On Facebook, Nebraska women stand in cornfields wearing sundresses, cowboy boots and great big smiles.
They hunt and fish, sporting both camo and makeup. They sunbathe on top of livestock trailers.
A bubbly, ambitious 20-year-old named Andrea Norris is the face, founder and curator of Real Nebraska Girls, a page on the social media site that is half hot-girl photo feed, half online community for young Nebraska women.
Many of the site's users — mostly country girls — enjoy conventional girly-girl activities like getting dressed up for a night out with friends, as well as less-conventional ones — say, four-wheeling.
Like many young women her age, Norris has grown up on the Internet and is drawn to online communities. She likes taking photographs of herself and feels almost compelled to share them online. It's a way of defining who she is, where she fits in.
But until Real Nebraska Girls, Norris — who spends her free time riding horses, hunting and hanging out with friends — couldn't find anyplace online for women like her.
Apparently, others felt the same way.
In just a few months, the page has attracted thousands of fans. It's become an online catalog of pretty women (and has been criticized for that) as well as a community, both on and offline. Men and women visit the page to look for people they know and pay compliments (mostly) to friends and strangers. Some women featured on the site have become real-world friends, and Norris frequently chats online with heavy users of the site, even those she hasn't met. This summer, the group plans a meetup at Country Stampede, an outdoor music festival in Kansas.
Norris, of Lincoln, said she hopes the site shows that women in Nebraska have many facets. One user, for example, recently submitted two photos — one in a dress she modeled during Los Angeles Fashion Week and another of herself bowhunting. The user wrote that she was equally as comfortable posing in an off-the-shoulder dress as she was stalking game. Real Nebraska Girls, these photos imply, are beautiful and laid-back, refined and down-home, successfully navigating various worlds and ways of life.
Others argue that a photo of a girl in a bikini or short shorts or even a pretty dress doesn't say any of these things.
“That site's not about female empowerment,” said Megan Hunt, an Omaha blogger and the owner of several online ventures.
Norris says she started the site as an alternative to similar but more provocative sites — the Sexy Farmgirls Facebook page, for example. Norris launched on Dec. 4, promoting her site as a classier alternative. She first asked her Facebook friends to join, but soon the site had drawn fans from throughout Nebraska and across the United States. Photos and comments poured in.
From the beginning, Norris policed the comments, deleting inappropriate remarks and banning the occasional troll. But she said the comments on the site have been largely positive from the first. That's likely due in part to her diligence, but also to the fact that she had a connection to so many of the page's followers.
In addition, Nebraska's like a big small town. Everyone seems to be separated by just a few degrees, said Katie Jo Bosak, whose photographs frequently appear on the site.
Users think twice about posting anything mean, she said, because their target might be a friend of a friend. That's part of why Bosak feels OK about submitting her own photographs.
“It's a lot more personal than I think people realize,” Norris said.
Personal doesn't mean small. In the four months since Norris started the page, Real Nebraska Girls has grown to have more than 21,000 fans.
Norris receives photos from friends and strangers — pageant queens and roller derby girls and lots and lots of country girls, most of whom initially stumbled across the site. She posts several each day, often adding her own captions: A recent example: I know i have posted a lot of bikini photos this week, but hey its Spring break! Hope y'all don't mind!
(Judging from comments, no one seemed to mind).
Most of the photos receive at least a hundred Facebook likes. Some get more than a thousand, plus dozens of comments and shares.
This came as something of a surprise to Norris, a pastor's daughter and customer relations manager at a car dealership who shares a love of God, guns and good times with many of the women who submit photographs.
“The fact that girls want to be on the page is crazy to me,” she said. “It's awesome.”
Kelsie Bard was among the first members of the Real Nebraska Girl community. Bard was Facebook friends with Norris when she started the page, though the two had never met. Bard first submitted one of her senior photos, in which she's wearing a sparkly pink strapless prom dress covered in mud. Her smile is enormous.
Bard selected that photograph because she felt it captured her personality, as much as a single photo could. Bard, like Norris, is a 20-year-old Lincoln woman. But she's also spent a lot of time on her grandmother's farm near Hastings, helping out with the chickens and the cows.
“I am half-city, half-country, but I love to be myself,” she said, “and this is one of the ways to express it.”
Many of the photographs Norris posts are in the same city-meets-country vein. Women in trendy outfits lean against fences or tractors or pose dramatically in the center of a desolate gravel road.
Bosak, 25, said these kinds of photos show that there is more than one way to be a woman.
“I think girls are stereotyped so much,” the Genoa, Neb., woman said. “There's so much more to me and my friends. I can hunt and fish and change my own oil, and I'm an X-ray tech during the day.”
Bosak said it was gratifying to realize that so many young women in Nebraska also loved to hunt. And she said it was fun to look through the photographs and see other interests reflected — women submit photos with pets, musical instruments and farm implements. They submit photographs taken in Omaha and Scottsbluff.
