A friend introduced me to Beautycounter. She’s one of those people who knows about cool stuff before the rest of us do, and she sent me a link for their Dew Skin tinted moisturizer after I complained about feeling red and blotchy. She said the company prioritized “clean” ingredients and is woman-owned, and that Dew Skin would mask imperfections without making me look like I was wearing makeup. She also gave me the name of a friend of hers to enter during checkout. Doing this wouldn’t translate into a discount for me, but rather, as I hazily understood it, my friend would get commission or points or something from my purchase. This sounded great to me. Women helping women in pursuit of patriarchally mandated beauty? I loved it. I also loved Beautycounter’s minimalist branding and fresh faced models that made me feel like I was shopping from Glossier’s big sister. I bought the tinted moisturizer.
Not long after my Dew Skin arrived, I started noticing Beautycounter everywhere, but particularly on Instagram, and particularly on the feeds of many momfluencers. At first, it seemed like just another aesthetically pleasing product sold by aesthetically pleasing mothers on a platform selling the importance of aesthetic pleasures. But then I binge-listened to The Dream podcast. Hosted by This American Life alum Jane Marie and Dann Gallucci, the first season of The Dream is about how the multi-billion-dollar multi-level marketing (or MLM) industry preys on people with false promises of “economic freedom” and “entrepreneurship,” despite the fact that most people who join either lose money or barely break even. When I finished the last episode, I experienced a cartoonish lightbulb realization: Was my cool girl Dew Skin tinted moisturizer the product of an MLM?
The internet quickly confirmed that yes, Beautycounter, in spite of its elevated branding, and reputable standing in the beauty world, is, in fact, an MLM. To be very clear, I’m basing my assessment on the Federal Trade Commission’s definition of an MLM, which categorizes one as a company that makes sales through independent contractors, “by selling the MLM’s products to ‘retail’ customers who are not involved in the MLM,” and/or “by recruiting new distributors and earning commissions based on what they buy and their sales to retail customers.” So, yes, Beautycounter is not so different from those essential oils companies your uncle’s girlfriend pushes on Facebook.
But, whereas I had been invited by friends and acquaintances to Arbonne and Lularoe parties in the past and had always been turned off by a general feeling of scamminess, Beautycounter felt different. In some ways, it is different. Beautycounter doesn’t force members to stock up on products; all transactions go directly through the Beautycounter website; there are no prohibitive monthly sales quotas; and, perhaps most importantly, the direct sales portion of Beautycounter is just one revenue stream, not its only revenue stream. So Beautycounter seems legit — at least as legit as other storied direct-to-consumer beauty brands, like Mary Kay or Avon. And the fact that so many momfluencers were linking to Beautycounter products alongside beeswax food wraps and linen rompers made it seem like Beautycounter was more than just another “pink pyramid scheme,” and actually a way to somehow do motherhood better. But, was it?
Beautycounter isn’t the only MLM to intersect with the momfluencer world. Thanks to The Dream, I knew about Young Living’s dark past and that Lularoe leggings had rotted in warehouses. But, was Beautycounter, with its emphasis on non-toxic ingredients and industry reform and its many advocacy efforts, different? Was it a good MLM? I reached out to The Dream’s Jane Marie, to ask her if MLMs like Beautycounter were “better” than others, and whether or not momfluencers were instrumental in legitimizing them in the eyes of consumers. Jane explained that, first, the general public would need to understand that MLMS are inherently bad before they could imagine that a particular MLM was “better” than the others. And, unfortunately, not everyone is aware of the dangers associated with this business model. “Often people don’t understand that MLMs are predatory because of the industry and the lobbyists and all the powers that be,” Jane said. “And it places a lot of burden on the representative or recruits to educate themselves somehow, about an industry where there's no data collected at all.” Most of these “recruits,” of course, are women.
Jane told me that after World War I and World War II, companies started viewing women, and stay-at-home mothers specifically, as commodities — “sitting ducks.” She said, “These companies realized that moms were desperate for social interaction, they had no personal empowerment. I think the industry decidedly targeted groups of people who were homebound, especially women from conservative, religious groups.” She mentioned the infamous Mary Kay “husband unawares” plan, whereby women were encouraged to keep their “business expenditures” a secret, because, while women might gain community through MLM parties for Avon or Tupperware, they usually ended up losing money.
Beautycounter, specifically, is set up differently. Though it is possible to lose money (there’s a buy-in fee, and people are encouraged to purchase products, so if none are sold, that would be a loss), the financial risks aren’t quite as high as in some other MLMs — but neither are the rewards. Most women participating aren’t making much — or any — money at all. In an interview for the New York Times, Beautycounter CEO and founder Gregg Renfrew said she opted for the direct sales model to create “economic opportunity for women,” but according to Beautycounter’s 2019 income disclosure statement, 82 percent of people employed in this model earn roughly $46 a month. While Beautycounter is very clear that their consultancy program is not only about the potential to make money, but rather about creating awareness about toxic chemical exposure and lobbying for change, their website copy also refers to consultancy as a “business,” creating a bit of cognitive dissonance.
To better understand the intersection of the momfluencer industry and the MLM industry, I reached out to Vivian Kaye, business and empowerment expert; and Faith Hitchon, social media and community director. Kaye said she particularly objects to the way MLMs target, “vulnerable stay-at-home-moms, or moms who have limited employment options or are struggling to make ends meet” with a promise of #bossbabe empowerment without acknowledging the many tiers of privilege that allow the very few women who actually make money in MLMS to succeed: “MLMs wouldn’t be so tempting if mothers were paid equally, if we had access to the same network and the same resources,” Kaye said.
