Family

To the Reels

For momfluencers, video is a whole new challenge.

A thirtysomething woman smiles and holds up a gift box in front of a mounted smartphone recording the scene full of Christmas decorations. A baby wails beside the woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

A beautiful blond woman wearing impeccable makeup lurches into the frame on my Instagram feed. She’s making big gestures; I’m momentarily confused. A floating caption appears, informing me that I’m watching “A conversation I imagine my kids having (Part 21).” This is Lindsey Simon Gurk, a Las Vegas–area mom of two and established momfluencer who used to be known mostly for her polished look-of-the-day posts, but recently has been doing numbers with humorous reels on TikTok and Instagram.

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In this reel, she’s performing as both of her children. We cut to her sitting on the floor next to an (impeccably clean) toilet, nibbling toilet paper. Lindsey-as-two-children discusses a plot to get away with mischief. This is gentle, loving humor about children’s oddities: Lindsey-as-3-year-old asks Lindsey-as-1-year-old why they’re eating toilet paper, and the baby sibling replies, “You dip your apples in ketchup!” The delivery is impressive; Gurk is completely confident, almost brazen in her performance. Twenty-eight seconds later, the reel ends and I scroll on.

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Momfluencing is changing. Over the past decade, Insta-moms­—the second generation of online momfluencers, after the blogging era of the 2000s—have evolved a visual language that has come to symbolize, for better and for worse, the aspirations of contemporary Western mothers. This language marks the passing of the seasons with photo shoots in wildflower fields and pumpkin patches. It celebrates a baby’s first birthday with a cake made just for them, which they are meant to rub all over their own face. This is the visual language of children in coordinated pajamas, and of moms bearing up amid the chaos with a glossy lip and determined smile.

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As of a few years ago, the coded visuals of the Insta-mom have evolved to express imperfection and honesty, as perceived authenticity superseded perfection as the most marketable quality in influencers. Until recently, their primary medium has been the static image, which has afforded momfluencers a lot of control over the messages they’re sending. But Instagram’s algorithm, influenced by the rise of TikTok, has started favoring short videos called “Reels” over photos. Unlike videos, which people have been posting to their Instagram pages for years, reels live in their own feed and are limited to 60 seconds. As videos do on TikTok, reels replay on a loop, and scrolling through them is incredibly addictive.

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Instagram’s emphasis on video was likely driven by anxiety over losing teen users to TikTok, but the transition is hard on older influencers, including moms. Many experienced momfluencers are rushing to acquire new skills after a decade of building their brands around static photos. When Instagram tweaks their algorithm every six months to keep users interested, at what point does momfluencing become unsustainable?

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One of momfluencers’ dominant visual tools over the past three years or so has been the letterboard. They were once ubiquitous, and they did a lot of work for the people who used them. Maya Vorderstrasse, a Brazilian who lives in the South with her American husband and their three kids, is widely considered the queen of all letterboard mothers; her jokey letterboard posts have vaulted her to virality numerous times. Now Vorderstrasse is considering her future as a video-based content creator with some apprehension.

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“Video is way more vulnerable than photos,” she told me. The medium is also more demanding of mothers as performers. Executing a self-deprecating version of a TikTok dance is one thing, but momfluencers’ usual fodder is their daily lives—their kitchens, their children, their routines. Controlling the backdrop in a photo requires less work than making an entire room camera-ready. But the most challenging demand of videos is performing an entertaining simulacrum of your daily life without appearing inauthentic. As an audience, we have come to expect a certain polished look to momfluencers’ content, which is easy to maintain in a photo. But in videos, maintaining a pose is impossible. There’s a double standard at work; we expect photos to be polished, but videos to be convincingly authentic. This requires momfluencers to be simultaneously glossy and unscripted.

