(by Morgan Jones deseretnews.com 1-24-17)
Utah mother Stephanie Nielson is a pioneer in the world of blogging.
According to “History of mommy blogging,” a web page created by university communications professor Elizabeth Kerns, fewer than 25 blogs existed at the turn of the century. The term "mommy blog" is believed to have originated when a single mother named Melinda Roberts launched her blog, "TheMommyBlog.com," in April 2002. Nielson was not far behind, publishing four blog posts in May 2002.
Six and a half years later, Nielson was involved in a plane crash that burned over 80 percent of her body. In the days, weeks and months following her accident, readers of her blog from all over the world united in sharing their love and appreciation by writing in and sharing their favorite posts.
Nielson attributes a significant part of her recovery to people she's never met.
“I have been so blessed by other people who I don’t even know, who when I went through my accident were there for me, just strangers,” Nielson said. “And their words of comfort and kindness and prayers were just a crazy world that I didn’t even know existed and I loved it. I thought, ‘What if there was more of this? This goodness and this sisterhood that I feel?’”
Blogging has created a worldwide community, and many of the key members are, like Nielson, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But with all the goodness and sisterhood Nielson experienced, there is also the question of whether family-centered blogs create a false perception of reality. It's a question that was raised in a recent post by a writer critical of mommy blogs, and a concern that is shared by some prominent bloggers. But these successful writers also know how the medium can be a force for good and have insight on how readers can avoid the pitfalls of comparison.
The rise (and fall?) of blogging
There has certainly been more blogging since 2002. At 11:15 a.m. MST on the day of the 2017 presidential inauguration, over 2.2 million blog posts had already been posted for the day, according to Worldometers.
Blogging has introduced women all over the world to each other and to new ideas.
“In the old days, it used to be that you had to learn from other moms in your own little circle, but now you can find all of these wonderful ideas from Australia and from England,” said Shawni Pothier, whose blog, 71toes, has documented her family’s life over the past decade.
There are fashion blogs, lifestyle blogs, food blogs and photography blogs. And while blogging has grown to be a full-blown industry of its own, Mormon mommy bloggers continue to thrive.
Blogging may be the perfect hobby for Mormon mothers, a demographic that is encouraged to keep a journal and to share the things that are most important to them. A wide-range of people are drawn to their blogs and the attraction to them has not gone unnoticed.
“Atheist followers say the attraction is the escapism of picture-perfect lives filled with wholesome values and DIY crafts, while scholars say various tenets of Mormonism — sharing the faith, the value of creativity and the importance of family — make the religion a perfect fit for the blogging medium,” the Toronto Star’s Katrina Clarke wrote last year.
Earlier this month, these types of blogs came under fire when a male LDS blogger named Mike Thayer posted an article titled “Utah: Lifestyle Porn Capital of the World,” in which he compares their "picture-perfect lives" to porn, both of which he argues create "unrealistic expectations."
Thayer illustrates his point with the example of a blogger who invited a friend over to help her make elaborate cookies. When they were done, the blogger retrieved her daughter from the nanny in order for the mother and daughter to pose for a photo with the cookies, as if no assistance was needed.
“It isn’t real,” Thayer said. “Watching all of this is addictive and it sets unrealistic expectations for marriage and life that can lead to feelings of disappointment and inadequacy.”
But disappointment and inadequacy are not what Nielson hopes to convey. And as a mom who really does enjoy making cookies with her kids, it hurt Nielson to read Thayer's description of homemaking skills as fake and a false idea.
“I am that mom that goes in the kitchen with her kids and makes the treats,” Nielson said. “I am the mom that likes to make things and do things with my kids ... and who loves every second of it. I mean it’s hard of course but I enjoy doing that and I’m really good at it so why don’t we do things that we’re really good at and enjoy that?”
Blogging: a full-time job
More than 88,000 Instagram users follow Utah native Corrine Stokoe, who now lives with her family in southern California. Stokoe’s blog, Mint Arrow, shares deals on high-end fashion and works with companies like Anthropologie and Nordstrom.
And while Stokoe believes it was in poor taste to compare blogging to pornography, she agrees that “consumerism can get totally out of control.” You see, Stokoe didn’t set out to become a professional blogger.
