Why your favorite crafty design blog is probably written by a Mormon
Courtney Kendrick; photo courtesy of Justin Hackworth
“I use baby lotion to make his faux-hawk.” Natalie’s 1-year-old, Henry, watches us patiently from his high chair. His feathery hair is spiked on top of his head in a gentle bell curve. He has two teeth. He’s wearing a Ramones shirt. He’s giggling.
It’s a gorgeous day in late summer, and Natalie and I are at an outdoor café in Manhattan eating overpriced salads. I sip on a limeade, she a Diet Coke. She’s wearing a striped shirt, a furry mocha shrug, and dark jeans. Her shoulder-length brown hair is blown out, her lips glossy, her eyelashes mascara’d. She hands the baby a dab of bread and tugs at his blue jeans.
Natalie Holbrook is a 29-year-old stay-at-home mom who runs a popular lifestyle blog called Nat the Fat Rat, a nickname her Uncle James gave her when she was a chubby baby back in Mesa, Arizona. Natalie’s blog gets around 250,000 visitors a month. She’ll post pictures of what she wore to Fashion Week after she scored a last-minute invite (a cinched, yellow-and-pink dress, flipped hair, and thick-rimmed glasses) or photos of a one-woman Mad Men dress-up party. She’ll write about how much she adores her American Idol-loving accountant husband, Brandon (known as “the Holbs” on her blog), and how much she loves New York—they moved back a year ago after a stint in Idaho. Sometimes she’ll just post adorable snapshots of Henry, better known to her readers as Huck or the Huckster, after Idaho’s huckleberry obsession and her favorite Mark Twain rascal. Natalie is a character you want to be. Her life is one you want to have.
After lunch, we go back to her apartment, which is on a fancy block on the Upper West Side, a stone’s throw from the park. The place is tiny but full of whimsical details: a little green owl pitcher filled with flowers, a shelf with Huck’s favorite bedtime books arranged by color. Natalie notices I’m staring at a red, white, and blue flag above her button-tufted couch. “It’s a nautical flag,” she says. “It means ‘yes’ or ‘change in course.’ I saw it at the Brooklyn Flea and had to have it, since it seemed like this year was a giant escapade in saying ‘yes’ and ‘changing our course.’ It’s like our mascot.”
The baby giggles again. “Hey, dude,” she coos. “You’re happy, aren’t you? Is it because you had a good nap? Or because you’re Mormon?”
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Natalie’s comment is a wink at me—she’s been graciously answering my questions about Mormons for more than an hour. On her blog, her religion doesn’t come up much. If she mentions that she’s Mormon, it’s as an aside. Or a joke: “That Sunday was Bring Your Non Mormon Friends To Church To See We’re Not Weird,” one post recounts. “Keep the polygamy on the supah D-L!” She pokes fun in person, too. Natalie shows me a frilly purple frock that her husband affectionately calls the “sister wife” dress.
In the realm of crafty lifestyle blogs, Mormon women like Natalie are killing it. There is Gabrielle of Design Mom, Naomi of Rock Star Diaries, Liz of Say Yes to Hoboken, and hundreds more keeping carefully curated accounts of their daily lives. Many, like rookie Sharon’s NYC Taught Me, are newly monetized; other blogs, like Gabrielle’s, are the primary source of income for their families. Some of their sites trade in design and fashion, some focus on parenting, and some, like Natalie’s, paint a more complete, perfect picture. Although many are concentrated in the West, most of these bloggers don’t live in Provo. Some have five kids before they’re 30; others started blogging because of their trials with infertility. They frequently hang out in person and exchange emails. It’s not uncommon to see links on the sidebar that say something like, “My little sister—I taught her everything she knows!” They mean it literally; many of them are related.
They hint at their faith—a snapshot with the Book of Mormon in the foreground, a link to an LDS girls’ summer camp. But mostly, their religion is beside the point. They all have huge non-Mormon audiences.
Mormons who grow up outside of Utah do their best to blend in. Natalie’s family moved around a lot when she was a kid, and she took pains to hide her religion from her peers. In Connecticut, there were almost no Mormons. At her Oregon high school, people teased her. When she came home from college on holidays, her former classmates didn’t invite Natalie to parties. “She doesn’t drink,” they’d say. “She’s too good for us.”
“I felt like it was my job to prove them wrong,” she wrote later on her blog. “Be the ‘cool’ Mormon. I felt like I could prove to them that we’re not prudes, we’re not weird, we can be fun and normal, that we do NOT have horns.”
She ended up going to Brigham Young University at her mother’s urging, but she had “major attitude” about it. She had wanted to go to New York University or Oregon State, graduate single, and have a career—not go on picnics at dusk on temple grounds and hold hands with returned missionaries. Her first week at BYU, a boy called her up after they’d had a few forgettable moments of conversation. He told her he’d had a dream that he had taken her to the temple where Mormons are married. He said, “I feel like we’re meant to be together.” Natalie hung up on him.
But during her sophomore year, Natalie met Brandon, the guy who would become the Holbs, and suddenly felt fine about tying the knot. “It wasn’t even like I had some come-to-Jesus moment,” she says. “I met him and was like, ‘Oh, cool, I’m supposed to marry him.’” After a short stint in Oregon, the couple moved to New York for Brandon’s job.
