Idealized “van life” obscures real poverty

Recently, various list-article websites such as Buzzfeed have begun a trend centered around Instagram photos of people living in vans and traveling around the world for fun. These articles portray life in a van as an escape from modern pressures and expensive city life. The pictures portray this lifestyle as an exciting adventure showcased by young, attractive couples, taking this endeavor on together.

Because articles on van life are often accompanied by Instagram pictures from the road, I would think it is a safe assumption that the majority of the people taking part in such ventures are those that can, at least, afford a smartphone or a laptop to post their pictures.

While this kind of alternative lifestyle appears exciting and cool, romanticizing life in a van is rooted in classism. The people going on these trips are not doing it out of necessity; rather, they come from a place of financial privilege and are rejecting traditional social protocol out of choice.

In many ways, this practice invalidates the experiences of real people who are homeless or living out of vans who do not have a say in their situation. These articles idealize a living situation that, in reality, is heavily stigmatized and quite difficult for those who, because of need, are forced to live in their cars. They do this out of neccesity rather than a desire for an adventurous road life.

Furthermore, glamorizing van life reveals the hypocrisy of the ways in which we view homelessness in the United States. There is a significant difference between a list-article praising people living sexy, free lives in vans and the reality of homelessness, perpetuated by the ever-rising prices of urban living. Glamorizing road life through Instagram posts and Buzzfeed articles masks the real and present problem of homelessness and allows readers to ignore the difficulties of the homeless or, even worse, to glorify and envy them from a place of clear financial privilege.

Moreover, glorifying van life allows us to ignore the gentrification of the housing market and the failures of our capitalist system to provide reasonably priced living situations for all. These type of articles indicate that our society has a skewwed view of housing and shelter. We are now complacent enough to celebrate people who choose not to live in houses or apartments.

For many, having a permanent home is a pipe dream and the online image of van life – a sort of consciously chosen homelessness – invalidates the struggles they experience in trying to make a life for themselves. We cannot properly acknowledge and address the homelessness problem when we only see the fun, exciting side of living in a van.

While I respect the intrigue of road life and understand its appeal, we should also be critical of the ways in which we discuss this lifestyle. We can celebrate the adventure and excitement involved with alternative living, but we should also be aware of the classist structures at play in the ways we glamorize what is for many a real and difficult struggle.

Katie Jeddeloh ’18 (jeddel1@stolaf.edu) is from Centennial, Colo. She majors in English and women’s and gender studies.

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