How Influencers Change the Way We See Ourselves
I became a mom about 14 and a half years ago. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about growing up. I didn’t fantasize about raising kids. I was never a babysitter. Heck, I didn’t really like other kids when I was a kid—let alone as an adult.
So I knew nothing when it came to how to take care of a baby. That’s not an exaggeration.
But I did know how to do research! So I did what a lot of new moms were doing at the time, waded neck-deep into the turbulent waters of mom message boards. My boards of choice were at The Bump, a sister site to the wedding-oriented site, The Knot. It was here that I learned about things like attachment parenting, vaccine hesitancy, and cloth diapering. Only one of those was useful to me—but all of them instilled significant anxiety.
These message boards not only told me what I needed to know about throwing poopy cloth diapers in the washing machine but the boards also acted as my lifeline to other mothers who were as anxious and overwhelmed as I was.
My relationship with the internet—and with motherhood—has evolved quite a bit in the last fourteen years. My kid has evolved quite a bit, too. She’s playing varsity field hockey this year! There’s a savvier part of me that now understands some of the power dynamics and psychological maneuvering that took place on those boards back then. And a part that understands how things that seemed innocent enough at the time have actually blossomed into some of the most troubling corners of the web.
Even still, damn. I am so grateful for the support I found as I was learning about myself as a mother.
The experience of “being a mom on the internet” has also evolved. Today, there are far fewer message boards where moms offer peer-to-peer support. And there are far more “momfluencers” who have built brands around presenting Motherhood with a capital M. There are sassy Southern moms, crunchy hippie moms, cool Brooklyn moms, and living-off-the-land rural moms. If you can dream it, a momfluencer has built a following around it.
Now, this installment of Self-Help, LLC—the fifth—isn’t really about being a mom. It’s not even really about momfluencing. Instead, I’m using the momfluencer phenomenon to explore a wider question of how influencers shape who we think we should be, what we think we’re supposed to do, and what we really should be buying to make it real. We’ll dig into the spectacle of momfluencing to explore the wider impact that a whole new panoply of social media role models is having on our identities, goals, and personal growth.
In this article:
Sara Petersen is a writer (and a mom) who studies momfluencers. In fact, she’s written a book on the topic, Momfluenced, which will be out in early 2023. When Sara became a mom in 2012, no one else in her peer group had become a parent yet. “My cousin's wife was the only one around my age that I knew. And I remember texting her, just being like, ‘what do I need to buy? Like, what do I need to do?’” she told me.
For many people like Sara and me, becoming a mom felt like “uncharted territory.” Like bumping around in the dark. Being able to connect to another mother, someone who has gone through the experience recently, is like having a map and a lamp to light your way. “I think all of us enter into motherhood sort of bewildered, confounded, and clueless,” Sara reflected.
When Sara and I first encountered the internet of moms, “influencers” didn’t yet exist, at least not in the sense that we used the word today. Twitter and Facebook were gaining mainstream appeal, but they hadn’t taken over public discourse yet. When I became a mom, Instagram didn’t exist. And when Sara became a mom, it was still in its infancy. Moms were still often connecting in Web 1.0 ways.
But the 2010s were giving way to an image-oriented, lifestyle economy. This is the time when brands became communities that became culture. Brands learned to align themselves with types of people. Whole Foods had the health-conscious bohemian bourgeois; Apple had entrenched itself with anyone who didn’t want to be a PC; Warby Parker courted the cool intellectual types.
It’s tempting to see the lifestyle brands we gravitate to as a reflection of our essential selves. But it’s clear that brands have learned to leverage aspiration even more than present identity. Brands don’t help us discover ourselves. Brands help us make ourselves. Whether or not that’s in our best interest or not. Whether or not we’re making ourselves how we want to be.
Today, lifestyle brands use the same communication tools to connect with consumers that consumers use to connect with their friends and family: Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and text messages. And they do so, predominantly, in images.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role images play in our relationship to self-help. Many of the textual messages of self-help are tired and forgettable now. I will give you my biggest Liz Lemon eye roll if you tell me you can help me “live my best life.” But images exist on another plane of consciousness. We process them differently. In his essay, Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes argues that when we see an image, our minds treat it as objective reality. Even a highly stylized image has the power to appear real and natural in our minds.
