Who's -fluencing who?

True confession: when my own children were small — way, way back in the early 2000s and long before social media was a thing — I was addicted to Martha Stewart Living (with the older kid) and America’s Next Top Model (with the younger)1. I set the VCR2 to tape each show and I’d watch them when up in the middle of the night with the baby or the toddler or both. Even though these two media properties are very different in most respects, what drew me to them was the same: both made the very messy business of existing look beautiful.

When my firstborn was an infant, I used to haul her to K-mart because they had the Martha Stewart baby collection and I was convinced those blankets would make it all OK.

Nearly 20 years on, the message to moms is exactly the same, even though the medium is new. I recorded episodes of MSL and ANTM; moms now have Instagram. And where I was influenced by Ms Stewart3 and T. Banks (and all of the ads they could cram into the hour), current moms have “momfluencers” and all the merch they shill.

(This is skipping over the mid-aughts generation of “mommy bloggers,”4 who learned how to monetize the mess of parenting by stripping away all of the glossy sheen that living on the internet can provide. Mommy bloggers — and if you read that label as demeaning the work of women you’d be reading it correctly — figured out that you could build a following by laying bare how exhausted and overwhelmed you were pretty much all of the time. The problem was that these sites couldn’t figure out how to make the money work well enough to make a decent living by being honest. Something shifted after the financial collapse of 2008-09 and it became clear that idealized images of motherhood were what capitalism needed. Then came phones that could take great pictures and, well, here we are. It’s better to look good than to feel good.)

This Sara Peterson piece in Harper’s Bazaar paints the landscape of what it means to be a momfluencer right now, as well as how big this business has become.5 It helps if you are white, blond, heteronormative, and, maybe, some kind of homesteader. More kids (also white and blond, etc) is better; don’t even bother if you have only three offspring.6

I come not to bury those whose feeds are full of momfluencers but to praise them. Well, maybe not “praise” so much as commiserate. I get the impulse. I have been there myself. It’s like porn for women who are far too tired to have sex but still want to daydream about an idealized version. The lives of most momfluencers seem frictionless, one where even the biggest toddler tantrums can be filtered into pretty content that a sponsor will pay for.

Journalist Jo Piazza is digging into this market segment in her podcast Under the Influence. Right now, there are only two (very good) episodes available so we don’t yet know if she succeeds in becoming a momfluencer herself. We do know, however, that she has succeeded in examining why so many momfluencers are Mormon, which is something I’ve long suspected but never had the data to prove. Her pod is worth listening to during those late nights with a baby or while packing your oldest up for college or all of the stages in between (and beyond).

This focus on momfluencer-specific content leaves out all of the other -fluencer-based social media subgenres. If you can think of a way to pass the time, there’s a -fluencer for you. For example, there’s a whole fitness-fluencer trend, which would be in a momfluencer Venn diagram somewhere. And there are some dark tronches, too, like those that celebrate eating disorders. The HBO doc Fake Famous does an OK job of explaining how a Gen-Zer could become a well-paid influencer through manipulating reality and buying followers. The doc doesn’t go deep and instead, like its subjects, focuses on the surface of the thought rather than its depth.

My hypothesis is that the medium isn’t as important as the message. My mom’s generation had magazines; mine had TV; my daughter’s has social media. Who knows what the next generation will have. It could be straight-up microchips in their heads. Or, if society falls apart, they’ll be back to crude pictographs on cave walls.

Regardless, there’s something about being human that makes us want to see highly curated images of perfection and there will always be someone who will find a way to make a few dollars out of this primal impulse.

For the record, now that I am well into my transformation from “mother” into “crone” — my babies are nearly fully cooked adults and my reproductive years are gone — my comfort media involves The Pioneer Woman.7 The biggest pull might be the fact that, in addition to a sprawling family home where the mess of everyday life is, she also has a small lodge on her property that exists simply so that she can do her own thing without anyone bugging her. #goals

Who is your favorite influencer? And has it changed over time?

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1

I didn’t watch for the drama between the contestants but for the photo shoots. I am still astounded by what photographers and a good hair and make-up team can create from nothing.

2

Remember VCRs? Good times.

3

(if you’re nasty)

4

of which I was one and even wrote for one of the buzzier sites, Babble.com (RIP), for a few years.

5

Some of the leaders in the field are making millions of off curated images of idealized motherhood and all of the endorsement deals that comes with. Which is sort of crazy but also makes me want to cheer these women on because, dang. That’s how you milk the system for all its worth.

6

Of course there are outliers, like Shanicia Boswell, but they prove the rule rather than refute it.

7

I know she is problematic. I don’t care. The heart wants what it wants — and from the outside, her gig looks like a good one.

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