Better Homes & Bloggers
Today, Elsie Larson is wearing gold. "I'm kinda obsessed with gold lately," she writes, "Gold details, jewelry, even metallic fabrics like this gold skirt that [my sister] Emma wore." Kaylah Doolan has decorated her home for Christmas and shares photos of the end result— reindeer lights and tinsel decorating hallways, a ceramic elf perched on top of a stack of DVDs, Christmas tins by her bright blue typewriter. Abbey Hendrickson has five new things she recently found "in blogland" to share, including knit sea urchins, Free People boots, and quirkily wrapped gifts. Anja Verdugo recently worked on a "soft goth" photo shoot and documented the event with pictures of yellow and pink roses and makeup brushes next to a container of various lip balms.
Such is a day in the world of lifestyle blogging, an increasingly popular genre that women dominate. Through their blogs, which focus largely on traditionally feminine topics such as fashion, home decor, crafts, food, and family, women like Larson, Doolan, Hendrickson, and Verdugo connect with like-minded individuals, form communities, promote their Etsy shops and, in some cases, receive attention from mainstream media outlets.
For many, blogging is a relatively easy, low-cost way to share personal anecdotes and explore interests in an accessible medium. And, in contrast to mainstream lifestyle media (Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living) that tends to be more intent on raising ad revenue than bolstering women's spirits, lifestyle blogging puts representation into the hands of the homemakers themselves. At the same time, there is something a bit uncanny about the genre. Click through enough of them and you'll start wondering: How is it possible that so many women and their toddlers spent their Saturdays in blanket forts made from vintage quilts found at a swap meet? And does the world really need more Instagram shots of early-morning trips to the flower market? One may get the impression that the Stepford Wives have swapped their pastel sun hats and starched blouses for sewing-machine tattoos and Rachel Comey shoes. The pastels; soft-focus and color-saturated photo filters; optimistic, sunny tone; and tendency to address readers as "sweeties," "darlings," and other diminutives characterize many of the most visible lifestyle blogs. Coupled with the focus on domesticity and the home, bloggers start to resemble a contemporary, superwoman version of a stereotypical 1950s housewife. These women don't just maintain squeaky-clean, camera-ready homes and adorable families, they also run independent businesses, wear perfect outfits, rock exquisitely styled hair—and find the time to blog about it.
A brief note on terminology: The category of "lifestyle blogs" can also include service-oriented blogs about four-hour workweeks or productivity sites like Lifehacker, but the ones I discuss here are personal blogs that are just about, well, living life. Many of the most popular blogs and bloggers in the genre not only make a living from their blogs, thanks to advertising revenue, but have also partnered with mainstream media outlets, particularly women's magazines—Hendrickson, for instance, creates craft tutorials for Parents magazine, while lifestyle blogs like Larson's A Beautiful Mess and Dylana Suarez's Color Me Nana are part of Lucky magazine's Lucky Style Collective, a network of bloggers whose association with the Condé Nast property nets them ad revenue, writing and photo opportunities, and more. Martha Stewart regularly invites bloggers to her show for cooking and craft demos; the blog Design*Sponge held its recent series of nationwide book-release parties at the home store West Elm. It's not just that mainstream media has recognized that bringing bloggers with established audiences into its fold is smart business, it's also that there's something ineffably appealing about perfectly puffed pie crusts, pigeon-toed fashion shoots, and sweet, uncomplicated musings on vintage hairclips.
In a 2011 Salon article, writer Emily Matchar confessed to being obsessed with Mormon mom blogs. In a piece titled "Why I Can't Stop Reading Mormon Housewife Blogs," she wrote of the escapism offered by blogs like Nat the Fat Rat and Rockstar Diaries, saying:
[Their] focus on the positive is especially alluring when your own life seems anything but easy. As my friend says of her fascination with Mormon lifestyle blogs, "I'm just jealous. I want to arrange flowers all day too!" She doesn't, really. She's just tired from long days spent in the lab, from a decade of living in a tiny apartment because she's too poor from student loans to buy a house, from constant negotiations about breadwinning status with her artist husband. It's not that she or I want to quit our jobs to bake brownies or sew kiddie Halloween costumes. It's just that for her, Mormon blogs are an escapist fantasy, a way to imagine a sweeter, simpler life.