Brands leverage the rhetoric of the image to transmit messages about who we can be, what we will want, and how we will look once we’ve collected the necessary products. Brands help us construct a spectacle of improvement and teach us how to share what we’ve achieved with others.
Theorist Guy Debord predicted this phenomenon back in the 1960s:
“As reality is increasingly represented as images to be experienced by sight alone, eventually a completely separate pseudo-world of images emerges—where the “actual” reality is only represented, but never actually experienced; merely performed and eventually simulated.”
If we think back to my conversation with Kelly Diels about the female lifestyle empowerment brand, we can see this on full display. Sure, some people who post wildly aspirational photos of themselves in Instagram-worthy Airbnb rentals are actually experiencing that life. Although, it’s worth questioning whether one is really experiencing that life if constantly under pressure to document and share it.
But I’d venture to say that most people who share those dreamy pics are more likely performing, even simulating, the aesthetic trappings of that lifestyle rather than actually experiencing it as reality.
My conversation with Steph Barron Hall about posting educational Enneagram graphics to Instagram is another example. One of the reasons that self-knowledge content does so well on that platform is that people want to share things about themselves–myself included–without actually experiencing the vulnerability of a human relationship with hundreds or thousands of followers.
While our consumer culture has been tracking in this direction for a long time–much longer than a single decade, we’ve seen a confluence of media creation, technology, and economic precarity which has led to the widespread adoption of what Debord called “the society of the spectacle.”
Digging the vibe
The tidal wave hit sometime between when Sara Petersen had her first child and her second.
“When I had my second kid, I discovered Naomi Davis. She’s sort of one of the OG mommy bloggers turned momfluencers,” Sara explained. I checked out Davis’s account and, in spite of myself, I was totally taken in by her image. When I say “in spite of myself,” I don’t mean that I’m above being influenced. I mean that I went into this account just looking for some audio to clip and found myself really digging the vibe. I experience this over and over again with influencers; it’s hard to keep your distance.
So Sara is following this account—bright colors, joyful attitude, “Anthropologie vibes”—and, despite the fact that she’d “been disabused of the notion that motherhood was like this beautiful performance of femininity,” she was entranced. Mothering externalizes so much of our care and attention that it’s easy to feel like you lose yourself in the process. But Sara found a different way to think about her role as a mother through Davis’s account: “...embodying my motherhood in a way that made me the star and built me up and fulfilled me. [It] contributed to my personhood in a way that mothering was not.”
A key component of this shift is the spectacle. Because influencing as a milieu disconnects the image from what the image actually represents, momfluencing allows its followers to separate the ideal of what motherhood looks like from the labor of mothering. Sara told me, “I started becoming really obsessed with this idea of embodying whatever one’s ideal of motherhood was versus the mundane routine—sometimes monotonous, sometimes boring, always repetitive labor of mothering.” There’s the physical and visual performance of ideal motherhood, and then there’s the banal monotony of reality. Once you get sucked into the world of momfluencers, this dichotomy tags along with you for as long as you keep opening the apps.
But this phenomenon isn’t limited to aspirational momfluencing, of course! I notice it when my image of a colleague has been shaped by their photoshoots, and when I finally meet them in person or on Zoom, I’m presented with something closer to what’s real. I notice it when I embark on an epic hike, only to realize that the promotional photos must have been taken before the crowds arrived. I see aspiring entrepreneurs work to embody the image of entrepreneurship rather than the monotonous, often boring, and always repetitive labor of actually building a small business.
The challenge with mediating our goals and desires through spectacle is that we yearn to perform to the standards of the spectacle without considering what was required to produce the image or performance. We attempt to make ourselves over to fit an image rather than an experience. That’s not to say that the performance–or its representation–isn’t authentic to some degree. It’s that the labor required to document it is completely hidden. So while we might be able to recreate part of the performance for ourselves and even enjoy it, the performance won’t naturally lead to the perfect image. We’ll always be a little less than satisfied, even when we have exactly what we want.