After the birth of her first child, Stokoe struggled with postpartum depression. At the insistence of family and friends that she find ways to get out of the house during the cold Utah winter, Stokoe began pushing her baby in a stroller around Target or the mall. She couldn’t afford many of the things she would find, even when they were on sale. But when she found a good deal, she would post a picture on her personal Instagram account. Her friends and family loved it and encouraged her to start a blog.
“It kind of just started because it was something I was doing anyway to entertain myself for fun,” Stokoe said. “It’s something that I never would’ve envisioned in the beginning, but it just kind of took on a life of its own.”
As Stokoe’s blog began to take off, her husband lost his job and couldn’t find another job for several months. She worked hard to support her family in the meantime.
Today, Stokoe’s blog employs Stokoe, her husband and a team of people who help her. It is a full-time job, and Stokoe treats it as such.
“I want people to know that I’m a real person," Stokoe said. "I want them to feel like if they see me in public somewhere they’re going to get exactly what they think they’re going to get when they’re reading what I’ve written online or reading an Instagram post because I want to be me. But at the same time, it’s my job to put together a professional product when I’m working with a sponsor. ...just like anyone else wants to show up and do a good job at their job, that’s what I’m doing too.”
On the other hand, Brooke Romney has never made money off of her blog. She writes for businesses and does speech writing but after looking into the possibility of monetizing her blog, Romney decided she didn’t feel comfortable pushing her blog in that way.
Still, she echoes Stokoe’s sentiments.
“You have to decide if you’re really looking at things as a business or if you’re looking at it as actually being someone’s life,” Romney said. “And I think that’s when it almost needs to be put on the consumer of the media, ‘This isn’t real.’”
Romney, a frequent contributor to DeseretNews.com, points out that it is natural for women, and men for that matter, to “want to put our best face forward.”
“I take pictures in two places in our home because those are the only decent looking spots right now,” Romney said. “I post photos that are flattering to me, just like most people do. I would do that whether I had 50 followers or 50,000. Now, if you are making big bucks by promoting items in a beautiful setting with flawless photography, then I think there is a lot more pressure. I knew I would never be able to keep something like that up, so I have sacrificed popularity and profit, but I have been able to keep my sanity. Some people can do both, which is awesome.”
Pothier, for one, appreciated Thayer’s article.
“I think it’s a great article to get people thinking,” said Pothier, who even has a disclaimer on her blog to remind readers that they are viewing a filtered version of her life. “Because I think there is some responsibility on both sides. I think bloggers could be more real in things they do but I also think that readers have a responsibility to kind of turn off things that are going to make them feel uncomfortable or feel lacking in any way.”
Brooke White finished in fifth place on the seventh season of "American Idol," and has maintained a strong social following in the nine years since through various mediums. White is not from Utah and doesn't currently live in the Beehive State, but she is a mother and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And she "understand(s) where some of these people are coming from and it’s just gone to an extreme level.
“I do understand that it’s a business and at the same time it would be great to see some more transparency with content creators: to give credit to the person who helped you create the recipe or maybe sometimes to let your following know that ‘Yes, I have help because this is a job and I need help so I have a nanny’... It would be beautiful and wonderful if people took away some of the illusion behind it," White said.
Consumers, however, should beware of continuing to follow accounts that make them feel inadequate, Romney and White agree.
“I think it’s OK to look at someone who has a talent for decorating and think, ‘I love that house. This looks amazing,’” Romney said. “I think appreciating someone else’s talents is just fine but I think wanting to be that person or considering your life to be less because you looked at someone’s post, maybe then it’s time for that person to self-reflect and take a few of those accounts off of their Instagram.”
“If something is bringing you down and causing you to feel dissatisfied with your own personal life, you do need to unfollow and I think we need to be more intentional,” White said. “At some point we’ve got to be more intentional with what we do and with what we consume and what we create.”
And if unfollowing accounts that cause negative emotions is not enough, it may be time to consider a “media fast.” Dr. Lexie Kite, co-director of Beauty Redefined, says research has shown the benefits of “media fasts,” including social media, for at least three days.
