Pretty White Moms in Their Pretty White Houses
Let's talk about Momfluencers
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Momfluencers are one of those modern phenomena that are either 1) everywhere on your internet, like truly inescapable or 2) absolutely nowhere to be found, to the point that you don’t have any idea what one even is. They’re a rich text, but like so many rich texts, you have to simultaneously make the case to group 2 that yes, this is a real and important thing, as evidenced by the fact that they are ALL OVER the media diet of group 1….but you also have to convince group 1 that you have something interesting and worthwhile to say about this phenomenon that they either loathe OR have come to accept as totally normal and unworthy of further interrogation.
It’s really fucking hard. But Sara Petersen nails it (no relation, save the fact that our last names are misspelled at the same frequency). You’ll see how and why in the comments below — and if you like that, I encourage you to check out the book itself, which has one of the best cover designs I’ve seen in years. And it should go without saying here at Culture Study, but: if you’re not a mom, if mom Instagram is not your space on the internet, if you’re ambivalent about all the discourses of contemporary motherhood…..all of this will still rattle around in your head for days. Give it a try.
As a very basic starting point: can you give readers who might be unfamiliar a sense of who momfluencers are, what they post about, and just how big and influential this world actually is? (If, for example, someone forced you to describe the Top Five Characteristics of a Momfluencer for a #spon blogpost post, what would they be?)
The simplest definition of a momfluencer is someone who has utilized her maternal identity to monetize a social media platform. Her performance of motherhood online informs how she gets paid, which can be through sponsored content (#sponcon), affiliate links, or other types of brand partnerships.
A momfluencer with 20,000 followers festooned in organic linen, surrounded by wooden Waldorf bunnies, and sharing photos of her kids’ bee pollen-dusted acai bowls, for example, is performing a very specific type of motherhood, and her sponsored posts will reflect that. Maybe she’s paid $2,500.00 by Oak Essentials to share a post about how much she loves their Moisture Rich Balm (I am obsessed with this balm). Whereas a momfluencer with a million followers, wearing neon athleisure-wear, posting about quick and easy kid lunches, and sharing her favorite back-to-school purchases might be paid $10,000.00 by Target to share one story, one post, and one reel. Maybe she’s also paid a small percentage every time a follower clicks on her long-line sports bra from Target or her kid’s pencil case from Target. In both cases, a social media director or marketing exec at a company assesses the values and desires of a momfluencer’s audience and partners with a momfluencer to try and sell her audience stuff.
If I were to describe the type of momfluencer that still dominates the multibillion dollar industry (and who still makes the most money), she would be white, thin, marketably attractive (a phrase I’m borrowing from Sarah Marshall, who has utilized it a few times on her podcast You’re Wrong About) according to western beauty standards, cis-het, married, non-disabled, have at least three children under the age of 10, live in a large, mostly white (or beige) house, and have access to generational wealth. And blonde beachy waves! She would 100% have blonde beachy waves.
If you are on social media AT ALL, and find yourself searching whatever platform for any sort of information AT ALL about, say, anti-nausea pregnancy teas or sleep training strategies or stretch mark cream or diaper bags that don’t scream “diaper bag,” you will find momfluencer culture impossible to avoid, and in most cases, you’ll also find it impossible to construct your own maternal identity without reckoning with the noise of that culture.
2) You do such a beautiful job in the book of connecting the cult of domesticity with the overwhelming whiteness of #Momfluencer culture — can you connect some of those dots here? How do Michelle Obama, The Help, Ballerina Farm, and The Nap Dress, and Betty Crocker all come together?
Oh my gosh this book really could’ve been called Pretty White Moms in Their Pretty White Houses. In the US, motherhood is inextricably linked to whiteness in almost every way. I mentioned that white momfluencers still make the most money, and I think this is mostly because when brands think “mom” they think “white mom.” When they think “mom consumer,” they think “white mom consumer.” And it’s been this way since Jean Wade Rindlaub (an advertising executive in mid-century America) was trying to sell mothers on Betty Crocker (and all that Betty Crocker represented).
The ideal American mother is tacitly, in the eyes of capitalism and mainstream media, the ideal white American mother. She is the default, and this means that mothers of color are almost always portrayed as the exception, the other.
In Momfluenced, I focus quite a bit on how the cult of domesticity, a 19th century ideology influential in dictating how we thought about (and continue to think about!) about family, gender, and motherhood, because it was largely responsible for codifying tenets of institutional American motherhood.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, both men and women worked outside and inside the home, but once there was an influx of people moving to cities, there was also a sort of moral panic about the corrupting influences of both urban spaces and the changing nature of work. To combat this panic, white, upper-class women were tasked with acting as the moral centers of the home, paragons of virtue who nurtured and upheld the nuclear family.