Content, Content, Content
“We all perform various versions of ourselves for various audiences every day, all the time, regardless of whether we’re on social media or preschool pickup,” Sara explained. Social media does tend to make those performances more concrete, even more constrained in a way. “You’re making calculated, deliberate decisions about what to share, why to share it, and what type of audience you’re hoping to impact by what you’re sharing,” she said. After all, momfluencers are cultivating a brand above all—documenting life and their inner experiences in ways that reinforce that brand.
In that way, Sara told me, the successful momfluencers “know if their audience wants unfiltered shots of leaky boobs or if they would rather look at a beautiful kitchen with a vase of flowers instead.” Because, at the end of the day, successful and profitable momfluencers are “just really savvy business women, and they have a whole host of skills that contribute to making their accounts successful.” There are the more obvious skills like photography, videography, writing, logistics, marketing, etc. But there are also interpersonal skills that few people will ever see:
“You're also constantly dealing with a barrage of input from your audience. You're dealing with responding to comments, responding to DMs. [Momfluencers] have to have a clear connection to what their online self represents and how to maintain that sense of authentic authenticity that keeps people reeled in.”
This varied input and careful output require a particular kind of discipline from influencers. Emily Hund, an influencer researcher, spoke with numerous influencers who describe this process as “a form of disciplining particular aspects of themselves that they wish to project into a cohesive brand voice that is easily digestible to audiences.” That is hard work that’s rarely identified as such.
But it’s work that’s necessary to maintain a personal brand that reads legibly to both audiences and potential brand partners. And it’s necessary to nurture the kind of trust required of parasocial role models. Sara told me about a particular momfluencer who is like “catnip” to her: “She lives on an island in Maine and seems to have a very fun, cool life.” Sara has actually purchased items recommended by this momfluencer (which generates revenue for the momfluencer directly or indirectly). “If she suddenly served me an ad for a jingly, jangly, ugly plastic toddler toy, it would be completely out of step with her entire ethos and the story that she’s created,” Sara reflected. “That why I feel like the performance of authenticity is mostly about creating a cohesive story and sticking to it.”
In the last episode about Instagram and personality types, I introduced Cooley’s concept of the “looking glass self.” And I’m reminded of that in this example when Sara says that a misaligned product recommendation wouldn’t reflect “the person I think she is.” Influencers craft representations of their story in response to what others believe the story is. That means that when we look to influencers as parasocial role models or blueprints for our own self-improvement, we’re entering an “isolated pseudo-reality” that Guy Debord argues separates individuals from each other.
The spectacle of the influencer creates the effect of one looking glass self peering into another looking glass self—that is, an infinite mirror, reflecting back a cascade of images, each one further from reality.
The impact of this on our mental health is well-documented. So I’ll spare you an accounting of it. But Sara stirs the pot by adding in the commercial and financial components of the momfluencing. “In some ways, of course, it’s wonderful and valuable to learn about other people’s experiences,” she told me. “But when motherhood is tied so directly to commerce and shopability, it gets really confusing really quickly.”
From being to having
“Motherhood is fascinating as a consumer category because it can really cover everything,” Sara told me. She surveyed moms for her book, Momfluenced, to ask about the “strangest thing” they’d ever bought because of a momfluencer’s influence. She got back responses like toothpicks and butter molds. “We are buying toothpicks because of this influencer economy!” she said.
“Every time I buy something from a momfluencer who represents some sort of maternal ideal, it’s not like I consciously think ‘If I buy these toothpicks, I will be a better happier mother.’ But subconsciously, I think, I do think that,” Sara told me. And it’s true—I totally do the same. What we consume has a direct impact on our conceptions of self. Advertisers have learned to hijack our values, our core motives, and our very identities to convince we need stuff.
One of the critiques of degrowth, postcapitalism, and other departures from our current system is that people won’t be happy if they can’t buy whatever small luxuries they want to buy. Rarely does that critique acknowledge that a key reason we have the insatiable urge to buy is the direct impact of consumer capitalism. Market forces and cost-benefit analyses pervade our private and social lives--the impact of which, Debord describes, is “degrading life from a state of being to a state of having.”
