Mormon women are in trouble again. Not for selling out to the patriarchy or for working outside the home. Not for having too many or not enough kids. Not for wearing skinny jeans or peep-toe shoes. No, this time it’s for being overwhelming subscribers to an online bulletin board site called Pinterest.[i]
So, just in case you’ve recently awakened from a coma or returned from a lengthy research stint in the upper Amazon, here’s how it works. Once you create your Pinterest account, you can browse ideas for home design, children’s crafts, food recipes, home organization, party themes, cake decorating, holiday ideas, fashion, and even your favorite artwork, photography, travel destinations, cute animals, and life-affirming quotes. When you find an idea, either from Pinterest or from another website or blog, you can “pin” it to your profile. Next comes the fun part—organizing all of your pins according to various categories or “boards,” sometimes with creative names, like “Wanderlust” for your travel destination ideas (thanks, Janiece!). Type in the search word “turquoise” and you’ll get dozens of hits on things turquoise, from peacocks, fashion, pillows, and jewelry to peaceful topical getaways. Heck, if it’s not on Pinterest, then you can even invent new categories that others haven’t yet thought of. My husband—yes—created a board of freshwater cichlids for in-home aquariums—it’s still one of my most popular boards (and also an indicator of the possibility of shared gender spaces on the typically-female site).
The widespread popularity of Pinterest among Mormon women has gained recent attention. With over 11.7 million active users and 85% of them women, Mormon women are obviously a small numerical minority of all Pinteresters, but their larger cultural presence is met with a bit of derision. Gawker.com recently complained that “Mormon women are taking over Pinterest.”
The reasons for Mo-Pinning are not really a mystery. For the scrabooking, stamping, and crafting set, Pinterest is an alternate virtual outlet for the domestic inclinations of the young Mormon mommy. Pinterest remains relatively free from conflict on divisive religious and political issues, so it also acts as an escape valve from other online forums. And for the particularly zealous LDS proselytizers, what better forum for sharing G.A. quotes, scriptures, and reminders to the world that “we really are Christians!”
Pinterest offers many creative and practical benefits for idea-sharing, and is primarily a useful organizing format for simply keeping track of one’s ideas. It’s like having Martha Stewart Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Parenting, HGTV, and Architectural Digest all in one click. In short, it provides a one-stop online window-shopping center that might just portend the demise of your grandmother’s dog-eared cookbook. Still, with all of these virtues, I, too, am curious by the larger cultural meaning of Pinterest for Mormon women.
Typical of online social networking sites, Pinterest succeeds in building a community of sorts, with only limited familiarity, unless you know your followers personally. Less intimate than Facebook, Pinterest allows you to share people’s ideas without actually having to communicate. That particular lack of direct engagement helps to preserve anonymity, but, most importantly, it reinforces the tendency toward a certain kind of idealized self-expression. This might be even more pronounced among Mormon women, because, “there’s also a cultural drive among Mormons to cultivate and share an image of domestic bliss—and Pinterest is the perfect packaging vehicle for that aim. Pinterest traffics in that relentless, almost eerie perfection that has made Mormon Mommy blogs popular . . .” (Gawker)
As one friend put it, “Pinterest is popular because it allows for the illusion of conformity, perfection and accomplishment without having to do anything.” In fairness, I know many people who have actually tried and experimented with various designs, crafts, recipes, and lesson ideas they found on Pinterest, but I also recognize that for some, the “pinning” process is an outlet for hopeful aspiration, or the projecting of an idealized self: Imagining one’s life after poverty (young wife in a small two-bedroom apartment pins ideas on how to design her someday McMansion), life after weight loss (pinning fashion that won’t work with your body type), life after marriage (look at all of the “Wedding Boards”), life after having children (crafts, clothing, nursery design), life after financial solvency (elaborate and expensive fantasy vacations, sophisticated interior design schemes). Indeed, the virtual self is sometimes better than the reality. Is this unique to Mormon women? Probably not. But are there elements of Mormon life that amplify these desires in inappropriate ways? Certainly.