“True women” in this context should be selfless, chaste, pious, and wholly invested in domesticity. Not only did this ideology subjugate white, wealthy women by confining them to the home (contemporary “science” also helped by arguing that women’s brains were only suited to domestic work), but it also clearly defined which types of mothers were worthy of protection and which weren’t. Working-class women were not seen as “true” women because they existed outside of domestic confines. Black enslaved women subject to rape and sexual assault were not seen as “true” women because they were not sexually “pure.”
From the cult of domesticity on, the idea of the perfect mother or perfect woman has functioned to exclude and marginalize most mothers, while encouraging the most privileged mothers to yoke themselves to their access to white supremacy and patriarchy. The starkest example of this is, of course, the ways in which Black, enslaved mothers were not viewed as mothers at all. By defining “good motherhood” as “good white motherhood,” slave owners were able to systematically and violently tear families apart and still be viewed as moral citizens. The construction and upholding of maternal ideals has always been in service of white men in power. It’s never had much to do with mothers.
Koritha Mitchell wrote the indispensable book, From Slave Cabins to the White House, in which she beautifully elucidates how Michelle Obama adhered to nearly every tenet of “good womanhood” or “good motherhood” as First Lady. She is thin, she is conventionally attractive, she is married to a man, she has two children, she is the mistress of the most famous house in the country, and she invested her work as First Lady in something having to do with children. She even self-described as Mom-in-Chief. But, as Mitchell highlights again and again in her book, Obama was never viewed as a “good mother” or “good woman” — because she was Black. Mitchell also argues that the immense popularity of The Help, a movie which features Black women propping up white women in white women’s domestic spaces (rather than reigning in their own domestic spaces), was a response to white Americans’ racist discomfort with the idea of a Black woman at home in a domestic place of power.
As for nap dresses — first of all, I obviously love love loved your piece on Nap Dresses, and think the power of the Nap Dress is very aligned with the power of Ballerina Farm. The Nap Dress is assertively feminine in that it looks more akin to something a character from Pride and Prejudice would wear than something one sees on their subway commute. It harkens back to a hazy “back in the good old days” when women’s roles were strictly defined and rooted in domesticity and childrearing, when things were “simpler” if also brutally difficult!
Ballerina Farm is similarly rooted in an uncritical type of nostalgia. In most cases, Hannah is featured in a domestic space. She is white, thin, straight, married, pretty, and importantly, seemingly unplagued by doubt. You get the sense that she’s doing exactly what she’s meant to do, which opens up the argument that maybe all women are really better off making countless loaves of sourdough, having baby after baby, and pirouetting their way through joyously messy kitchens.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about Ballerina Farm (and her immense popularity) to me is the unquestioned assumption that she’s a “good mom.” In almost every single one of her posts, you’ll see comment after comment commending her for being “such a good mom.” But why is she a good mom? Because she lives in the country? Because she has lots of kids and is pictured smiling? Because she can afford a $30,000 stove? Because she’s pretty? Because she adheres to ideals of femininity? Because she is a ballerina and not a hip-hop dancer? Because she doesn’t feed her kids boxed mac ‘n cheese? I dare you to interrogate any one of those rationales and not end up drowning in a stew of gender essentialism and racist ideology. She might very well be a great mom! But none of us can know that by watching a reel of her making flatbreads.
I will offer the extremely hot take that motherhood in 2023 is fucking hard! We’re bombarded on all sides by the “best” way to be and do and buy and parent, we’re raising kids on a burning planet, and we’re given no material systemic support for doing the “hardest job in the world.” Most of our lives are made up of sometimes infuriating shades of gray, and the simplicity and certainty that Betty Crocker, Nap Dresses, and Ballerina Farm offer are tantalizing because certainty is so impossible to come by in motherhood. We (as individuals) can control so little about both our own lives as mothers and also the structural wellbeing of all American mothers. But we can buy a Nap Dress. We can buy Willa the sourdough starter from Ballerina Farm’s website. We can hope with our dollars.
3) You mention in the intro that in hindsight, you think your decision to have a third kid was heavily influenced by momfluencer content. Alexandra Tanner also talks about how interwoven her consumption of momfluencer content was with her own decision whether or not to have kids. It makes me think of the fact that having kids (at least in this moment) is one of those things that we (finally) have some control over — but there’s also a huge “authority” gap on whose advice you should trust, because even your own parents don’t actually understand what it’s like to try and have kids today.