Hitchon first worked in the parenting space with Ergo, an ergonomic baby carrier company, and as someone who acts as a liaison between brands and influencers, she’s wary of working with an influencer who sells MLM products because of the all-important element of trust, something the best momfluencers are experts in creating with their followers. “On the brand side, we typically want to work with influencers who can be trusted by their followers, especially in the mom space because there is so much vulnerability for parents,” Hitchon explained. “Because of the known issues with MLMs there is an immediate distrust associated.”
All successful influencers are skilled at making their followers feel privy to some sort of authentic self, and momfluencers, because of the fact they’re sharing not only their lifestyles but their conceptions of motherhood, occupy a very potent place in their followers’ feeds and consciousness. In the New York Times, Jessica Grose recently wrote about how we form “parasocial relationships” with celebrities and influencers, which, despite being one-sided relationships with strangers, can provide similar sociological benefits to our lives as our real friends do. And when it comes to motherhood, we trust momfluencers not only for cute baby sheet recs, but also to share products or practices that might make the often underappreciated work of motherhood easier/better/happier. So if I think multilevel marketing is an inherently problematic business model, and my favorite momfluencer suddenly starts trying to peddle MLM products, my entire perception of that momfluencer’s value might abruptly change.
Hitchon noted that bigger influencers will sometimes create separate MLM accounts or restrict all their MLM content to stories so as not to scare off potential brand partnerships. She said she has to wonder how much a particular momfluencer might like a brand she represents versus “how much they just want more eyeballs on their page to get more people in their downline.” In MLM parlance, your “downline” is the group of sellers you’ve recruited from whose sales you directly profit.
With 12.6K followers, Hitchon herself might be considered a micro-influencer, with thousands of potential downline sellers she might recruit to her financial advantage, but she says “it would screw up everything I’ve done professionally, my reputation with both brands and influencers, if I got involved with an MLM.” That being said, she thinks many other micro-influencers with healthy, engaged followings can make “insane” money through their downlines. Hitchon explained how “wealthy influencers get more wealthy from selling their FOMO lifestyles, and MLMs are the ultimate replica of that model.” You too can rock a boho beach vibe if you just buy this maxi-dress, you too can be a mindful mama if you buy this parenting manual, you too can cover new mom under eye circles with this concealer!
I, with my paltry 848 Instagram followers, can theoretically buy almost everything from my favorite momfluencer’s feed — the right clothes, the right kitchenware, the right pacifiers — but if I’m trying to start my own MLM “business,” I can’t buy my favorite momfluencer’s 30k followers as potential “business partners.” Hitchon emphasized that the “secret sauce” to MLM success which can’t be replicated is a big, engaged following, and that no matter how many prescribed filters you use, no matter how many strategies your upline shares, the average person will never have the potential of earning the type of money established momfluencers might make via MLMs.
Content creation is a job, and it’s a job that allows mothers flexibility, agency, and both creative and financial control. But MLM ambassadorships or consultancies, despite offering the same things, are not jobs. They are promises — of money you might make and of communities that might sustain you — and often, these two promises are intrinsically linked. If a stay-at-home mom feels worthless and unappreciated, money, in our culture, is an effective shortcut to self-worth.
Hitchon no longer works in the “mom space” because she said the promises exhausted her. Momfluencers all offer something different, but ultimately they all offer a better way to “mom.” And a momfluencer who offers a better experience of motherhood alongside a better way to work via MLMs is like the ultimate maternal capitalist fantasy. Evoking an Instagram reel she once saw of a momfluencer cleaning strawberries with some sort of MLM essential oil concoction, Hitchon led me through the mental and emotional gymnastics involved with selling not only an essential oil, but a way to be a better parent. Hitchon said many moms might watch the video and think to themselves: “As a good mom, why would you want all these toxins on your strawberry? I can’t feel like a good mom giving my kids dirty strawberries. And now here's a way to be a little bit better as a mom, just a little bit better.” She pointed out, “It’s very functional, very subliminal.”
Jane Marie echoed Hitchon’s sentiment, saying MLMs excel at selling morality, which is particularly relevant for mothers — long assumed to be moral authorities by sheer dint of their biological capacity for childrearing. “There’s so much virtue signaling. We’re constantly being told, if we buy this product, we’re good [mothers]. If we buy this other product, we’re bad,” Jane said. “Hopefully what happens is female empowerment and feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment and women are so in charge of everything that these questions are no longer even relevant. That's my hope.”
MLMs rely on thousands of people to buy into a promise so that a very few people at the top of this triangle-shaped business model can become wealthy. Many momfluencers — whether or not they’re working in conjunction with MLMs — essentially rely on a similar promise: Do as I do, and even if you don’t get rich, you’ll be a better mom with more photogenic kids. Much in the same way that everyone who succeeds at MLMs are people who probably already had the right cultural capital and socioeconomic privilege to gain access to wealth in the first place, many momfluencers who succeed are also coming from places of access and socioeconomic privilege. We might not have had windows into as many of their lives prior to social media, but they were always there — they might have even been the women knocking on our door with a suitcase full of Avon products. For the rest of us, whose worth is decided in the deep gulf between morality and capitalism, promises will continue to tantalize us.
As for the Dew Skin? It was ok!