“Refraining from all that media consumption quickly makes us more sensitive to messages that leave us feeling more self-conscious, anxious, and in need of ‘fixing,'" Kite said. "Studies show that for most women and girls, time spent on social media leads directly to feelings of body shame, low self-esteem, loneliness and depression."
Comparing vs. connecting
White still remembers sitting in the audience during rehearsals of “American Idol” and wondering with tears in her eyes why she was there. She listened as “Olympic-type singers” performed and she was “a very simple singer/songwriter.” She felt she would never be good enough.
And then one day a very clear thought came to her: “Stop competing and comparing and start connecting.”
“I feel like the same can go on in this community where we’re creating connections each day with each other on the internet because let’s be real, he’s (Thayer) totally right,” White said. “‘Between breastfeedings and diaper changes,’ women are turning to the internet to connect. ... Let’s wake up and let’s be intentional about the way we’re using this and how we want to feel and how we want to make other people feel. For me, my goal is to connect.
“If we can succeed in creating a more connected environment as opposed to a competitive or perfectionist environment then I think we’re using it for its best, highest good. As women, if we can aim at connection as opposed to competition or comparing then we all win and we can all look at each other with more grace and more enthusiasm and kindness and instead of being depressed, to be inspired.”
Kite said there is power in this idea.
“We are more powerful together when we aren’t comparing ourselves to each other and judging ourselves and others harshly for how well we decorate the world. We can stop comparison in its tracks when we recognize what we are doing and instead show compassion to ourselves and the women to whom we are comparing ourselves.”
White echoed this sentiment by quoting the LDS hymn “Lord, I would follow thee.”
“Remember that no matter who you’re looking at, ‘In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can’t see,’” White said. “And you just have to know this about every human being you ever look at. No matter how big their kitchen is or how fancy their purse is, they have brokenness inside of their heart and some people are just not comfortable sharing and let’s give people grace no matter how perfect they look.”
In the fall of 2015, in an effort to be more transparent and open about who she is, Stokoe decided to share with her followers an important aspect of her life: her LDS faith. Up until that point, Stokoe says she was hesitant to open up about her faith because she didn’t want to offend or bother anyone. Her concerns were validated when she lost over 3,000 followers within a few days of her initial post.
“But as I’ve continued to post about being a Mormon and about my love for the Book of Mormon and just who I am, I really feel like it’s strengthened my following,” Stokoe said. “Even people who are not Mormons, know who I am. They know exactly what they’re getting from me, it’s not a filtered version of me. It’s not just the part I think they are going to like. It’s just, ‘This is who I am.’”
White believes Stokoe’s efforts should be celebrated.
“I want to celebrate her," White said. "There’s someone who does something that could look perfect and creates beautiful imagery and works with companies who probably expect that. But she says, ‘No, I also want to create a place where people know that other things are important to me and that my soul and my spirit and my family matter equally to me.’”
The opportunity to share her faith is what originally drew Nielson to blogging. She recalls talks by LDS Church leaders that encouraged members to share their faith through the internet and the excitement she felt as a result. Nielson has a specific spot on her blog where readers can request a free copy of her “favorite book,” the Book of Mormon.
The number of requests that have flooded in from all over the world were such that other members of Nielson’s ward have pitched in to help with shipping costs. Nielson even goes to the Missionary Training Center on Wednesday mornings to chat online with the recipients of her gift. She has heard back from many who have been baptized and even more who wrote to simply say “thank you.”
“Maybe people who see my blog think, ‘Oh she’s just a mommy blogger. She writes about dumb things that happen to her kids and who cares about what they’re doing,’ but for me, it’s chatting with these people in Sweden who got a book from me and now they’re learning from the missionaries and we’re chatting together and that’s what it’s about for me," she said. "It’s just so much bigger than me sitting down and blogging. It’s the gospel and that’s why I do it.”
When Stokoe’s blog began to gain popularity, she found herself wondering why this happened to her. It wasn’t until she began to share her faith that she found her “real purpose for doing this.”
“I just hope that somewhere in some little town there’s a mom that reads my blog and two Mormon missionaries knock on her door, I hope that instead of being like, ‘I’ve never heard of you, go away,’ maybe she’d say, ‘I actually follow this girl and she seems really happy and she seems like a normal person and she has talked a lot about this. And I am interested. Come on in.’”