Having in this sense doesn’t just refer to buying the material goods on offer. It means possessing a story that’s associated with the ideal while being more or less alienated from the capacity even to consider what being might entail. Debord writes, “The spectacle presents itself as an endless parade of new products, as a repeating presentation of the system's self-validating rationale, and as an economic system that outputs an increasing multitude of image-objects. The spectacle is itself the leading product of contemporary society.”
Motherhood is particularly susceptible to the spectacle in this regard because of the way that motherhood as an identity is lauded. Unfortunately, as Sara told me, “the labor of mothering is completely unsupported systematically.” She put the impact bluntly: “If I just look like the perfect mother and my house looks like I’m the perfect mother, then maybe I will feel like it because right now I’m feeling like shit a lot of the time.”
Do you speak influencer?
Influencers of all stripes have a particular grammar to the way they communicate—soft advice and hard advice are among the most common forms. Now, I’m not talking about grammar as in “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”--which isn’t a thing anymore, okay? But grammar in terms of the structure of communication.
And even if you don’t consider yourself an “influencer,” if you’re offering advice or education via social media or content marketing, you’re probably fluent in this grammar, too. I find that thinking in terms of grammar is helpful because it makes it harder for me to write off someone as manipulative or attention-seeking. They’re simply using the dominant grammar in the self-help medium. Grammar is neutral—neither good nor bad.
Many momfluencer accounts trade on the “best way to do X, Y, and Z.” They offer their experience (or affiliate links) in the form of gentle recommendations and what I’ve come to call “soft advice.” Soft advice is the kind that’s couched as “here’s what worked for me,” but instead of being an honest attempt at sharing personal experience and inviting others to do the same, the revelation is still coded as an instruction because of the power dynamics at play. Soft advice is the language momfluencers (and most other influencers) trade in because offers a way to recommend products (i.e., sponsored content or affiliate links) without taking responsibility for the recommendation. Soft advice allows them to sell without being salesy.
Sara notes that momfluencers often talk directly to their followers with such advice, saying things like, “Hey mama! I just gotta sharing this thing that worked for me recently.” Sara explains that most of the time, momfluencers avoid making explicit recommendations or offering hard advice. “That makes it more powerful,” she told me. When we receive soft advice from an IRL social relation (e.g., a friend or family member), we have a wealth of knowledge about that person—from their personal history to their culture to their values. We know how those things contributed to the decision they made and are now sharing with us. But in a parasocial relationship, the kind we have with people “famous on the internet,” we believe we have all that same information because we’ve been part of the spectacle of their lives through image after image, often for years. We’ve seen their kids grow up; we witnessed the divorce; we celebrated their book deal with them. And we forget that all that we’ve seen is “what she has chosen to share with her audience of 30,000 people.”
Given all that, it’s easy to start thinking about trust—a subject I explored with sociologist Patrick Sheehan in the third installment of this series. How does influencer culture—and influencer grammar—impact our levels of trust in different contexts? Sara told me that she’s noticed a subset of momfluencers who, essentially, make it their message to “trust no one,” or “you can only trust yourself and your family.” This group contains influencers who might otherwise be coded as liberal hippie types—”earthy, crunchy moms”—but really peddle an ethos of individualism and control. Sara explained that one of the characteristics of these influencers is the way they zoom in on “every tiny detail about daily life” to figure out the “best” way: the best way to brew your own kombucha, the best process for milling your own flour, the best homeopathic cure for allergies.
As I see it, this type of influencer is responding to genuine anxiety created by our broken systems. Much the way Alan Levinovitz described other “empowering epistemologies.” However, by responding to that anxiety, they aren’t offering relief. They’re offering more anxiety in the form of ever higher ideals. Sara told me about an episode of Burnt Toast, hosted by Virginia Sole-Smith, in which she discussed a momfluencer who shares how she makes “calf liver gummies.” Sole-Smith notes that she discovered the gummies are actually made from beef gelatin—but still. I’m 100% in support of people making their own food and finding ways to supplement their diet if that’s what they’re into. But I do think it’s really important to ask: how does a momfluencer posting about homemade nutritional supplements impact another mother’s sense of duty to her children? What does it do to that mother’s sense of efficacy as a mother? And what happens when this is the air you breathe every time you hop on social media?