Can you unpack how you think momfluencers are filling this authority/advice vacuum, not just for having kids (or how many) but also how to parent? [I’m thinking a lot here about shopability, too, and how this ability to influence decision is also an ability to influence spending decisions]
When I ask my mom if my siblings and I made bedtime a four-hour ordeal, or whether or not we were invariably whiny when asked to hang up wet towels, or how much we slept as newborns, she invariably tells me we were easier and more compliant than I believe to be possible. In short, I think parents forget stuff! And honestly, I love that for them and hope I too am eventually blessed with a similar lack of memory for how much time I devoted to thinking about the minutiae of toddler nap transitions or whatever.
As soon as I became a mother, I felt an intense need to experience motherhood alongside someone who was similarly plagued by whether or not to use cloth diapers. I longed for community with people going through whatever it was I was going through at the exact same time as me. It’s hard to overstate how important this was to me feeling supported and validated.
And I do think momfluencer culture can be really wonderful for folks searching for community, particularly when they’re experiencing something more niche or something their IRL friends and family are unfamiliar with. If you’re the first of your peer group to have a kid, momfluencers can serve as really useful resources.
I had my first baby in 2012, well before momfluencer culture was the behemoth it is now. But so many of my purchases in that first year were directly related to either a friend’s recommendation or a blurb online under a photo of a happy-looking mom. (Magic Merlin Sleepsuit I’m looking at you) Especially as new moms, we’re all clueless and desperate for someone to tell us not only what the right thing to do or buy is but that there is any such thing as a right way!
I’m convinced that no one needs mothering more than new moms. But unfortunately (in the US anyway), after a paltry six-week postpartum check-up, new moms are sent off on their merry way and told to sleep when the baby sleeps. So yeah, of course we’re gonna seek information and comfort from our phones. What most of us need are postpartum doulas, emotional and physical support, someone to cook and clean for us, and validation, but what most of us get is a momfluencer in our back pocket instead.
Brand consistency is the key to most momfluencers’ success, but brand consistency does not translate very well to a momfluencer consumer’s smooth experience of motherhood. I could make my life brand consistent by purchasing every single one of my favorite momfluencer’s product recs but no amount of consumption can override my life experiences with her life experiences. None of us begin our lives as mothers from identical starting points, but momfluencers’ “shoppable” (shout-out to Emily Hund’s indispensable book, The Influencer Industry) lives distract us from that reality. If a multivitamin changed her life, maybe it’ll change mine.
I recently interviewed Ruby Warrington about her book, Women Without Children, and it’s something I really wish I had read prior to unthinkingly pursuing motherhood as a shortcut to self-actualization. The “choice” to have children (or not) is not equitably offered to all people, and I think it’s still a choice wrapped up in the way we value (or don’t value) people with uteruses.
A lot of this has to do with the way kids are culturally conditioned to equate their self-worth with how well they perform gender, but I think momfluencer culture — with its emphasis on how things look rather than how things feel — can make motherhood seem like an avenue towards becoming. But becoming what? And for whom?
In thinking about the reasons undergirding my decision to have a third child, I think I was scared to define myself outside of motherhood, and also scared about being excluded from a club neatly defined by adherence to very specific gender norms. Women’s lives are often viewed as an assemblance of milestones, and we’re taught to view these milestones as potential for transformation. And we’re taught that there’s nothing important to become or be after motherhood, which is, of course, bullshit, but I admit that I was scared to be at the end of my potential for becoming by being done with babies. I think there’s probably something very wrong with my obsession with milestones and life stages too; it certainly says something about the way productivity culture has informed my sense of self as a woman.
I find myself spending a lot of time grappling with the tension between “it’s misogynistic to shit on an industry dominated by women, just because they’re making money through the commodification of labor that’s unusually unpaid” and “the ideologies most of these influencers reproduce are regressive at worst and GirlBoss feminism at best.” It’s hard! Where did you land on this spectrum before you reported out the book, and where did you end? Where are you now?
I think your inclusion of the word “commodification” is huge here. Because momfluencers aren’t making money from the labor of motherhood, they’re making money from the performance of a certain type of maternal identity. And that identity (usually) is rooted in (usually harmful) constructions of gender, race, and class. A white momfluencer sharing a photo of herself as she beatifically stirs a pot of oatmeal on the stovetop is not being paid by Quaker for stain-treating her kid’s popsicle stains or kissing her kid’s scraped knee or modeling healthy conflict resolution or knowing what kind of food her kid will eat when she’s sick. Quaker is (usually) paying that momfluencer for looking beautiful in her beautiful home and also looking like stirring oatmeal while her three kids play peacefully at her feet is the epitome of all her wildest hopes and dreams.
So yes I love to see a mother being paid for really anything that she does well, but the fact that this industry runs on reductive, exclusionary ideals of motherhood sort of sours the equation for me. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of momfluencers rejecting these ideals, but they’re not in the majority.
