Momfluencing, with Sara Petersen

Just a breezy white-teeth laughing chat in trendy pants and good light with tousled hair and pretty hands wrapped around mugs you can buy

Earlier this summer I was assigned a piece about influencers who are honest about their cosmetic work. I agreed with the sentiment but there was just one hitch—I don’t really follow many influencers. I think it’s possibly because I have been online so long and spent so much time enjoying/aspiring to be/envying/following other people prior to the advent of the formal influencer I got my fill early.

So I set up a call with Sara Petersen, a writer whose book about momfluencer culture, Momfluencer, is due out in about a year in a half from Beacon Press. During our Botox-related interview I realized I wanted to ask her so many more questions about her book so I set up a follow up interview about her project and here it is:

How did you start paying close attention to momfluencers?

I had pitched a million pieces to various publications trying to tease out my sordid fascination with influencers, like Gwyneth Paltrow— and I’m still obsessed with her— how when she had Apple, the paparazzi photos of her showed her wearing a white frilly blouse. It made an impression. I can remember how the imagery of her motherhood really stuck with me. Harpers said yes and I interviewed influencers for that piece. The original draft was 20 pages long and I could have kept going. The more I wrote about it, the more complexities arose. I just knew I had so much more to learn about it and to figure out.

The purest form of the obsession was aspiration and desire coupled with shock and awe. My 2nd kid was a newborn when I read Love Taza. She was so joyful in her performance of motherhood on Instagram. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Is it possible to find that much joy in this role I chafe so much against? It was so tantalizing to think that, maybe, if do XYZ differently/better, I can really live my best life taking photos of little freckled noses. The joy aspect that is performed in so many of those photos was tantalizing. That was something I sort of found myself feeling ashamed about, not being able to tap into that joy these influencers seemed to be experiencing and who doesn’t want to have a better time as a mom? The ones I’m talking about are really hot, have cool style, have cool interior design. It became this whole package of this aspirational lifestyle coupled with motherhood.

I also wanted to cover how influencer culture affects our shopping habits, the various ways that we follow momfluencers, hate-following, nutrition influencers, and some darker, not very well understood psychological reasons for trying to find a mother that fits your conception of what you want to be. There’s a lot of identity-forming and I go into various subsets like the QAnon, the more social justice-oriented influencers. I want to look at the Instagram algorithm and how the male gaze is controlling it all. 

How do you define “momfluencer” and how is that different from a mommy blogger?

When I think of mommy bloggers, I think of the OGs like Dooce, Natalie Jean, Taza. A lot of those OG mommy bloggers started their blogs as raw ways to document the hardships of motherhood that weren’t being spoken about. People can now skip the blog route entirely and skip right to influencing. There’s a lot of crossovers. 

For me, I’m defining momfluencer as any mom on Instagram. We all think about what we’re posting and why. We all have the capacity to influence someone. A lot of the momfluencers that I follow, I’m not so much following to get their discount codes: they’re selling me a certain kind of motherhood I find attractive. The performance of motherhood we’re all selling is almost more interesting to me. 

Are there witchy momfluencers?

It’s totally a thing but it’s limited. There are tons of viral “real moms’’ on Instagram with 30,000 followers. I think there’s still value in being open about how motherhood can suck sometimes. If I’m one of those 30K followers, I feel validated for a hot second. If you knew nothing about postpartum depression there are a few accounts that dig into that.

Who do you define as the original influencer?

Jean Wade Rindlaub, one of the first female advertising powerhouses. It was fascinating to see how deliberately domesticity and motherhood was used in mid-century advertising and marketing. It’s almost identical to what we’re still doing today, really deliberately shaping motherhood as this moral imperative that connects to capitalism. I feel like there is a direct link from the second iteration from the cult of domesticity, which happened post-war when women were all told to get back in the home. We’re still glorifying that domestic goddess of motherhood. 

What have you learned about momfluencers for mothers who aren’t white, hetero, thin, non-disabled, etc? 

You can find a momfluencer of almost any demographic and identity. The money and the spotlight disproportionately favor the cis-hetero conventionally attractive thing, usually a blonde woman. It’s not that they’re not there: the algorithm and sponsorship deals are still favoring that prototype. 

