Caught With Their Pants Down

LuLaRoe promised "empowerment" for stay-at-home moms. It brought financial ruin.

1A new documentary called LuLaRich about the multilevel marketing (MLM) leggings-seller LuLaRoe is out on Amazon Prime today, and if you watch it, you might see a familiar face (hi). When the documentary filmed, I had no idea what its angle would be, but the filmmakers were looking for someone well-versed in feminism and the history of women in pyramid / multi-level schemes, and I was happy (if nervous) to oblige. 

I watched the whole thing last week, and I’m not just saying this because I’m in it: You should watch it.

The documentary is an impressive and sprawling look at LuLaRoe’s rise and fall — the false promise of female empowerment it sold, and the lives it destroyed. To me, though, the most interesting part of the LuLaRoe story, and the story of so many MLMs, is the place where American capitalist and consumerist aspiration crashes into our stubborn enforcement of traditional gender roles: how we still fetishize full-time motherhood and consider it the end-all be-all of female ambition, while also living in a nation obsessed with buying, selling, entrepreneurship, and the myth of the self-made (wo)man. 

What’s immediately clear from this documentary — and from a large body of research, and from just about e writhing we know about women’s lives and the human experience — is that stay-at-home motherhood is often boring, repetitive, depression-inducing, and stultifying when done in the idealized American way. Care work doesn’t have to be this way, but in the US context, caring for children often happens in isolation within a single-family suburban home. Stay-at-home motherhood is expected to be an all-consuming joy; if it’s not, that failure falls squarely on the shoulders of a bad mother who may have some psychiatric issue. In conservative and religious communities — those targeted by MLMs — motherhood is supposed to the pinnacle of female achievement and purpose. And mothers are expected to sacrifice any and all personal ambition, desire, and even basic bodily autonomy in the service of their children and their husbands (and in this idealized formulation, all mothers have husbands).

The thing is, if caring full-time for children in nuclear family suburban isolation were as satisfying as so many traditionalists claim, there wouldn’t be much of a need to force or coerce women into it. And yet traditionalists spend a lot of time trying to convince women that this is what we all really want — and they spend a lot of political capital and exert a lot of social pressure pushing women into it.

The reason we do not have universal childcare in the United States is largely because conservatives believe that it is a woman’s duty to stay home with a family’s children; universal childcare would allow women to have children and work outside the home, which is a bad outcome in the estimation of these conservatives. The reason abortion is such a motivating issue on the right is that abortion and contraception free women up from being trapped in romantic and parental relationships they do not want. Take away a woman’s ability to plan her family, and you take away her ability to plan her life. This is one reason you do not see any major pro-life group embracing full contraception access, even though long-acting contraceptive methods are the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate — because it’s not about preventing abortion; it’s about narrowing women’s futures.

That isn’t to say that caregiving and child-rearing are unimportant. They are extremely important, and extremely undervalued. It is to say that the conservative nuclear family ideal — a white heterosexual family with Dad working outside of the home while Mom is entirely financially dependent on him and is at home all day with the kids, usually the only adult in charge of raising children in a suburban single-family home — is set up to make women miserable. Human beings are not meant to live in near-isolation. We crave stimulation, socialization (and not just with children), novelty, and knowledge. Care work can be incredibly meaningful and satisfying; it can be creative and collaborative. It can also be exhausting and repetitive, and leaving women to do it while socially isolated, financially vulnerable, uncompensated, and culturally dismissed is a recipe for unhappiness.

It’s also a recipe for exploitation. And that’s what happened with LuLaRoe and so many other MLMs.

For those who don’t know, LuLaRoe started out as a maxi skirt business, reportedly sold out of the trunk of mother of 14 DeAnne Startup Brady Stidham’s car (I have my doubts about this whole origin story, and would love to see any investigative journalist take it on, because this woman strikes me as a serial fabulist and I don’t think you just accidentally find yourself running a pyramid scheme, but carry on). She pivoted to leggings and the whole thing took off, skyrocketing to become a $2 billion company in just a few years, run by her husband. Women who sold LuLaRoe were required to purchase one of a variety of starter packs, beginning at roughly $4,000, and then could sell those leggings and other clothing items to their friends, neighbors, family members, and colleagues, and keep the proceeds. But the real money was getting other women to join LuLaRoe. Each woman who joined on your suggestion became part of your “downline,” and part of her wholesale purchases went to you (in turn, part of your wholesale purchases went to your upline). The women who got in early made small fortunes, less from selling leggings than from “bonus checks” that came from the women who signed up below them.

This model spawned a vast national network of “huns” — as in “hey, hun!,” the siren song of the MLM mama. And many of these women were moms: White, Christian (often Mormon) stay-at-home mothers who were told they could earn full-time pay for part-time work. You see similar billings for most MLMs, from those that sell supplements to makeup to essential oils. Their branding often feels like a bloody car wreck between a pop feminist and a Home Goods, the “live laugh love” sign mashed into the side of a female empowerment anthem — LuLaRoe’s tagline is “Creating Freedom Through Fashion,” and the company says, “We believe everyone is beautiful, unique, and powerful; and that through these attributes, one can live with purpose and gratitude.”