And while hip young Mormon women do have a disproportionately large presence in the lifestyle blogosphere, a broader interest in and resurgence of domesticity predates lifestyle blogs by many years. At the close of the 1990s, both newspaper articles and alternative media like Bust magazine heralded a "new domesticity," suggesting that the gains of feminism had freed up the modern women to actually enjoy things like cooking, knitting, and even ironing; a massive 1999 tome called Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House buttressed the idea that domesticity could be approached simultaneously with—and with the same seriousness as—a degree from law school. (Author Cheryl Mendelson, in fact, has both a JD from Harvard Law and a PhD in philosophy.) A few years later, the aftermath of 9/11 found media types again turning to the idea of a new domesticity as a respite from terror threats and economic uncertainty. And most recently, the recession has led to a more widespread embrace of the idea that the home front can be a site of economic, political, and environmental empowerment, with everything from raising bees and brewing beer to homeschooling and hog farming getting front-page ink.
But lifestyle blogs, for Matchar and many others who are entranced by them, tap into a particular aesthetic that has nothing to do with bucking societal expectations or creating necessary alternative employment. In her recently launched blog, New Domesticity, Matchar describes this mood as "very romantic, soft-focused, aesthetically pleasing images of home life, that is very DIY, very home-oriented and nostalgic."
And perhaps just as important, authentic. Make that "authentic": Both the appeal and the unease of lifestyle blogs are centered on the fact that, unlike more traditional forms of media like magazines, television, and movies, blogs are supposed to be real. In theory, they exist outside the economic strictures of parent companies and advertising contracts; they are, at the most basic level, online records born from a desire to share with others, rather than satisfy a bottom line. (Indeed, the link between blogging and the journaling that has historically been a feature of Mormon home life goes some way toward explaining the Latter-day Saintliness of so many lifestyle blogs.) As Matchar argues, such blogs allow readers to satisfy "the desire to peer into others' personal lives" in a more casual way than afforded by mainstream media of the past.
This tension between authenticity and aspiration may be at the heart of why lifestyle blogs don't just inspire readers, they also tend to bum them out. Matchar, for instance, says she has talked to many women who, upon becoming immersed in the world of lifestyle blogging, have had negative reactions. "[Reading these blogs] creates a constant comparison…it's easy to get caught up in 'their life is so much better than mine,'" she says. Lifestyle blogs, which in the words of Clever Nettle's Verdugo, "show perfect homes and perfect lives where everything is lovely and perfect (and expensive!)," can result in something as simple as a post on a delicious meal setting off the most grounded follower. As one reader, Claudette, recounts: "I see her fucking noodle soup. And I feel like I should do that. And I don't feel good. I feel like I should be perfect." Claudette, who follows many style blogs, particularly those that reflect her own modernist sensibility and obsession with fashion and design, isn't unhappy with her own life. But, she says, "I look around my house and I like the things I own…but it can never be good enough."
Verdugo acknowledges that much of the negative feedback she has seen on blogs stems "from the perception that bloggers are constantly [portraying] their lives [as] unrealistically perfect. There will always be a disconnect between real life and what people think your life is like." Caitlin Emeritz, who runs the blog Metrode, points out that bloggers are not purposely trying to make their readers feel bad about their lives: "I mean for my blog and store to be inclusive, and hopefully inspiring, rather than a standard against which to judge other women or men."
It is also worthwhile to point out what kind of lifestyle is being promoted and who the face of it is. Perhaps it's not surprising that the most popular lifestyle blogs, the ones with the largest readerships and tendency to be featured in other media, are usually authored by Caucasian, middle-class, straight women. Claudette, who is black, remarked that the lifestyle blogs she reads are like an extension of mainstream society's preference for "happy white women," and could not think of any lifestyle blogs by black or Latina women, though obviously they exist. Another reader echoed this sentiment, stating that while she felt there was an Asian-American presence, especially among blogs focusing on fashion and style, she recognized a strong whiteness to the world of lifestyle blogging. The lack of class and racial diversity is telling, as is the fact that lifestyle bloggers of color with robust readerships—among them Savvy Brown, Afro Boudoir, and La Dulce Vida—aren't the ones who tend to define the genre, and thus don't have the links, the love, and the lucrative partnerships of their whiter peers. Some of the bloggers in the Lucky Style Collective, for instance, are women of color, but it's tempting to view their blogs' disinterest in foregrounding racial identity as the very thing that makes them easily assimilated into lifestyle-blog culture.