Why are Mormon mothers so attracted to momfluencing?

Mormon culture really prioritizes record keeping. They’re huge into recording family histories and scrapbooking. It’s part of their culture. This is an internet iteration of that. They have a ton of kids, so the content just keeps coming. Momfluencer posts and traffic go up when the influencer is pregnant or about to have kids. There’s the basic fact that they have a ton of kids. It’s a culture that really prioritizes domesticity and prioritizes a mother maintaining her sex appeal, someone who likes going to church as walking down the runway. They’re really aesthetically minded and outward-facing and they always have been. 

Tell me about how QAnon and momfluencing cross over.

I’m in rabbit hole of freebirthing influencers: QAnon touches everything when it gets to scary stuff. Free birthing movement perverts good a feminist argument, that a woman should have bodily autonomy when she gives birth, but they pervert it into “Hospitals are harbingers of death and obstetricians are trying to enslave us.” They say really stupid things like “Your body was meant to do this if you believe in your body.” It’s similar to MLMs in that if you do it right you’ll have a good outcome. They’re also super anti-trans because they’re all like, “Only women have this divine right and power.” To admit any existence of trans people and gender fluidity, they equate that with robbing women of their divine rights and power. 

What momfluencers do you truly enjoy or find useful?

I’m obsessed with Rudy Jude. She lives on an island in Maine, her husband’s ridiculously hot, her kids are super cute, she seems so chill in the most covetable away. She grew a field of flax. Her house is not perfect at all. There’s clutter. She’s the perfect combination of aspirational and relatable to me. I’m constantly clicking through to shit she recommends. I love Erin Boyle from Read Tea Leaves. She’s always been social justice-oriented. She was really vocal about anti-racism and voting rights well before this. 

Who makes you mad? 

Bauhaus Wife. I researched her for an upcoming Harper’s thing about free birthing moms. Rose Uncharted: I really only look at them for research. Ballerina Farm—it’s not a hate follow, but it’s something that I’m not quite comfortable with. I’m still trying to figure it out. I wish her no ill will. The thing with her, she just makes it look so doable and joyful and there’s no acknowledgment of the fact that for most people, having 6 kids, you wouldn’t be giving thumbs up to the camera. 

Were you ever compelled to be an influencer?

I was going to say ’Oh my god, no,’ but that’s actually a lie. Way back, I was new to blogs and I was reading a quippy blog post by Emily Henderson and thought, I can write quippy blog posts. I remember talking to friends, who said, “You can whip yourself and look pretty cute and you have a cute house and you can write funny sarcastic things and you can do a blog.” I think I’ve deleted a bunch of it, but if you scroll to the beginning of my Instagram there are a few posts I totally hashtagged influencer hashtags. I was totally trying to do a funny yet pretty blog-type whatever. My sister was taking a picture of me placing a vase of flowers nicely on a table: it was maybe a month of trying.

There was a while when I tried to make money from sponsored content where I could. It’s much harder than it looks, especially how to make it feel natural.

I am continuously fascinated by people who love to hate momfluencers because they’re selling stuff. Even when I first started researching this, I didn’t get that. We don’t hate advertising companies for putting moms on TV, we don’t hate ad companies for putting ads in magazines. If anything, I’d rather click a link from an independent business owner on Instagram than give some huge multi-million corporation money. It has to do with the fact that they’re mothers and they’re performing motherhood in public and there’s something is inherently upsetting to people about that. I think also there’s this idea that if they’re good mothers, they should just be happy that we’re following along and they shouldn’t want anything from us. I don’t get the “We hate them because they’re trying to sell us something.” 

Make sure you follow Sara on Twitter for updates on her book and her research!

End credits

I hope you enjoyed this issue of Evil Witches, a newsletter for people who happen to be mothers who crave expert advice, nonexpert advice, laughs, salty takes, the occasional deep thoughts, and interviews for and about witchy moms. Feel free to talk about your complicated feelings about momfluencers in the comments but please keep it civil enough that if one of these influencers came over here and yells at me it won’t be that bad. If you like this newsletter and haven’t yet, please consider supporting this independent, nonsponsored work and joining the subscription level, which gives you extra context and access to fun honest witchy discussion threads.

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