I remember talking to someone at a book event about how she really loves taking the time to stage a beautiful photo of her baby and share that photo with her Instagram followers because it comes from a genuine place of pride and awe. It’s totally natural that mothers want to share fleeting moments of maternal joy and beauty! But (of course I find myself coming up with another but) I think the commodification of motherhood online has (consciously or not) trained so many of us to view ourselves and our children as aesthetic building blocks through which we can communicate something essential about our mothering. And it’s just fundamentally weird that folks with private accounts, for example, are influenced to share their mothering stories in ways that have proven to be effective in the marketplace first. The relationship between capitalism and individual self-expression is fraught for pretty much everyone, but especially for mothers, whose caregiving labor is so individual, so private, and so vulnerable.
Nothing would make me feel freer or happier than to delete Instagram from my life forever. I’ve always taken social media breaks (both before and after writing the book), but I find myself feeling sadder and more defeated each time I return after time off.
And while I’m sure some of this can be attributed to the fact that I’m in a relatively “solid” season of my own mothering experience right now, I don’t find myself hungry for others’ examples through which to better understand my own maternal identity. Prettiness as it pertains to motherhood just doesn’t compel me much anymore, and I’m so much more likely to text a friend than to search social media for whatever’s ailing me in my maternal life.
You have a fantastic chapter on Trad Moms and an equally fantastic chapter on “Cool” Instagram Moms. Both of these chapters are hilarious, in their way, but also vaguely (or explicitly) terrifying in others. To me, the common point seems to be an emptying of the self, of the experienced life, in all its messy contradiction, in favor of an aesthetic. Can you give a brief description of both and talk about how you think about them in concert?
YES! That’s so well-put. As an elder millennial, I often think about how effectively aesthetics have been sold to me as a placeholder for personhood. I know I mentioned certainty earlier, and maybe this reveals more about my own desires than anything else, but I think aesthetics do offer the illusion of certainty. They offer people a blueprint for being in a culture which prioritizes rugged individualism and aggressively upward momentum above pretty much all else. Adopting a certain aesthetic (whether it be “cool mom” or “trad mom”) not only takes the guesswork of how to look in the world, it also does the work of communicating how you are in the world.
If you rid your home of plastic, wear only homespun calico dresses, and smear your entire existence in organic everything, maybe you can sleep better at night by thinking that your aesthetic presentation is equivalent to good motherhood, good earth stewardship, good taste, and good consumption.
If you dress yourself in a combo of indie brand names and vintage finds and decorate your home and kids similarly, maybe you can sleep at night believing that motherhood hasn’t erased your personhood, that motherhood hasn’t rendered you uninteresting, that motherhood has actually revealed the essential and unique you-ness of yourself. In both cases, I think the objective is to feel certain of oneself and one’s place in the world. And given mothers’ tenuous position in the US specifically, I very much get it! Our lives and identities are either aggressively attacked or swept under the rug in service of upholding capitalism through our unpaid labor of love.
Aestheticized motherhood is also interesting because it prioritizes static imagery over people’s lived experiences. Mothering is ongoing and ever changing; it resists neat categorization, and no single photograph could really communicate everything it entails. It’s also wildly variable! Motherhood is so beholden to imagery though, and imagery can often conjure up powerful feelings, which can energize all sorts of agendas. What’s more powerful? A list of a mother’s daily activities or a photo of a mother snuggling a newborn captioned by a passionate plea to criminalize abortion? I guess it depends on the viewer or reader, but I think it’s important to understand how imagery operates as an emotional shortcut in many ways.
You wrote one of the best things I’ve ever read about the labor (emotional and otherwise) of publishing a book — how do you think the work of “book influencing” (which is what promoting a book today is!) overlaps with momfluencing?
Oh wow YES this is a whole thing, isn’t it? Selling myself alongside the book mostly sucked for me, and I know that plenty of people will argue that maybe I just didn’t find the most authentic way of sharing myself online or whatever, but also, maybe some people just don’t like sharing themselves online? I think that’s ok?
Every single momfluencer I interviewed for Momfluenced expressed some level of ambivalence (or downright dismay) with having to blur the lines between their private and public lives, and I do think sharing one’s motherhood is more psychologically risky than sharing (for example) one’s feelings about publishing a book. A book is very straightforwardly a product, even if it’s a product comprised of one’s intellectual and/or emotional truth. It’s meant to be sold and marketed. But one’s maternal identity? I’ve certainly put (emotional and otherwise) effort into my authorial persona online, but the boundaries between me and that persona feel very clear to me. Many momfluencers don’t have the luxury of such clear boundaries. ●
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