Wellness Mommy Bloggers and the Cultish Language They Use

There’s a certain subset of momfluencers on Instagram who appear, at first glance, to be like any other “nice white mommies” on the Internet. This particular type of momfluencer smiles gently in reels as she declares, with calm authority, that Western medicine will “threaten” mothers in order to inject their babies with “neurotoxins.” She upholds “free birth” and denounces “unnatural” hospital births, which are “designed to sever optimal attachment.” She warns her followers against “normalizing formula” and urges them to “break free” from the “misogyny” of viewing medical practitioners as “saviors” “in control” of childbirth. She evokes “biological law” to support her belief (which is referred to as “the truth”) that correct “mammalian birth” necessitates “freedom” from “objectively damaging influences” such as a baby being born “under the influence of an epidural,” which “obliterates” ideal maternal bonding.

I’ve been studying momfluencer culture for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read linguist Amanda Montell’s new book, Cultish, that I came to an understanding that language, when it comes to certain momfluencers bent on selling their own maternal image, is everything. Though Montel doesn’t focus specifically on momfluencers in Cultish, she does explore the many gray areas of society’s “cultish” spaces, devoting chapters to SoulCycle and predatory multilevel marketing companies alongside chapters about Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown. Her point in dissecting the linguistic patterns used by each group is to point out that cultishness exists on a spectrum, and using the label of cult in a binary way actually prevents us from clearly understanding how certain groups impact our behavior, our choices, or our daily lives. Recently, Montell launched a podcast, Sounds Like a Cult, which highlights this point (she and her cohost, Isabela Medina-Maté, have done episodes on marathon running, for example, as well as flat-Earthers and The Bachelor franchise). And after reading Cultish, I started to suspect that language, more than any other tool at their disposal, is the key to a certain type of momfluencer spreading her gospel and increasing follower counts, and in some cases, that language is “cultish.”

Language, when it comes to certain momfluencers bent on selling their own maternal image, is everything.

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.

There are hundreds if not thousands of such “truth-telling mamas,” who sell their followers the idea of salvation through hyper-focused self-improvement. These mothers have the privilege to devote themselves entirely to exorcising their homes from anything not adequately “clean”; the privilege to spend hours on “nourishing the body,” “retraining the brain,” and “restoring vitality and resilience”; and sharing “uncomfortable truths.” Instead of working on making motherhood better for everyone, and for achieving real access to true “wellness” for all, they urge their followers to focus inward, on the right levels of microflora in one’s gut, on the best “natural” products for one’s own children. There’s less impetus to be actively anti-racist or use one’s energy to fight systemic injustices when one faces so few meaningful injustices oneself. Of course, there are many diverse viewpoints within the huge category of wellness and holistic momfluencers, and just because a momfluencer is passionate about gut health, for example, does not mean she is using language in any particularly “cultish” ways or isn’t also passionate about Black Lives Matter.

In Cultish, Montell explores the language used by everyone from the notorious Jim Jones, who coerced nearly 1,000 members of his church to kill themselves in 1978 to the leggings-hawking direct sales company LuLaRoe. What unifies all these organizations and leaders is the use of language deliberately designed to make followers feel like part of a community, to feel privy to salvation or a higher power of being. Whether that salvation comes in the form of personal fulfillment and financial freedom by way of #bossbabe prowess, or in the form of toned arms, or in the form of ultimate spiritual transcendence, is mostly irrelevant. What distinguishes a cultish group from, say, a group of energized, enthusiastic people bent on achieving a certain outcome or goal, is the group’s employment of certain words and phrases designed to create stark, inalienable binaries between “us” and “them.” If you’re fluent in a cultish dialect, you are chosen, you are powerful, you are special.

In an interview, Montell tells me that most scholars she spoke to for Cultish have stopped using the word cult as a formal descriptor, because the inherently judgmental label “makes people shut down.” She explains, “By saying ‘cultish,’ it may sound like an insignificant tweak, but it works to communicate that we’re not making emotionally charged, alarmist accusations by name-calling certain groups ‘cults’; instead, we’re using a softened adjective, rather than a definitive noun, as a way of inviting folks to consider the notion that cultish behavior, cultish rituals, cultish language are elements that can imbue spaces we might not think of as full-blown ‘cults.’ This helps remind us that the quality of ‘cultishness’ takes many forms, and you don’t need to be some sort of imbecile (or judge yourself too harshly) to be susceptible to it.”

I want to be clear in acknowledging that there are many momfluencers with the appropriate training and credentials to operate as good resources for mothers interested in adjusting their lifestyles, diets, and approaches to wellness. But some momfluencers’ platforms pose serious risks to both individual and public health with claims like “muzzling” one’s children with face masks is “child abuse.” For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to these types of momfluencers as “truth-telling mamas” throughout the piece, with the understanding that language is sometimes inadequate, and as we’ll see, often obfuscates instead of clarifies.

Why is the language of truth-telling mamas so worthy of scrutiny? Montell explains, “Language is the medium through which ideology is created and disseminated in the first place. Without language, there can be no beliefs, no cults, at all. And it’s insidious, because it’s invisible. Language makes up the very fabric of how we perceive, and indeed create our reality (the theory of linguistics performativity tells us this), but we take it totally for granted, because unlike shaving your head or moving to a remote commune, it’s something we cannot see.” Especially, I would add, on the Internet, where both followers and content creators can operate with a certain level of remove, of anonymity.

