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Is there an invisible string between religious proselytizing and influencing? I asked some influencers.
First of all, I hope you appreciate the Taylor Swift wink in the headline. It was intentional.
I’ve been thinking about religion, my own relationship to it, and how it shows up when I observe influencers. These dense subjects arose for me after this New York Times op-ed about how influencers have kind of become secular morality preachers was published last week, just as religion came up in a discussion group I’m a part of.
The Times essay by Leigh Stein is great. She threads invisible strings between women who’ve become megafamous for self-help and wellness Instagram accounts, like Glennon Doyle, and the rise of millennials who identify as nonreligious. One of her theses is that although influencers like Doyle and others aren’t like the typical evangelists we see in churches or on TV at all, they’ve assumed a similar role for a left-leaning, nonreligious population who are seeking salvation and answers to big life questions.
It made me notice how often I use religious terminology to describe what influencers are doing, and the effect they have on me and their devout fans. I’ve discussed how influencers are skilled and effective preachers — but about lifestyle regimens, parenting, hustle culture, beauty, self-maintenance, and their coupon codes, rather than religious dogma. (I’m being serious! I’ve been convinced on more than one occasion to buy in to something because their pitches are so persuasive.)
Stein’s musings were so compelling to me that I decided to reach out to a handful of influencers in the self-growth and wellness space about her theories. I heard back from five. Their brands vary, from yoga to body positivity to autoimmune disease awareness, and their follower counts range in size from tens to hundreds of thousands. But they all approach these industries from a place of sharing and moralizing and offer deeply personal stories while giving a lot of advice about how to live one’s life well — according to them.
Some influencers rejected the idea that traditional organized religion informs their work today. Lorraine Carbonell-Ladish, 57, advocates for mental health and talks about eating disorders to her Instagram community of just under 25,000 on her account @lorrainecladish. She told me she was raised Catholic but is no longer practicing. Now, she abides by “yoga philosophy,” which she defined as trying to be a better person every day. To her, that’s what’s centering her social media brands. It has also given her meaning during hard times, like recovering from a severe eating disorder and managing major depressive episodes.
“Back when I was young, there was no social media to turn to for information, so now I share my own journey of wellness and recovery so that younger women can know there is hope,” said Carbonell-Ladish.
“I don't need a structured religion to keep me going. Zero aspects of any religion have influenced my work. I am more about ... living by the rule of trying to be a decent person.”
Angelique Miles, 54, wellness and beauty microinfluencer @angeliquemiles, also doesn’t think her upbringing in institutionalized religion plays a major role in the success she’s had cultivating a loyal following to her Instagram page. She told me she was “raised Catholic ” and attended Catholic school from first to 12th grade, but isn’t really affiliated with the church today.
“I haven’t thought about how religion plays a role [in my job],” she said when I asked her about a connection between the two. “My wellness is in trying to heal myself. I had an autoimmune condition. Religion hasn’t really been a thought. I’m more spiritual than religious.”
One influencer, however, 32-year-old Remi Ishizuka, who’s a “health + wellness + lifestyle” guru to more than 283,000 people on Instagram, said that while she also identifies today as nonreligious, elements of a Christian Science school she attended and then a Catholic high school, and their daily mass rituals, has been profoundly influential.
“Even though I'm not religious, it taught me values of honesty and believing in a higher power. I call [on] the universe and I am all about the law of attraction and asking for what you want,” Ishizuka said. “I manifested my dream job as an influencer, before I even knew it was a career, and my relationship as well.”
While I expected different reflections on this sticky and sensitive subject, I was struck by the fact that every woman I spoke to was raised with some level of religious influence (specifically Christianity and Catholicism) in their early lives. I respect and understand that some influencers who were raised with traditional religious influence may want to depart entirely from those influences, but I see throughlines in their work and the relationships they have with their followers. These are massive departures from the kind of evangelicalism millennials grew up with — for one, pastors and preachers were almost always straight white men — but I think influencing operates within a similar framework as traditional organized religion.
The very nature of proselytizing — the storytelling, the cadence and power in the voice, the messaging — is influencing. Religious role models stand in front of a physical congregation and command collective attention by appealing to people’s deepest emotional wounds with a booming and authoritative presence. They share their own woes and pains to teach people how to transform them into something greater than themselves. Leaders of a church can address hundreds if not thousands of people all at once and have the effect of speaking directly to one person’s soul.
Now, online, influencers speak at the podium of their Instagram handle and to a more amorphous audience, but still contained in a community of numbers (big, big numbers). Tina Haupert, 40, of the Instagram @carrotsncake told me she grew up “Catholic...very Catholic,” and those values are still very important to her. She sees similarities between followers of religious dogma, and followers of her life and work. Haupert has an autoimmune disease and has dedicated her Instagram to raising awareness about living with one, and encouraging a “fix/growth mindset,” as she put it.
“My mom made us go to church every week, but I’m not really actively practicing at this point,” she said. “Even if I don’t go to a church, and I’m not religious, I think I am spiritual.”
Haupert said attending church, and hearing readings from the Gospels every week from her pastor, taught her how to be the effective storyteller on social media she is today.
“I think the Gospels that resonated with me as a kid were ones that were stories — stories they took from [the] Gospel and related to real life,” she said. “That’s what I do a lot of now on Instagram, that kind of storytelling. Because if you can connect that way and they see themselves in you, it just resonates with them a lot more. That’s trust-building, and they become more and more of a follower.”
“That trust-building is so important,” she added. “If someone doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to keep following. They’re not going to buy your product. They’re not going to swipe up.”
Speaking to these women this week made me reflect on what I find intriguing about influencers. I grew up with Christianity, my grandmother led Bible studies in our home, and while I also can proclaim I Am Not Religious today, my relationship to religion is complicated and so fragile and so fluid. I don’t belong to an organized religion, but religious tenets — those of Christianity, specifically — are foundational to my sense of self and how I move through spaces around me. It’s probably why I’m so attracted to celebrities or influencers who’ve become role models of How to Live Life, and why I’m so critical of but also comforted by the relationship between elevated figures and their devotees.
I started with a Taylor Swift reference so I’ll loosely end with an Ariana Grande one: Maybe God is a woman?
Until next time,