“This obsession with the self—the healthiest body, most beautiful body—like, everything is so inward facing. It really can only exist when you have certain layers of privilege,” Sara told me.
[Programming note: “Good bodies” is the subject of the 7th installment.]
Perhaps, instead of rugged individualism, influencer grammar relies on a sort of impeccable individualism. It’s not really pioneering new territory or building your legacy so much as it is never letting your attention waver from the smallest detail, never providing a door into your carefully constructed reality. It utilizes the spectacle to produce a society of control.
And as Debord and countless others have argued, this is profoundly alienating. Debord writes, “Ultimately, the spectacle is the official language that separates individuals from one another.”
But Sara’s found that this isn’t the only way influential mothers show up online, of course. “Black mothers, fat mothers, disabled mothers, marginalized mothers have understood the power of collective community for centuries,” Sara explained. In those accounts, she sees a call to action to collectivize care. These momfluencers are organizers. They use their platforms to mobilize whole communities into action. Instead of the impeccable individualism of only attending to your own household, they advocate for change in ways that benefit all families in a community.
“There's a really rich history of mothers and caretakers pinpointing a problem that impacts them directly, but as a result, the entire community benefits,” Sara told me. “These types of holistic wellness moms who are super-focused on only their bodies and the bodies of their family—if they want their kid to have the best organic fruits and vegetables, their kid will have a better life.” But when a whole “community has access to healthy, nutritious vegetables” everyone in the community benefits.” Sara added, “There's a real disconnect between wanting the best for your family but not wanting the best for the community and the world that I think is inherent to white-dominated spaces.”
Noticing the Spectacle
Whether we’re being influenced or doing the influencing, it’s critical to be aware of the sway of the spectacle in daily life. Sara told me that the best tip she’s gleaned from experts she interviewed for Momfluenced is constantly doing gut checks and asking yourself critical questions about why you’re doing things. For example, “Are you taking your kids to the pumpkin patch because you’re the type of person who’s always loved outdoor activities with the family? Or are you taking your kids to the pumpkin patch to get a cute photo for Insta?”
This awareness and curiosity also apply to the platforms themselves. “Are you feeling rested and regenerated after scrolling through pretty pictures for an hour? Or are you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted?” Sara told me that every time she takes a break from social media, “I just feel a physical sense of lightness because there’s less input. There are just less images. There are just [fewer] points of view for me to constantly be comparing myself against, consciously and subconsciously.”
Momfluencing–really any kind of social media influencing–is a natural product of the society of the spectacle. Sara writes that exploring momfluencers doesn’t come from a desire to “take anyone down.” She acknowledges that they are “real people with real lives and real struggles.” Her goal isn’t to “contribute to anyone’s struggles” by creating a social media pile-on. Instead, she writes, she’s “trying to figure out what individual behaviors and individual content choices reveal about systems much bigger than any one of us.”
As you might imagine, I’m driven by a similar curiosity. Instead of just rolling my eyes or feeling mild irritation when I come across behaviors or content choices I find, let’s say, distasteful, I want to know why I feel that way. What has that choice triggered in me? How does it elucidate an aspect of power that threatens my identity? What personal value is it bumping up against? How is it demonstrating a system I wish I didn’t have to participate in?
Hopefully, this installment–and the whole Self-Help, LLC series–is feeding your curiosity, too.
Before I close out this piece, I want to leave you with one more relevant idea from Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Debord argues that we can’t be free from work or enjoy a more leisurely life when “at any time an individual is either contributing to or consuming from the system of production.” We can’t claw back the energy we put into producing the spectacle—online or offline—by consuming the spectacle. The spectacle is self-affirming, self-reproducing, and capable of adapting any free resource to its purposes.
What’s interesting to me is that the last two and a half years of navigating a pandemic has started to bring this truth out from the shadows. It’s becoming much more difficult to ignore the spectacle–online or offline. That may change how we behave and how we interact. But at the least, the awareness of the spectacle of contemporary life gives us a clearer map for how we move forward.