The invisible string between religious proselytizing and influencing


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 mega-famous 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 into 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.

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 practising.

Now, she abides by “yoga philosophy,” which she defined as trying to be a better person every day.

To her, that’s what’s centring 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 were 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.” Continue reading

  • Tanya Chen is a BuzzFeed News Reporter
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