I don’t know when “What’s your sign?” replaced “What do you do?” as a conversation-starter for me, but I do know I’m not alone in my increasing interest in what the stars have to say about life on earth. We’ve been in the midst of an astrology boom for nearly a decade now, and there’s no end in sight. If anything, our collective fascination with astrology only seems to be picking up steam. By the end of 2020, searches for “astrology” and “birth chart” both hit a five-year high, according to Google Trends.
This makes sense: The pandemic has led to major uncertainty this past year, and the ongoing upheaval of our economic, social, and political institutions may also be a big factor in why we’re so invested in finding answers to our many, many questions right now — even if they come from far-off celestial bodies. Jennifer Freed, PhD, a psychological astrologer and author of Use Your Planets Wisely, confirms that, during times of turmoil, we often want “something to affirm and reassure us that we are whole, secure, and seen.”
For some, that means turning to spiritual institutions; three in 10 US adults have reported that their religious faith became stronger due to COVID-19, according to the Pew Center for Research. But for others, astrology offers a welcome alternative to traditional religious structures. “Astrology has really risen in popularity because people want a symbol system that’s not sexist, racist, homophobic, that helps them connect to each other across all demographics,” Dr Freed says.
“What’s really great about astrology is that you have this set of reasons for why things are happening,” explains Annabel Gat, astrologer and author of The Astrology of Love & Sex: A Modern Compatibility Guide. “It creates this cause-and-effect paradigm that’s really exciting for people to explore.” This works on a collective level. When there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding big events, like the 2020 presidential election, it can feel helpful for people to look to the planetary cycles for answers. The same thing holds true for those seeking to make sense of or contextualise the pandemic and even racial justice movements.
On an individual level, this means that someone can credit being an Aries as the reason they’re so impatient, and perhaps find it easier to acknowledge and address the issues they see in their personal lives.
Learning about your birth chart fulfils something that psychologists call a “mirroring need.” “This refers to a desire to be reflected by something other than yourself,” Dr Freed explains. The mirroring need is why we take personality quizzes online and have heated discussions with our friends on whether we’re a Carrie, a Samantha, a Miranda, or a Charlotte. It’s why we love the Myers-Briggs Test. And it’s why we love to pore over our birth charts, seeing the nuances of our personalities reflected in our planetary placements. We have an intrinsic desire to be recognised and understood.
At times, our mirroring need gets more intense. “When we’re in chaos and stress, we’re more psychologically fragmented,” Dr Freed says. “We don’t feel as centred and as calm, and when we’re feeling fragmented and more insecure, our mirroring needs are more hungry. You want something to affirm and reassure you that you are whole and that you’re secure and that you’re seen.”
Astrology can offer that reassurance, even among people who don’t really “believe” in it, but simply enjoy the practice and get a thrill out of the experience of self-identification. Astrology also gives people an easy way to connect with others. Kayla, a TikTok creator based in North Carolina, has her “big three” signs (sun, moon, and rising) on display in her Instagram bio — Aquarius, Leo, and Cancer, respectively. “I feel like it makes people understand why I do the things I do, or why I portray myself a certain way,” she explains. Kayla’s Aquarius sun signals that she’s creative and independent, while her Leo moon alerts others to her dramatic flair. “I love to see it when other people put their big three in their bio because it gives me an understanding of their characteristics,” she says. You may feel closer to an acquaintance if you know you have complementary signs, or you may use it as an excuse as to why you always butt heads with someone.
Illuminiah, a traditional astrology student based on the West Coast, agrees, likening the “big three” in a bio as a signal to others. “It’s a way to connect,” she says. “You’re saying, this is part of who I am, and this is how I can attract other like-minded people who are also into astrology, or attract other people who are like me. When I see a big three in a bio, I’m like, Oh that’s cute they’re into astrology, and you just feel... I don’t know. Safer.”
Given the popularity of astrology accounts on Twitter and Instagram, it’s no surprise that the practice has begun to dominate TikTok too. The video platform has also paved the way for smaller, lesser-known astrologers and astrology fans to build huge audiences.
When Illuminiah first downloaded TikTok, she mostly posted funny videos. But after publishing an astrology video that had been saved in her drafts for a couple months, her following exploded. “A lot of people resonated with it,” she says. “I was talking about Pisces risings and people who have that placement, there’s something about their eyes that’s very distinct and a lot of Pisces risings have that in common. It was a catalyst for an entire rising sign series that I started.” Even Lizzo commented on one of her videos. “In a matter of two days, I went from 1,000 followers to 20k followers, and that’s what kind of started the whole astrology thing on TikTok for me last year.”
When I ask Illuminiah about why she thinks TikTok users are so drawn to her astrology content, she echoes Dr. Freed’s words. “Above all else in this life, people want to feel understood,” she says. “Looking at your birth chart and finding things that make you self-actualise and make you be like, ‘Wow, that’s so true, I didn’t even realise this about myself,’ it’s very healing for the inner child.” This need is reflected in the most common astrology question she gets on TikTok from her followers: Can you tell me about myself?
“I think that every human being is born with a longing to be understood and to feel safe, seen, and celebrated,” Dr Freed says. And, as we inch toward the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, our traditional ways of connecting and being seen are still unavailable to most — but the stars are always there, waiting for us to find ourselves in them.