Women, LuLaRoe said, can have it all. They can be Boss Babes who are mothers first, empowered women who still understand that their husband is the one in charge (that was made explicit in the company’s training materials and by its owners).

This was understandably appealing to the white middle-class Christian women who were ambitious and curious and liked the feeling of being recognized for their efforts and abilities and who may have even craved more personal and financial independence, but who also understood their primary social role as Mom and defined themselves by it. These are women who are often excellent at a whole slew of tasks — who run PTAs, manage family finances, keep kids and spouses on track, and maintain familial and social ties for the whole family — but whose work is uncompensated and largely invisible. And, importantly, whose work was often solitary.

LuLaRoe, and other MLMs, gave these women space for ambition — just a little, not too much, and in the solidly gender-segregated realm of selling women’s clothing to other women. And the goal was clear: Not financial independence for women, but the enhanced ability for a mother to contribute to her family without compromising her primary obligation to care for her household.

Just as importantly, LuLaRoe gave these women an excuse for adult connection — a reason to throw parties, to go on cruises, to meet other women and extend their social networks in ways that didn’t revolve around their kids. They could talk business, not family. They could talk sales strategy, not potty training. Men have always sought out these spaces where they get to engage their interests outside of the home, where they get to feel purposeful and where they get to cultivate relationships based on shared interests and ambitions, not simply shared domestic circumstances and daily travails. For women in traditional set-ups, those opportunities are far fewer and further between.

You also see this in the Christian Mommy Blogger Industrial Complex, which has largely migrated to Instagram in the past few years, with a satellite office at Pinterest. These are the women who spend tremendous amounts of time and effort presenting an idealized, sun-dappled version of their families to the world. The most successful among them are remarkably skilled: They shoot and edit gorgeous photos; they have a sharp eye for aesthetics; they are often documenting the truly incredible creative projects they design and execute; they write captions and descriptions that reflect a keen sense of their audience and what their followers consider aspirational. Sure, they’re selling a heavily edited, wildly inaccurate, super white, and obviously patriarchal vision of the family, but welcome to show business, baby.

Part of this aspirational “influencer” economy, even among Christian and Mormon mama influencers, is about buying stuff. It might be about extreme couponing, which involves spending as little as possible for as much as possible, turning your pantry into a meticulously organized hoarder’s nest. It might be about showcasing your whole family’s matching outfits, a different set for each holiday or event, or adopting the Christian Girl Autumn look of an oversized scarf, a big-curl blowout, and a Céline bag. It might be about capturing the domestic markers of upper-middle-class suburban life, whether that’s a Nancy Meyers kitchen or a pink-iced cake atop a marble countertop or the warm-toned Golden Hour fall family photo shoot. The point, many of these women say, is to bring glory to God and to essentially sell their religious views and their traditional mores to their followers. It’s Capitalist Jesus riding inside a Siena-filtered Trojan horse.

LuLaRoe also sold the twin American dreams of entrepreneurship and accruing a whole bunch of stuff in the name of faith and family. LuLaRoe’s model was one of false scarcity, with women buying under the threat that this or that pattern was only used for so many pairs of leggings, and would never be seen again; if you wanted those leggings, you’d better buy them now. American Evangelical Christianity, and to a lesser but still significant extent Mormonism, has long been tied up in Prosperity Gospel: the idea that God wants to bless you with material abundance and that in turn, if you are blessed with material abundance, that is the Lord’s way of rewarding you for your goodness. Forget the poor, meek and persecuted who Jesus allegedly said would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; in America, fortune (and God) favor the rich, the bold, and the powerful.

It is into this space where the women of LuLaRoe landed: Expected to be self-sacrificing for their families but endlessly consuming in their behavior. Isolated and under-appreciated but pressured to put forward an external image of perfection and togetherness. Personally ambitious in a community that discouraged female ambition outside of the context of domesticity. These are also, it should be said, often women raised to be subservient, deferential to (male) authority, and trusting in the unseen and unprovable (what else is faith?).

LuLaRoe had thousands and thousands of easy marks. It told this particular subset of women exactly what they wanted to hear. And then it fleeced them and their families.

The lessons here are pretty clear:

The isolated and traditional American nuclear family model does not work for the vast majority of women, and when you shoehorn them into it, even many of the ones who say they’re willingly participating will also be trawling around for an acceptable outlet for their other needs.

Most people have ambitions beyond their immediate families. Most people seek purpose and meaning, and also meaningful recognition — which in a capitalist society is compensation and status, both of which we deny stay-at-home moms.

Idealizing female financial dependence on men and female domesticity puts women at risk.

And when you see the language of pop-feminism (“empowerment!” “strong women!”) being used to sell patriarchal traditionalism or simple consumerism, run the other way.

xx Jill

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