Enter bloggers like Natalie Holbrook, whose lives look nothing like Big Love. They are real people. Very charming, goodlooking, cheerful people. Natalie admits her blog is less about “her life and experiences” and more about “how she sees the world.” The Holbs is a character. Her friends are amalgams. When she and her husband have an argument, or when one of them makes an off-color remark, Brandon will say, “This doesn’t go on the blog.” It never does.
“I have a lot of Mormon friends who are just as liberal and foul-mouthed as I am, but they would never get on a website and talk about things like I do,” says Heather Armstrong, a proud ex-Mormon who runs the blog Dooce. “Even when they’re going through ‘adversity’—such a Mormon word!—they have to have an optimistic outlook on life. Mormons are highly invested in preserving their image as wholesome, happy, and productive.”
Heather is one of the most successful lifestyle bloggers in the world. One and a half million people follow her on Twitter, and 50,000 people visit her site every day. Her “About” page declares, “I firmly believe that BYU is the most horrible place on Earth, worse even than Disneyland, and the list of reasons is much too long to get into here, although my time spent there taught me more about foreplay than any porn could.”
Heather and Natalie’s blogs share a set of aesthetics, but the mood is pretty different. Heather swears. She complains, she writes about poop, she mentions the guy she once had sex with who talked like Elmo in bed. “I definitely see a whole bunch of design blogs where there’s never a drop of negativity, ever,” Heather says, but that doesn’t stop her from getting decorating ideas from her relentlessly upbeat Mormon counterparts. She is an avid follower of Design Mom and a good friend of the author, Gabrielle Blair. Still, Heather always found it bizarre that Mormons didn’t complain in public unless it was a matter of life or death. At BYU, she started having serious doubts about the church. When she was a sophomore, she read a paper on Ebonics in a linguistics class and realized that her parents would be outraged to know that she supported the program for California schools. From there, her family’s intolerance made her angrier and angrier.
Heather ditched Mormonism on her last day of college in 1997, before blogs existed. She looked around BYU's campus and her parents’ temple in Tennessee and thought, “This isn’t me.” Eight years later, when Natalie was adrift, she found role models thousands of miles away, women who were breadwinners and cared about fashion and made jokes about their faith. She saw Mormons who could break with tradition, or at least bend it a little. She saw herself.
“Mormons aren’t weird,” says Jordan Ferney, who writes the blog Oh Happy Day! and lives in Paris with her family. We’re ten minutes into our phone conversation and it’s already awkward, made worse by the shitty international connection. “We haven’t been weird. We’ve been your doctors and store owners for a century. Maybe it’s just that America is bigoted.”
“People don’t get it,” she continues. “After Prop 8 there were all these protesters outside my LDS church in San Francisco. Which is so funny because everyone in my congregation is super liberal. People in my congregation probably voted the same way [the protesters] did.” Some California protesters held signs targeted at Mormons that said, “My two moms can beat up your 14 wives.” When exit polls showed that 70 percent of blacks had voted in favor of Prop 8, some Mormons, including Jordan, thought it was unfair that people weren’t protesting outside black churches. “It’s because that’s an intimidating crowd,” she says. “Whereas me and my little 3-year-old walking out of a church isn’t very scary. It’s really easy to be mad at the happy, blond person.” In other words, don’t hate us because we’re beautiful.
Or rich. Mormons are by far the wealthiest religious group in the United States per capita, with $25 billion to $30 billion in estimated total assets. According to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of Mormons are middle-income, as opposed to a third of the general population. Six in ten Mormons have some college education; only half of the rest of the country have the same amount. Mormon families have the means to buy cute boots and tricked-out strollers. They’re also more likely to have one-income households, which, in the Mormon community, means more wives who have time in front of their computer screens.
Jordan has to get off the phone because her dinner guests have arrived. “They’re Mormon, too, by the way,” she says. “In their spare time they fight against child trafficking. They work for the foreign service. They’re very cosmopolitan.”
