The Sinister Side of Mommy Bloggers’ “Cultish” Language September 9, 2021

The Sinister Side of Mommy Bloggers’ “Cultish” Language

Instagram’s growing population of “mommy bloggers” are a quintessential example of wolves in sheep’s clothing. While the majority of women with the minimalistic aesthetic, complete with coffee, white comforters, and books, are completely harmless, there is something more insidious behind much of the innocent façade. And the key to finding out what it is is to look closely at their language.

After reading Amanda Montell‘s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Sara Petersen at Harper’s Bazaar was able to identify the peculiarities of language used by certain “momfluencers.”

1. They sow distrust in traditional medicine.

What distinguishes these “truth tellers” from the average momfluencer is the battery of words and phrases used to convince their followers that they are the ultimate authority on all things related to maternal health and wellness.

… this long and complicated history becomes twisted. Instead of demanding maternal health care reforms, people’s potential agency gets refocused to harmful ends. Endorsing pseudoscience is not equivalent to viewing Western medicine with a critical lens.

With all of the corruption and inequality in our healthcare system, at least in the United States, it’s easy to see what started the mommy bloggers’ distrust. But the corruption wouldn’t be a problem if real healthcare wasn’t absolutely necessary. When there’s an emergency, relying on “alternative” medicine is not an option. It’s not rebellion when the only one that suffers from it is you or your child.

2. They use “doing your own research” as a thought-stopping technique.

“Do your research” is the ultimate thought-terminating cliché, because it claims to empower the recipient to draw her own conclusions based on her own critical thinking and evaluation of source material, but in actuality, “Do your research” demands the exact opposite: total conformity to the speaker’s viewpoint. Montell says that it actually “shuts the interlocutor down by evaluating that they are clearly hopelessly uninformed.” “Do your research” takes advantage of our cultural understanding that “research” is typically associated with some sort of legitimate authority, but what qualifies as research varies widely. Peer-reviewed scientific studies are not equivalent to a few apocryphal links that serve to verify a cultish leader’s claims. Montell says, “There’s no specificity about what that ‘research’ is, of course — the phrase simply communicates that this person, by nature of their arguments, has surely not done it and needs to stop talking, stop thinking really, until they do.”

On the surface, the phrase “do your own research” sounds perfectly responsible. I use it on my own blog when presenting information as a non-expert; I’m aware I may be wrong, so I urge readers to correct me if they find that I am. But that’s not what’s happening here. The more toxic mommy-blogger accounts use it for the opposite reason. In their mind, doing your own research typically means using just one source — them — even when that contradicts the safe, scientific consensus.

3. They use feminist-sounding language to manipulate (and exclude) women, intentionally or not.

At first glance, the use of feminist language might sound empowering. That is until you look at how the wording is actually used…

According to my interview with Montell, most cultish leaders pull from language inspired by New Age rhetoric, conspiritualist rhetoric, evangelical rhetoric, and, in a perverse twist, feminist rhetoric. Many co-opt language rooted in feminist theory, like “forced penetration,” “consent,” and “bodily sovereignty,” to spread false messages not about rape and sexual violence, but life-saving vaccines and medical interventions.

Even worse, when your feminism has been turned on its head — when it is actually exclusionary but designed as inclusive — you can quickly find yourself in transphobic territory.

Truth-telling mamas also frequently spread anti-trans rhetoric in their insistence that “only women give birth.” Some of them argue that inclusive terminology like “birthing people” “erases” women and that womanhood is not “merely a feeling or a thought.” This is a familiar TERF strategy of claiming that trans identity “negates” women’s experiences, and puts the “world’s most vulnerable women” at increased risk of “sex-based oppression.” Never mind that trans people are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than cis people, surely making trans women some of the most vulnerable of “the world’s most vulnerable women.” I think this anti-trans linguistic approach to the words mother and woman is used to glorify both as divine, righteous roles imbued with an unalienable power. There’s a sense that by admitting in the fluidity of gender, a woman’s precious destiny to birth children, and to lay claim to the maternal morality of motherhood, might somehow be in jeopardy.

In more ways than one, the mamas in this realm have many similarities with conservative Christian influencers we all know too well.

4. They are usually unaware of their own privilege.

The trans-exclusionary “feminism” is even more obvious than the racial ignorance that is rampant in these aesthetic white communities. The idea of intersectional feminism means working to solve problems facing women and femmes of all races, classes, religions, and backgrounds. So when the often-white mommy bloggers try to take healthcare into their own hands and use flowery language to hide the toxicity underneath, many moms of color won’t be able to take those same approaches. In terms of money and in safety, they can’t afford to.

“Your maternal instinct is more important than any doctor’s” is not the same thing as arguing for the empowerment of mothers to speak up for their own health and the health of their children without fear of sexist, racist health care providers belittling their concerns or dismissing their voices. These mamas are “free” to fixate on ridding their homes and bodies of chemicals, toxins, refined sugars, heavy metals, and sunscreen. They’re free to treat themselves to coffee enemas, ozone infusions, and water fasts, because they don’t have to worry about dying in childbirth because of racist health care providers or worry about their children being denied access to nutritious food, safe housing, or falling victim to the school-to-prison pipeline. They don’t have to tell their children that one day, they or someone they love might be murdered by the police. And in this respect, truth-telling mamas’ use of the word freedom is not linguistic manipulation, it’s the simple truth.

Overall, so much of the language atheists have called out when seen on religious websites and faith-based books are now being used by “mama bears” spreading misinformation to their followers in the name of autonomy and safety. Bad information, no matter who’s spreading it, frequently follows similar patterns. We all need to get better at calling it out.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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