Q&A: Sara Petersen on her new book about momfluencers

We spoke to the US-based writer about why she chose to delve into the world of momfluencers.

Momfluenced book cover

 

Sara Petersen is a US-based writer whose new book is about “momfluencers” – women who have become social media influencers by posting about their lives as mothers. Petersen’s book delves into the momfluencer universe, from the big-hitters who post photos of their home-baked bread and their children in wildflower meadows, to the more niche players who are subverting these stereotypes.

Petersen also explores how these Instagram accounts – which are often full of attractive mothers, happy toddlers, and arty homes – affect the women who look at them. She charts reactions that swing from insecurities about our own parenting, to cringes at someone else’s parenting, to cravings for the products on show, to a sense of connection with fellow mothers when we are lonely.

We spoke to Petersen about why she chose to write about momfluencers and what she has learned. These quotes have been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Sara Petersen

Why did you decide to write a book about momfluencers?

“It was really to parse out my own feelings and thoughts about them – I’d been thinking about why I had so many conflicting feelings and thoughts about them, for at least 3-4 years before I got the book deal. Then I did a piece for Harper’s Bazaar and the first draft of it was 20 pages long! That’s when I knew there were so many themes that are interesting and worthwhile to explore.”

What did you learn about the work that goes into being a successful momfluencer, despite how “natural” these photos often look?

“It’s 100% work…The skill-sets that these women have are really far-reaching – they have to have an aesthetic eye, they have to be good photographers, they need to be copy editors, they need to come up with the concepts for many of their posts, which are a modern rendition of advertising. They’re really editors-in-chief of their own mini-media brands.”

And do momfluencers make a good living?

“I think it’s really difficult to make serious money doing this. If you’re partnered with a huge company, you could make [around] $50,000 for a story and a couple of posts – but that is totally not representative of the vast majority. Brooke Erin Duffy wrote a book about [influencers in general] and she estimated that…only 9% of them were earning enough money to live on or to support their families.”

Do these curated images put pressure on the women who look at them, even if that isn’t the momfluencer’s intention?

“I wouldn’t say, across the board, it’s making all of us feel bad about ourselves – it really depends. We all come to this stuff with our own unique set of biases and cultural contexts. [But] I think if it’s consumed uncritically it can have sort of a numbing effect, so that unconsciously you think a good mom is an aesthetically-pleasing mom. And I do think it contributes to solidifying this notion of one maternal ideal, if the aesthetics, the homes, and the momfluencers themselves are all similar. Maybe unconsciously, it solidifies [the idea that] there’s one way to be a good mom, which I think can be harmful.”

What are the diversity issues for momfluencers – is it harder for women from racial minorities, for example, to build big audiences?

“In terms of breaking into white mainstream audiences? Absolutely. On Instagram, if you’re consuming one type of content, you will continue to be fed that same type of content. So that will really silo audiences in terms of what they’re exposed to. Being deliberate about who you’re following is helpful, in terms of being exposed to a variety of perspectives.

Also there are no standards for fees across the industry – the payment structures [for sponsored posts] vary across the board. Women of colour often are stigmatised and receive less money than white women, which I think largely has to do with the fact that the white ideal of motherhood is so prevalent.”

How can we look at momfluencer posts without feeling insecurity or pressure?

“I think if you [remember] that most of this stuff should be viewed as entertainment rather than reflections of reality, and if you can consume it like you would consume any glossy magazine, that’s going to be safer. It’s a super-curated, super-aesthetically-driven, image-focused bit of content, rather than a snapshot of someone’s real life. Making those distinctions for ourselves is helpful.

“[After working on this book], I also feel so much more empowered knowing where these ideals of motherhood came from, and who they came from, which wasn’t mothers themselves…The more I think about that, the more I realise that I can opt out of so many things if I want to.”

Momfluencers’ children often appear in the photos – how much do you think they’re aware of what’s happening?

“I think that completely varies from person to person. I spoke to [one momfluencer] who included her kids early on, and then her older son was like: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’, and she was okay with that. She was really transparent with him from the beginning about what she was doing…I think the vast majority try to make this fun for their kids [and] are thinking of their kids’ wellbeing. It’s just so tricky…I [similarly] think the nature of consent with child-actors is hard. [Even] if the kids say ‘I really want to do this,’ they can’t understand how their public-facing work might impact them in the long run. So I think it’s really tricky.”

In both the US and the UK, most mothers go out to work. So why do we like following momfluencers, who often present themselves as stay-at-home domestic goddesses?

“I think it can feel like escapism…there is a sort of [feeling that]: ‘Oh, these moms’ lives are simple in a way that ours are not.’ And I don’t think that’s ever actually the case – I don’t think there really is a simple version of motherhood out there.”

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Momfluenced: Inside the maddening, picture-perfect world of mommy influencer culture is out on 25 April.



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