The air of perfection might make Mormons the ideal political scapegoats, but it also makes them the ideal lifestyle bloggers. In early 2011, journalist Emily Matchar confessed on Salon that she was an “overeducated childless feminist atheist” addicted to blogs written by Mormon housewives. The article inspired dozens of Mormon bloggers to answer the question, “Why are there so many of us?” Many remembered journaling as children, and posited that blogging was a way to keep it going. Others looked to their community’s ingrained industriousness. “Growing up Mormon, I only saw my parents relax and rest on Sundays—they were always working, playing, cooking, journaling …just a constant flow of ‘getting things done,’” wrote Emily Henderson, a style blogger who’s an ex-Mormon. “We went to thrift stores LONG before it was cool. And I swear on the Book of Mormon, that is where I got a lot of my creativity and style.”
Others suggested that they are attracted to blogging for the same reasons as many other women: It’s a way to balance the modern with the traditional, to have an outlet and a career outside of motherhood but still stay at home. It’s an especially attractive option for Mormons. “If you become a mother and you decide that you want something else, there’s a lot of pressure,” says Gabrielle of Design Mom, who is Jordan’s sister and lives a few hours away in a small town in France with her husband and six kids. “I’ve never felt criticism that I worked full time, but also I was in New York, and it’s very progressive. I don’t know if a Mormon congregation in Utah would have been as accepting.”
Some bloggers, like Jordan, barely mention their religion at all. You’ll find it in three places on her site, one of which is on her list of Frequently Asked Questions. (“Are you Mormon?” “Yup.”) Others, like Courtney, put their religion in the foreground. Most don’t think of their blogs as a proselytizing tool, but that doesn’t mean they don’t connect them to religion. Natalie was out for one of her two-mile “blog jogs” in Idaho, during which she’d brainstorm her next post, when something occurred to her: Maybe she should pray for her blog. She was embarrassed at the thought—Is my blog really worthy of God’s attention?—but she did it, anyway. “It sounds cheesy and ridiculous,” she tells me, “but I think this is something that God supports.” Still, the moment when Natalie whispered “God bless my blog” was never recounted in a post on Nat the Fat Rat.
When the bloggers are up-front about their religion, not all readers are supportive. In February of last year, Courtney wrote about “Mr. Whitehouse,” one of the few residents of Provo who isn’t Mormon. His wife had died that morning, and Courtney was trying to make sense of the tense relationship between Baptists and Mormons. It was no pious polemic, but the post opened a floodgate of negative comments. One commenter felt duped into reading a Mormon blog when he didn’t want to. Another called her an abomination of the blogging world. Courtney later deleted these and all comments on C. Jane, Enjoy It.
Reading the hateful responses made Natalie sick to her stomach. She sat down that night and wrote a post in which she “came out” to her readers: “I am Mormon, hear me roar.” She opened up about the teasing she endured in high school. She told the story of how, in her first year at BYU, one of her good friends who wasn’t Mormon called her up just to tell Natalie “how bad Mormons are. How dumb we are. How wrong we are.”
The post was met with an outpouring of love and thank-yous. One longtime reader wrote, “Good for you girl, for standing up for not just your church (that’s not really your job) but standing up for yourSELF.” Another reader gushed, “I love that you are open with your life, your faith included. <3” Still another added, “your passion is so inspiring - thanks for sharing.”
And why would her Mormonism matter to her fans? They already know her favorite romantic-comedy actress (Meg Ryan), the drink she chugs while pregnant (Fresca), the fact that she superstitiously says, “Rabbit, rabbit,” on the first of the month. They didn’t learn about her through a campaign speech or an “I Am a Mormon” billboard on the subway.
“You go through periods when you’re really in tune with your readership,” says Natalie. “You know they’re with you. That post was one of those times.”
Courtney gets emails along these lines all the time. “I am a single mother,” they begin. Or, “I am a Methodist in Texas.” Or, “I am a Jewish, liberal Long Islander.” Or, “I am a mother of two in the adult entertainment industry.” They confess their addiction to her blog, and don’t care that she’s Mormon.
“I think they understand that we’re average Americans, but that we’re also kinda weird, kinda quirky,” Courtney says. “It’s as if they’re saying, I’m not like you, but I like you.”