Despite the democratic potential of the blog format—the fact that nearly everyone can find an audience for everything from discussions of gratitude to tutorials on how to craft up some glittered flats—it seems important to question why the blogs that have come to define "lifestyle blogging" are emblematic of deeply normative, well, lifestyles, even when they don't necessarily set out to be. Context matters: The bright tone of blogs may tacitly discourage questions about what or who isn't represented in all those cheery Instagrams. The copious images of female-focused domesticity can't help but underscore that, while we're all free to choose our choices, a clear and privileged path to happiness and achievement runs through the kitchen, the garden, and the nursery. One can see these frustrations played out in such places as the "My Balance" section of the wildly popular blog A Cup of Jo, in which different lifestyle bloggers discuss the challenges of balancing blog work with their home lives, revealing stiflingly similar results. Sure, shuffling children to and from preschool, planning a blog post, setting up lights for photos, and painting furniture for a diy tutorial may be hectic, but it probably sounds like a vacation to many readers. And whenever a commenter pops in to request that the site perhaps investigate the balance of a mother in a two-income household—or, hell, a single mother, even—a polite but deafening silence inevitably results.
The fact is, while lifestyle bloggers share some intimate details with their readers—wedding photos, discussions about how many children to have, feelings of insecurity—such blogs are carefully curated for a variety of reasons. Ashley Rose Helvey's blog, for instance, is primarily visual, and thus: "From looking at [it] you'd never know that I watch Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and love Waka Flocka Flame. My sense of humor isn't apparent, but that's okay because it's not what I'm inspired to share." Purple-haired, tattooed Doolan, of The Dainty Squid, also allows that her blog is bit a toned-down, saying, "my blog portrays a small chunk of my life and who I am, and I must admit it's a pg version of me. You won't find any inappropriate jokes or curse words like you would in 'real life.'" Doolan adds that she deliberately avoids topics such as religion and politics because "it is important to know when topics or opinions are relevant to my blog and business."
It's not surprising that as a blog becomes more popular, its authenticity becomes more circumscribed. And for bloggers with an eye on leveraging their work into bigger, more mainstream venues, the balance of professionalism with authenticity means less critical discussion, fewer acknowledgments of bad days or insecurities, and less humor. And because the lifestyle blogs that receive the most attention (and opportunities for more revenue) reflect the most limiting vision of traditional femininity (conventionally attractive, straight, happy white women with beautiful homes, playful children, and quirky recipes), it isn't surprising that this formula tends to be the most emulated one within the world of lifestyle blogging. As blogger Susie Hatmaker points out, "As soon as there are a few 'blogging celebrities,' of course many more are going to try to emulate that idea of success. It has created a new, pretty strange way to be successful."
For some, bucking this trend is key to their feelings of personal, if not financial, success. Verdugo, for instance, recalls that "once I realized that I would never make a ton of money selling advertisements on my site, I felt much calmer and in control. I don't have to please any companies or review products…I can just be me."
What may be most frustrating about the rise of a particular stripe of lifestyle blog is that so few of them elicit the challenge to societal expectations of femininity one would reasonably expect in a medium so dominated by women. Forms of media that have glorified and promoted the home front as an exclusively female domain, after all, have never been in short supply, from sitcoms to shelter magazines to store catalogs. So while lifestyle bloggers can rightly claim that their "choice" (that is, their privilege) to not work outside the home, their choice to be primary parents to their children, and their excitement about rewallpapering their downstairs bathroom is just that—an individual choice. But an accumulation of such choices promotes a homogenous narrative indistinguishable from those that have come before. And no amount of glitter can freshen that up.
Holly Hilgenberg is a freelance writer, blogger, and artist based in Minneapolis.
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