When I think of minimalism, I think of white walls, pale wood, and empty spaces; mile-long kitchen islands dotted with a single candle; a succulent in an artisanal pot. I don’t think of burgundy plastic robots purchased from Walgreens, throw pillows smeared with cream cheese, surfaces stained with crayon, or any other visual indicators of a child’s presence. And yet if you ask a consumer of momfluencer culture to describe a typical domestic scene from mommy Instagram, you’re likely to hear a lifestyle version of the infamous Michael Pollan diet quote “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” For momfluencers, it’s “simple objects, not too many, mostly white.”
Momfluencers can be best understood as women who have used their identities as mothers to monetize their social media accounts, curating photos of themselves, their kids, and their homes to appeal to brands interested in partnering with them to create sponsored content and influencer marketing campaigns. Momfluencer culture is not a monolith, nor do momfluencer aesthetics conform to only one trend, but if there’s one distinct style that comes up time and time again, it’s minimalism.
One of the simplest reasons that minimalism abounds on many popular momfluencer accounts, despite the fact that it seems completely at odds with, well, children, is merely that a product pops against a neutral backdrop. Think of a jar of raspberry jam (not that a ton of momfluencers are hawking raspberry jam, but whatever). Think of the deep magenta contrasting with an all-white kitchen. Now picture that same pop of magenta against a countertop that (heaven forbid) doesn’t match the kitchen cabinets, or that same jar of jam resting upon a kitchen table cluttered with pacifiers, magazines, lunch boxes, and browning apple slices. The resulting image becomes less focused, the eye more easily distracted, the consumer less likely to buy. Muted perfection as a background against which to sell products allows the consumer to just see the product, and, hopefully, purchase the product.
Of course not all Tide ads (for example) feature homes decorated in macrame wall hangings and shades of ecru, oatmeal, and ivory. What distinguishes momfluencer content on social media from the ads we see on TV or in magazines is a palpable sense of aspiration. If there’s one thing mainstream momfluencers are good at, it’s making their followers feel desire. When we desire a momfluencer’s perfect beachy waves, we’re desiring to adhere to western beauty ideals. When we desire a momfluencer’s slouchy sweater, we’re desiring a sense of ease and comfort. And when we desire a momfluencer’s cavernous living room unscathed by any trace of Bluey figurines or dirty socks or Pokemon cards, we desire a sense of control over the inherently uncontrollable experience of parenthood.
In his book, A Longing for Less, Kyle Chayka notes that minimalism requires “discipline,” and that it operates as a “brand to identify with as much as a way of coping with mess.” Minimalism is attractive to mothers in particular, I would argue, because it requires discipline, because it suggests to mothers that they might not be able to control their child’s bedtime tantrums or unwillingness to do their homework or stomach bug, but they can (theoretically) control their domestic space.
Momfluencers’ minimalist domestic spaces also seem to offer followers an escape from the hamster wheel of consumerism, which moms are thrown onto willingly or not as soon as they google “anti-nausea pregnancy tea.” Minimalism suggests that simplicity, and the ability to consume and own fewer things, will release us from the existential weariness evoked from living in a culture that tells us all (and mothers in particular) that we’re always one purchase away from a better version of home, of life, of motherhood. Minimalism’s promise that “less is more,” and that “less” can be both aesthetically and morally superior, is an enticing one.
I save fancy jam jars and use them as wine glasses. Many of the walls in my home are white. I enjoy the look of floor-sweeping linen curtains. All of which is to say my critiques of minimalism are very much entangled in a desire to emulate that aesthetic. As a mom of three kids under 10, I am personally tantalized by the promise of some sort of stringent, disciplined lifestyle shift transforming my reality (exercise, lemon water, meditation, clean countertops), and now that Instagram offers inspiration and aspiration paired with shoppability, the combination feels irresistible. More often than not, I don’t stop to think about whether I am shopping as a flawed and momentary self-soothing strategy; enacting meaningful lifestyle changes that will actually impact my lived experience of motherhood; or consuming beautiful homes as entertainment. Momfluencer culture makes it so disarmingly easy to confuse all three motivations into an endless scroll.