Some momfluencers’ platforms pose serious risks to both individual and public health.

Montell emphasizes that language is critical to establishing an “us” vs. “them” mentality in certain communities. The “them” diametrically opposed to the truth-telling “us,” can be any number of things: Western medicine, Big Pharma, Big Tech, baby formula companies, public education, gender-affirming pronouns, Dawn dish soap, gluten. 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.

As Montell points out, “There are so many massive issues covered in a really cursory, reductive way on these accounts, and the stakes are your very life and afterlife (for you the follower).” If you follow a truth-telling mama who argues that mental illness can be cured not with therapy or medication, but with a few simple diet changes; or if your mama of choice claims that certain essential oils “have been known to cure cancer,” the stakes are very high indeed.

One critical component to understanding cultish language is the “thought-terminating cliché,” a phrase coined in 1961 by psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton. Essentially, it’s any word or phrase that “halts an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought.” Montell says that thought-terminating clichés are not unique to cult leaders—consider “Everything happens for a reason,” or “It’s for the best.” But leaders that use cultish language deliberately use thought-terminating clichés to discourage feedback or pushback, isolate their followers, and uphold themselves as supreme authorities.

A brief, not nearly conclusive list used by truth-telling mamas, includes the following: “Fear is the real pandemic,” “Sound the alarm,” “Freedom over fear,” “The solution is you,” “biologically normal,” “fever phobia,” “Teach the body to heal itself,” “free birth,” “scientism,” “medical freedom,” “pharma apartheid,” “chemical and toxic freedom,” “Balance your vibrations,” “Control your food, control your destiny.” And above all, “Do your research.”

“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.”

I emailed Courtney Bellino, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition and health promotion. Bellino acknowledges that for mothers in particular, there’s “something attractive about the idea of stepping out of the box and attempting alternative interventions, since the status quo has been to align with Western medicine as the sole practice.” Motherhood is inarguably difficult in America, and most of us are exhausted, both mentally and physically. Western medicine, just like every institution, is flawed, and Western medicine has certainly failed in several respects when it comes to maternal health. Let’s not forget such bygone atrocities as the “husband stitch” when doctors, while repairing women’s torn labia after childbirth, would add an extra stitch for the apparent benefit of their husbands’ sexual satisfaction, often without the women’s knowledge or consent. Or “twilight sleep,” when women were given a combination of drugs to prevent them from remembering the experience of childbirth, although not necessarily prevent them from feeling pain during the experience itself. Or the far more consequential horror of forced sterilizations of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and disabled women, or the abysmal Black maternal mortality rate. But for some truth-telling mamas, 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.

Privilege and whiteness actually seem to make someone more likely to fall under the influence of cultish language.

I sent both Bellino and Montell a handful of truth-telling momfluencer accounts to review, and each point out that truth-telling mamas create a veil of credibility through their cherry-picking of certain scientific, psychological, and feminist terminology to spread misinformation. Many truth-telling mamas will evoke the nervous system, the microbiome, gaslighting, consent, bodily autonomy, the freedom of choice, “electromagnetic frequencies,” maternal attachment, various “toxicities,” autoimmunity, nutritional deficiencies, and more to sell consumers their particular brand of wellness. Montell argues that these particular momfluencers deliberately cloak misinformation in the accepted language of authority to create a sense of legitimacy. Even in posts railing against the medical establishment, many of them working in medically adjacent fields call themselves doctors.

I figured Bellino might treat some clients negatively impacted by influencers, but I was astounded to learn that “most” of hers are. “Most of my clients with life-threatening eating disorders come to me after they’ve been adhering to recommendations, plans, or products endorsed by influencers.” In addition to targeting mothers who may have struggled with disordered eating, eating disorders, or body dysmorphia, some truth-telling mamas also argue that chronic disease should never be feared, which certainly gaslights those of us who are sick or suffering, or those of us who have watched loved ones succumb to debilitating illness or injury. They pair this toxic positivity with an ableist lens to imply that people who are sick, disabled, or suffering are somehow at fault, and if only they did X and Y, they could be “cured” from “within,” that one’s health is a “choice” and that we are all “free” to make alternative choices to “heal ourselves.”

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 response to my concern that mothers deprived of the privilege of “choice,” might be particularly susceptible to the false promises of truth-telling mamas, Montell says that privilege and whiteness actually seem to make someone more likely to fall under the influence of cultish language. “I don’t know this for absolutely sure, but from my research into New Age cults, I think white middle-class ex-Christian (or alternative Christian) women are more vulnerable to this because a) they see themselves in these momfluencers, b) their privilege may actually make them more idealistic, which is something every cult survivor I spoke to for my book had in common, and c) they lack community/cultural identity and are seeking to fill that void.” This makes sense given the trend of white insularity among certain moms on Instagram in particular, and of the pursuit of wellness among white women in general.

While all the leaders and organizations Montell studied use language to assert authority and power over their followers, perhaps the most insidious weaponization of language wielded by truth-telling mamas is their evocation of white maternal authority. When they evoke maternal authority, they’re referring to a certain kind of motherhood (white, privileged) and a certain type of authority, one upheld through white supremacy.

“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.

Source: Read Full Article