for exclusivity — as the Fyre Festival demonstrated with its emphasis on a remote private island. But the remote fantasy of fairytale travel on Instagram is about the beauty of a world that’s still mysterious and unconquered by humans. You know, like a “hidden gem” that isn’t posted on everyone’s IG story.
Like Enchanted Living, followmeaway also invites viewers to imagine themselves as part of the magic.
“One of the main responses we get is that our pictures seem to tell stories. Our whole philosophy is to leave enough mystery for viewers to project their own stories onto them,” he said.
That’s why he only ever captures Yore in profile, or looking away, or with a neutral facial expression. They want to leave enough mystique for viewers to wonder and try to answer questions for themselves like: Where is she going? What is she searching for? What is her journey?
Ultimately, the difference between regular travel blogging and fairytale travel blogging is the difference between aiming for aspirational relatability and otherworldly inspiration.
For example, compare followmeaway to the most famous travel-based Instagram couple of all, built exclusively around inspiring FOMO with an over-the-shoulder POV shot of a wife leading her husband into various exotic landscapes.
Regular travel Instagram is all about inspiring jealousy. But Drysdale and Yore go out of their way to include detailed explanations for where they shot the image, how they got there, and even how fans can make similar art with photoshop tutorials. Drysdale is adamant about using the platform to help inspire others to make their art work.
Really, that was a common thread for every Fairytale Instagram content creator: Not only a desire to inspire others to see a more magical world, but to make themselves part of that more beautiful reality.
“That’s at the heart of what we do in our magazine and on our Instagram is that belief that magic can be everywhere in the real world. In your world,” said Turgeon. “It’s just so easy in the modern world to forget that there are so many other possibilities for other ways of living, so many other places to be, so many other ways of seeing.”
Reimagining who gets to live the fairytale life
Because it’s 2019 and online, Fairytale Instagram also corrects one of the major issues that still plagues traditional fantasy tropes: the lack of diversity.
Enchanted Living, for example, specifically requests their photoshoots include people of color, a variety of different body types, and people with disabilities. For Turgeon, this emphasis on inclusivity harkens back to the long history of marginalized people identifying with fantastical creatures.
“For those who feel marginalized and rejected, fantasy is such a beautiful way to reimagine or identify with an experience of ostracization. All sorts of fantasy creatures invite that because there’s such beauty in them, but they’re also often treated as alien or like they don’t fit in,” she said.
Mermaid Raina herself got into mermaiding because she struggled with a chronic illness and wanted to learn to be as graceful as the online mermaids she discovered.
“Studies show that adults engaging in imaginative activities lead to long-term resilience and ability to overcome trauma and illness. Fantasy art can do that, and Instagram is a great vessel for it,” she said. “Fantasy transcends physical differences and barriers. It doesn’t matter your age, skin color ethnicity, location or abilities. Fantasy is part of the human condition and universal.”
Similarly Fraser, the OG online mermaid, agreed, saying that, “The mermaid can be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves … For wildlife that is in danger of extinction, she can be a showcase for what is valuable in this world and take away the focus on our material goods.” In essence, Fraser said, “The mermaid is out there advocating for saving the environment and connection to other sentient creatures with love and respect.”
London-based artist Bella Kotak shares powerful, naturalistic, and diverse visions of fantastical worlds with her 125,000 followers on Instagram.
The content creators of Fairytale Instagram are instead using the platform’s disconnect from reality for good.
“It’s incredibly important to see a representation of all cultures, skin colors, and body sizes in this genre. I’m Indian myself, and I didn’t have a protagonist that I could connect with on that level,” she said. “I believe the more we include and celebrate each other’s unique features and cultures, the more inclusive and connected the world will start to feel. It’s a movement in the fantasy art community that’s just beginning and I’m excited to watch it unfold and grow.”
So often Instagram is used as a way to divide us, whether through access, materialism, exclusivity, or simply not interacting with people outside our bubbles. But the content creators of Fairytale Instagram are instead using the platform’s disconnect from reality for good.
It doesn’t matter who you are or whether you can afford expensive professional mermaid fins, diving lessons, or magical tourism around the world. These folks are here to bring the magic to you and invite you to dream up your own fantasies.
That’s why Enchanted Living is all about providing DIY recipes and guides that make living an extraordinary lifestyle as accessible as possible.
“You don’t have to fly to Norway or Scotland. You can cobble together branches and twigs or Christmas lights you got at the thrift shop to create something magical in your backyard. There are so many ways you can incorporate that sort of beauty and enchantment in your life,” said Turgeon.
At the end of the day, Fairytale Instagram isn’t just about all the beautiful locales or costumes or artwork. It always comes back to finding the magic in you, and everything around you.