Natalie Holbrook and her son, Huck
Natalie’s blog started as many do: out of boredom. In 2005, she worked a string of mind-numbing office jobs and had a lot of time to kill during the day. So she started reading lifestyle blogs like Mimi Smartypants and Dooce, eventually paying $25 a year to keep her own on Diaryland. It was confessional and rambling, mostly essays about her life in New York. She kept it a secret—“I thought it was super narcissistic back then,” she says.
A couple years later, Brandon got into grad school in Idaho, and Natalie moved with him to the tiny city of Moscow. Without New York as her inspiration, her blogging petered out. She was in a strange world with no familiar faces and no purpose. Her sister had just left the church, and Natalie started to wonder whether she should give up Mormonism, too. She went to temple but her heart wasn’t in it. That’s when a friend directed her to Courtney Kendrick’s blog, C. Jane, Enjoy It.
Natalie went through two years of archives in one sitting. She read as Courtney described her attempts at baby making—putrid fertility pills, detailed ovulation charts, the elation of finally seeing the word “pregnant” on a ClearBlue pee stick. In true Mormon fashion, Courtney paired her pain with a vote of confidence in the Lord. Natalie felt an intense connection with Courtney, even though she’d never met her. Natalie had just started to have her own pregnancy fake-outs, a stretch of infertility and miscarriages that would last for two years, and eventually end thanks to Clomid and a fertility-awareness book.
One night, Natalie had a dream that she was at her house and Courtney was in the kitchen heaving with morning sickness. Beads of sweat collected on her forehead. Their husbands were in the living room playing board games, and Natalie was nursing a beautiful baby girl. Somehow she knew it wasn’t meant for her; it was Courtney’s girl she was holding. Natalie swears that a few weeks later Courtney announced on her blog that she was pregnant with her second child.
Natalie started going back to church. She also started blogging again.
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While Nat the Fat Rat is mostly designer baby slings and boat rides in Central Park, sometimes Natalie offers glimpses of her inner anxieties. But even these posts end on a playful, positive note.
“In the late afternoon sun I watched my cute husband eat a turkey sandwich on my red adirondack chair,” Natalie wrote in September 2009, at the height of her infertility frustration. “I announced my news.” Another negative pregnancy test had just reduced her to tears, and she told Brandon she was over it.
“Good!” he said. He turned his face to the sky and shouted. “Do you hear that, Heaven? We don’t want any babies down here!” “NOT US!” I yelled. “Don’t you even send us any!” Holbs hollered. “We won't take them!” “Just you keep them to yourselves!” I agreed. It felt good. As I shouted to the eternities I thought I could just see those Heavenly angels attending to me. I imagined their understanding smiles and the way they flew off to direct our message.
Mormons have been meticulously recording their lives for almost two centuries. On April 6, 1830, the Lord gave a command to Joseph Smith: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” Grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ memoirs are privately published by their families and bound in high-quality leather. Bookstores and churches in Mormon hubs like Salt Lake City and Provo are stocked with blank journals. Missionaries are required to keep them; children are reminded to fill them.
In the 19th century, Mormons toted journals with them on their journeys to the West—perhaps unsurprisingly, religious commitment and persecution were major themes. While men tended to focus on religion and politics, women recorded every mundane detail about their children, their Christmas dinners, their clothes. Though they were on a grueling wagon ride across the frontier, the accounts have a glass-half-full tone. In an 1885 journal entry, Ida Hunt Udall gushes over her gussied-up baby girl, an infant as laid back as the Huckster himself:
Aunty gave the baby a beautiful piece of blue French merino, and I bought some white silk braid and took my first lessons in braiding her a suit, dress and cape. It looked lovely when finished, and I imagined she looked like a royal little princess in it. … We had not a very comfortable way to ride having no cover on the wagon, and the sun was very hot. Poor little baby got so badly sun-burned that she did not look natural for a week, but she was so goodnatured, around the camp fires and traveling along, that the boys in company pronounced her the “best kid” they had ever seen.
These diaries were written by and for Mormons. But what the LDS church lacked in proselytizing scribes it made up for with public relations. It recorded PSAs and snagged its own 1-800 numbers. The church launched the national “I Am a Mormon” campaign last year, which features videos and billboards of Mormons from all walks of life. They boast the most-visited website of any religion, and Mormons are encouraged to not only blog the good news, but to harness the power of SEO to protect their faith from disparagement.
And for good reason. The church renounced polygamy in 1890 and its racially discriminatory policies in 1978, but Americans continue to associate the religion with multiple wives, racism, and, in the wake of the fight over California’s Proposition 8, homophobia. In the 1970s, “as evangelicals gained in numbers and visibility, they started calling Mormonism a non-Christian cult,” says John-Charles Duffy, visiting comparative religion professor at Miami University in Ohio. In the Northeast United States, home to only about 240,000 Mormons (less than 5 percent of the country’s 5.3 million), non-Mormons may never come across one in person. The stereotypes dominate: a brood of six towheads, a missionary in a crisp white shirt on a bicycle, an obedient wife with a French braid snaking down her back.
In recent years, the public has developed a fascination with Mormons. In 2006, HBO debuted the polygamy drama Big Love. Then came the reality show Sister Wives and, just this year, the award-winning musical The Book of Mormon. Not one but two Mormon former governors—Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney and Utah’s Jon Huntsman— entered the 2012 Republican presidential race. But even though Mormons are in the spotlight, they’re still “them.”
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.
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“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.”