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Lindsey Gurk, of the toilet paper reel, is a good example of someone who walks this tightrope very well. But it’s challenging. Earlier this year, Vorderstrasse was experimenting with reels, and made an unusual video about her emotions on the occasion of her weaning her youngest child. She appears in a flowing floral dress as she lowers herself into a flower-strewn bathtub, and, as she’s handed her youngest child, she bursts into tears. The video was striking in its complete departure from the prevailing moods of TikTok videos—jokes, dances, or spritely lectures about current social debates. This was a mother performing sincere vulnerability on video, which most people don’t see that often on Instagram.

The video was a hit among her followers, and as its engagement numbers grew, Instagram fed it more widely into other users’ feeds. Soon it was being seen by all kinds of people—not just moms. “I got 10 million views on that video, and I had to take it down. When the algorithm starts showing your stuff to people that aren’t interested in your subject, you get a bunch of people who don’t know you calling you names. I got death threats,” Vorderstrasse said. It’s impossible to know exactly what about the video drove people to react with such vitriol. Maybe it was the hint of camp in the visuals, or the video’s unguarded sincerity, or maybe it was the simple fact that a woman making a point about the use of her breasts is going to get a certain kind of person very riled up. “The whole thing completely bummed me out about doing reels,” Vorderstrasse said. “I’m really torn, because that’s the direction the platform is headed. But I’m sticking to static photos, or reels that are not emotional. I’m being very cautious now, because the internet is ruthless.”

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Vorderstrasse was an early influence on Brooke Raybould, aka @thesouthernishmama, who built a strong following using letterboards over the past few years too. Now Raybould is faced with the same dilemma: adopt video, or be passed over by the algorithm. “What’s key with the algorithm now is people saving and sharing your content. Before it was engagement. Now, they’re rewarding memes and comedy—that’s what people share and save. I’m not a comedian, I’m more of a photo-taking person. And now it’s like, oh my gosh, to create videos that people want to share and save? It’s just a total pivot. I want to figure it out. I’m just trying to balance everything right now,” said Raybould, who gave birth to her fourth son just over a month ago.

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It sometimes feels like as momfluencers work to figure out how best to work with Instagram’s algorithm, they’re in a familiar position relative to power that women have negotiated for millennia—which is to say, outside of it, relying on one another’s experience to get by. Katie Crenshaw is a momfluencer based in metro Atlanta. She feels positive about the pivot to video—“if I just do it and get used to it, it will be fine”—and she has learned to rely on her informal network of fellow momfluencers to help read the algorithmic tea leaves as they rearrange themselves. “They [Instagram] don’t tell us that much. Even people who have been in one-on-one meetings with Instagram, they don’t learn much. So we pay attention. We give each other tips. And then it changes as soon as we think we’ve figured it out.”

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Sara Tasker, an author and Instagram expert who teaches courses on content strategies for influencers, told me that the challenge of keeping up with an ever-changing platform is especially hard for moms who have spent years curating a life in photos. “If you’ve created a persona in pictures, it’s hard to carry it over to video very easily. And to do it professionally, to a super high standard, to understand the vernacular of this entirely new medium, straight away? It’s like landing in a foreign country where you can’t speak the language. And you’re on such a tightrope when you’re already known for a certain level of professionalism. The audience expects a standard.”

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Working the algorithm isn’t necessarily a burden for teen influencers who are just passing through and having fun riffing on the latest trends and who have unlimited time to fuss with effects and learn new tricks in their bedrooms. But many momfluencers are now a decade into social media as a career, and they only have so much time to spend learning new tools—often just a few hours at night after the kids are asleep. For those transitioning, what started out as fun is now unambiguously work. Momfluencers who find a facility with video will ride this wave to success just like Vorderstrasse and Raybould did during the heyday of letterboards, but what will happen when the next iteration hits?

Most career momfluencers have contingency plans already in development. Raybould is releasing a children’s book next year. Crenshaw has already published several children’s books and wants to start a coaching business. Vorderstrasse would love to work in influencer marketing, but on the corporate side, not as a creator. Instagram influencing is meant to look effortless, but it’s never been more challenging. For momfluencers who have become experts at maintaining a consistent brand, the demands could, at a certain point, outweigh the benefits.

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