Pinterest reflects the ultimate postmodern impulse of allowing one’s “self”– or even fractured “selves”– to be externally defined for the public gaze (hence, the “pinning” “repinning” and “liking” of images and ideas that you never knew you desired before you saw them). Your invented self is then reinforced when someone likes or “repins” your idea. How you feel when someone “repins” your pin is a perhaps a similar emotion to when someone “likes” your pithy comment on Facebook. (Imagine my own surprise at each email notifying me that one more popular girl from high school is now following me. Literally, the entire wrestling cheerleading squad is finally affirming my existence on Pinterest, although twenty-five years a bit overdue.) But, a warning, “The Pinterest-self is a self on display, not a self in relation, and therein lies the vice. Therein, too, lies insecurity and crippling anxiety, because an identity based entirely on the display of images– actual images or metaphorical ‘image’– is inherently fragile, vulnerable to attack from every corner.“ Still, even with the reinforcement of self, any ideas that might have started out as individual expressions begin to diffuse into a collective and conforming whole. When I showed a recent wall design to my niece, she declared it “very Pinterest-y,” indicating the increasingly homogenous direction of Pinterest idea shares.
Perhaps the most disturbing meaning for Pinterest popularity is what it says about American—and Mormon consumerism. On the one hand, I see so many pins that are about frugality and doing more with less, of practical home organization ideas, and how to recycle or reuse those hangers and toilet paper rolls and old shoelaces and terra cotta pots. Pinterest provides an admirable—and perhaps uniquely Mormon(?) outlet for thrift and sacrifice. But on the other hand, I see such elaborately expensive and unobtainable scenes to reinforce a concern about modern Conspicuous Consumption, just as worrisome today as it was to Thorstein Veblen’s observations about the Gilded Age upper and middle classes a hundred years ago. This concern for excess worried even historical Mormon women. I recently came across a quote by Zina D.H. Young in her collections at the CHL, which I can only paraphrase here. She had visited the home of Brigham Young for the wedding of one of his daughters. The wedding presents on display, she noticed, were a great comfort to the wealthy, but probably would be considered obscene to the poorer classes of people. Pinterest can likewise create a false sense of material discontent, wherein “this form of visual stimulus can feed the visual and emotional appetite and lead to mindless and harmful consumption.” Or, as one Pinterester regretted here, “As I scroll through the pages, I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I will never have enough: enough money, to own all the beautiful things I want; enough time, to cook all the tempting recipes; enough skill, to attempt all the crafting projects; enough beauty, to have that hair or to pull off that dress.”
The results of this dilemma can go in two directions. One is to reinforce the already-too-typical Mormon woman problem of guilt-ridden failure to meet unrealistic expectations. The other is perhaps a bit more hopeful, and reflects the possibilities of a post-consumer society—of a world free from excess production and waste, and of finding the satisfaction of enough. We can’t imagine away the realities of poverty and lack for some people, but perhaps we can imagine away our own excesses. Maybe virtual pinning is enough. Since most observers will never visit your home to see how well you decorate, how creative your kids’ crafts are, and whether you made that crème brulee for dessert, they will also never know whether you did it. It might be enough that you pinned it on Pinterest, a virtual declaration of your domestic and design aspirations, or your desire to “simply enjoy beauty without lusting after the objects (and people) you find beautiful.”
So to redeem THIS Mormon woman from the sins of Pinterest, it is where I have gotten ideas on how to mix my husband’s Idaho aesthetic of antlers and taxidermy with a mid-century modern look; how to make a giraffe out of a used paper towel roll, how to give furniture an antique, weathered Shabby Chic feel; how to create a wall collage, where to place a button-tufted ottoman in a room, and how to decoupage a wooden box. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then maybe you need to spend more time on Pinterest.
[i] In the meantime, Pinteresters in general might be in trouble soon, based upon whispers of possible copyright issues. http://www.npr.org/2012/03/22/149169388/pinterest-wades-in-murky-copyright-waters#commentBlock