In his book, Chayka also evokes the inherent moral message minimalism often conveys, “a kind of enlightened simplicity,” as if empty spaces and a lack of clothes chairs somehow express a homeowner’s heightened moral sensibilities, their distaste for the gauche consumerism of the masses. The jam-jar wineglass is a particularly apt example of how aesthetics encompass morality. Not only am I enacting some sort of environmental consciousness by reusing my old jam jars, the jam jars also act as a visual representation of that environmental consciousness. And I guess they look good because magazines like Kinfolk (a publication that popularized minimalist aesthetics by way of mason jars and fiddle-leaf ferns) signed off on them looking good?
The insular nature of minimalism—at least as it pertains to buying the right salvaged-wood coffee table or the “only winter coat you’ll ever need”—is also inextricably bound up in race, class, and the “psychology of ownership,” something Christine Platt writes about in her book, The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less. If you peruse Platt’s Instagram account @afrominimalist, you will see a mint-green desk, a giant sculptural fork hung on the wall, mud-cloth pillow covers, lots of plants, and nary a piece of blond furniture in sight. Over a phone call, Platt shared with me that she’s passionate about educating people about minimalism as a practice, rather than solely an aesthetic, and thinks many corners of momfluencer culture make minimalism “inaccessible” and bewildering in the stark absence of kid-related detritus: “It’s a lifestyle that is only accessible to white, wealthy people who also seemingly have no children, because I’m always like, So you’re just gonna put that one white couch in the middle of your 5,000-square-foot living room? There are no baskets or bins. These homes don’t look lived in.”
As Platt points out in her book, people from the African diaspora must consider their relationships to consumerism and aesthetics from the perspective of white supremacy. “From our ancestors being stolen and once owned as property to our need to have things so that we feel in control of something in our lives, Black people have a different, deeper relationship with our belongings,” she writes. She argues that Black people, made to feel unsafe in so many spaces, are bound to “seek comfort in things,” and the false sense of security that comes from ownership. But she notes that the drive to consume can jeopardize Black peoples’ ability to build generational wealth.
Read More: How I Lost Myself to Motherhood
Platt also notes that social media compounds our psychological need and desire to buy stuff to feel control of our domestic spaces: “The need to show people our lives has only been amplified by our online presence, resulting in many costly false narratives.” We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that it’s a mother’s natural job to be good at creating beautiful domestic havens, and that doing so is another way to display our fitness as mothers. And when Instagram shows me a photo of a happy mother snuggling with her kids on a cream-colored couch, I want nothing more complicated than that same happiness by way of a clutter-free, cream-colored existence. It is far easier to add a few Swedish dishcloths to my virtual cart than it is to deal with my deep despair when I consider what it means to be a mother in the United States. A country with no federal paid family leave policies; incomprehensive maternal health care; lack of access to affordable, quality health care; and virtually no meaningful support for our caregiving labor. To be a mother in the U.S. feels like a perpetual lesson in sacrifice.
Viewing beautifully shot and lit photos of a momfluencer’s bespoke laundry room in her Nantucket mansion through the informed lens of entertainment can be fun and soothing. But we can’t all afford Nantucket mansions, and the more we believe (or fool ourselves into believing) that aspirational wicker hampers can make our experiences of motherhood any less frustrating, exhausting, or confounding, the less mental space we have to focus on the broken systems and institutions making motherhood so hard for so many of us. So many of us are searching for better experiences of motherhood when we consume momfluencers’ minimalist feeds. But aesthetics can only go so far toward achieving equitable, joyful lives for mothers and caregivers. A clean countertop bathed in morning light is pretty, but it can’t guarantee three months of paid leave; it can’t provide universal preschool; it can’t keep our children safe at school. Only systems can do that.
Petersen is the author of Momfluenced: Inside the Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture, from which this essay is adapted
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