Bosak believes this diversity challenges the stereotype that Nebraska is just hicks and cornfields.
Why, then, are so many of the women photographed in cornfields?
“Well, it's kind of hard to take them without the cornfields,” Bosak said. “They're everywhere.”
Bosak, Bard and Norris are of the generation who live their lives online. Norris has had a Facebook account since high school. Sharing photos and participating in discussions online is part of the social fabric of their lives, she said.
“People just want to be a part of something like a group,” Norris said.
Hunt, the Omaha blogger, said people experience a rush when they post something online and receive positive feedback.
“I think it's very, very validating to have strangers on the Internet approve of you,” she said. “That's something I do as a blogger.”
But Hunt doesn't agree that Real Nebraska Girls is challenging stereotypes. In fact, she said, it's the opposite.
“I think that they're definitely curating a stereotype, and that's too bad,” she said.
Hunt said she was glad that women who hunt or ride four-wheelers felt like they could be themselves and meet like-minded Nebraskans on the site.
But she said plenty of other women felt excluded. Hunt — a mom, business owner and activist — has submitted photographs to the site, but none have been posted. In one, she said, she was with her daughter. In another, she was giving a speech.
She has a theory about that.
“It's not for women,” she said. “It's for men.”
Norris doesn't entirely disagree. Men do like the site, she said. At the urging of some male fans, she created another page — Real Nebraska Guys.
With 5,000 members, it does OK. But it doesn't get the traffic of its sister site.
“Girls are funner to look at, I guess,” Norris said.
She says she doesn't mean to exclude anyone. She scans through the 50-plus submissions she receives each day and thinks about which would appeal most to her target demographic — men and women between the ages of 18 and 28. She doesn't accept photos of women submitted by men. She doesn't accept lingerie shots or photos in which women don unbuttoned or unzipped shorts. Anyone who submits a photograph must sign a waiver indicating that they are 18 and older or, if alcohol is present in the photo, 21 and over.
To an extent, those who submit determine the site's content, she said. If she receives a lot of country road shots, then she'll post a lot of country road shots.
“It's not just me,” she said. “It's kind of like Nebraska supports it.”
“One of the things that makes me most proud about being from Nebraska is that not only can I hunt with the best of them, but living here has prepared me for things like walking the runway at L.A. Fashion Week. Being a Nebraska girl isn't just about being country.” – Claire Eckstrom
Norris takes the Nebraska part of this seriously. Early on, Norris noticed that many followers were Nebraska expatriates. She started posting photos sans women specifically for them — value meals from Runza and Amigo's, the green signs proclaiming Nebraska “the good life,” and the glass-enclosed Holy Family Shrine on Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Omaha.
She began to think of ways to grow the site and its reach. She contacted Country Stampede, an outdoor music festival in Kansas, and asked if she could be a partner this year. Wayne Rouse, the festival's founder, took a look at the page and agreed.
He thought it was fun and not too provocative.
“It just looked like a really wholesome website that depicted Nebraska girls (doing) everything from hunting, driving a tractor, fishing,” said Rouse, who grew up in Neligh and McCook.
The partnership resulted in the Real Nebraska Girls campground and a bikini foam party at the festival, and Rouse will offer stage-area tours to anyone who shows up wearing a Real Nebraska Girls tank top. He also gave Norris tickets to give away in a photo contest. She's expecting several hundred women (and their male admirers) to attend.
Norris isn't making money on Real Nebraska Girls or Real Nebraska Guys. She spends time each evening planning the next day's content (a friend takes care of the Real Nebraska Guys page). She uses a timer to post photographs and statuses throughout the day, and she still frequently posts photos of herself, too. Some are silly — like one of her bundled up for work in her warmest camo on a cold spring day. Some are sexy — in one, she wears a tight-short skirt and midriff-baring top and gazes coyly into the camera. She's planning some kind of breast cancer research fundraiser for the fall, though she's still figuring out the details.
She's learning as she goes.
“I think the first year, it's more or less an experiment,” she said.
Norris didn't expect to be doing this at 20. She had planned to study fashion design at a college in California. She was accepted, she said, but when she went to visit, she changed her mind.
“It didn't feel like home.”
She decided to stay in Lincoln, work, and decide what she wanted to do.
As the site has grown, she's more certain that she was right to stay put.
“Sometimes I feel like I have to prove something because I didn't go (to college),” she said.
She's not sure where the site will go or whether she'll attend college. But she's enjoying the community she's built, she marvels that it's attracted visitors and fans from across the country and a handful of other continents, and she's looking forward to Country Stampede (though she said she's disappointed she won't be old enough to legally drink).
She suspects this isn't her last online venture.
“I think eventually I want to do something in social media,” she said, “because I guess I'm good at it.”
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