THE CULT OF THE WHOLESOME HIPSTER / SHIFTING GEARS INTO A CONVERSATION ABOUT #AUTHENTICITY / by Chelsea Snow

A few disclaimers: 

  1. I wrote this essay for school last year, so if it seems dated, that's because it is. I think that many things have changed at the magazine over the past year, and maybe that will be a follow-up post
  2. I'm posting it here, today, because authenticity is a thing I have been thinking about and I have been wondering how to start having that conversation instead of the self-help-y one (ultimately I'd like to have both, at the same time!) and thought maybe it would get the ball rolling
  3. I am not saying that Kinfolk is bad
  4. I am implicating myself as much in a cult-y absorption in consumerism as anyone else
  5. It makes me nervous to share this because I think I'm going to offend people, but you need to trust me: I do not mean to offend you, I just want to talk about things
  6. Authenticity is a real thing, but a slippery one: once you use the word, you render it meaningless
  7. I haven't blogged in 3 weeks, and I only sort of feel bad about it, but I did miss you
  8. Okay, here it is:

In the Spring of 2011, the founders of Kinfolk Magazine Nathan Williams and Katie Searle-Williams were finishing up degrees in finance and conflict resolution at Brigham Young University Hawaii. Young, white, stylish, attractive, wealthy and devoutly religious, the couple and their cohort were unsatisfied with the current offering of publications dedicated to their particular lifestyle, which centered around a tight-knit community of friends, entertaining, and carefully staged Instagram-ready vignettes of food and rustic minimalist home decor. Kinfolk’s stated purpose is to “encourage a localist investment in the community” and a focus on “slow living.” Their manifesto from their launch in July 2011 (now removed from their website) read:

Every element of Kinfolk – the features, photography, and general aesthetics – are consistent with the way we feel entertaining should be: simple, uncomplicated, and less contrived. Kinfolk is the marriage of our appreciation for art and design and our love for spending time with family and friends.

Fast forward five years: Kinfolk has 70,000 subscribers to their print publication, editions in multiple languages, 797,000 followers on Instagram, has just published their first book, and launched a line of signature Japanese linens. The wholesome twee hipster ethos that defined their purpose and aesthetic has been adopted so readily into the mainstream that their “simple, uncomplicated and less contrived” ideals have been wholly inverted, creating a crushing visual predictability amongst its devotees who have formed a cult-like following of the magazine and a pixel for pixel dedication to mimicking its aesthetic, missing the point completely. An article in The American Conservative understates this point in reporting that “Kinfolk may seem overly romantic. Indeed, its simplicity and ruggedness can feel slightly staged; the bohemianism and hipster touches may be repellent to some.” Repellent indeed: Kinfolk’s ubiquity and influence in the world of craft, design, lifestyle and entertaining has seduced it’s “readers” (in quotes because people who read Kinfolk “for the articles” would find far superior writing in Playboy) into adopting aesthetic conformity and reduced them to a one-dimensional consumer profile.

 Photo credit:  The Bahamian Rhapsody

Photo credit: The Bahamian Rhapsody

It’s no secret why Kinfolk is so popular from a visual standpoint. The photography is stunning, the white space is ample, and there are no advertisements to cheapen the pages (at $18 per copy, I should hope not). The color schemes are natural and neutral, the models typically wear white, grey or taupe. Backdrops are gentle pastels, and interiors always reflect a rustic minimalist design. The styling of their photoshoots is definitely what sets them apart, however, with what I call hyper-vigilant nonchalance. This is a trait very common among stylish hipsters, wishing to portray the “I woke up like this” vibe, but in reality having spent hours agonizing about getting the tousle in their hair--or in the case of Kinfolk--the fig falling off the edge of the cutting board just so. Conceptually, it might seem at first glance that finding perfection in the imperfect is a sort of liberation, but in fact the result tightens the parameters on perfection even more.

 Image credit:  Dressed by Style

Image credit: Dressed by Style

Not long after the debut of the magazine, LA-based blogger Summer Allen noticed this new photographic trend surfacing on Instagram. She describes it as “Fussy Creative Class Creature Comfort Bingo.” This is to say: a huge wave of Instagram users (many of whom are designers, design bloggers and blog designers) began photographing eerily prescribed sets of images: latte art, well-made shoes shot from above, bicycles, vintage cars, ice cream held in front of the camera, round organic multiples (eggs, citrus), sprigs of herbs, half-eaten farm-fresh meals on white plates, American flags, “...and of course, Kinfolk—the subtle instrument of aesthetic brainwashing that drives it all.” As a response, she launched a Tumblr called “Kinspiracy” with the tagline “Kinfolk Magazine: making white people feel artistic since 2011.” The blog has received widespread acclaim on the internet as a critique of and response to the growing suspicion around Kinfolk’s success, and has been mentioned by a variety of news sites including the Guardian, the New York Times, Gawker, Vice, Jezebel, etc. What each of these publications acknowledges is that Kinfolk, while earnest in its effort to cultivate a meaningful lifestyle, appears to have created a cult. Critics have drawn comparisons to The Stepford Wives, and written scathing opinion pieces that each mirror the same general sentiment: that “Kinfolk is a constipated manual for minimalist try-hards” who mindlessly follow their leaders in whatever whitewashed direction they wish.

 Screenshot from  Kinspiracy

Screenshot from Kinspiracy

Cult is a strong word. Merriam Webster defines it as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous; a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much.” It is the stealthy religious angle of the magazine--not immediately apparent in its pages--that ultimately shifts this benign magazine’s readership from subculture to cult. Perhaps if Kinfolk were transparent about its religious underpinnings there would be less backlash--they could easily be redefined as the young conservative Christian lifestyle magazine that they are.

The website Christ & Pop Culture (CAPC) criticizes Kinfolk for not taking strong enough a stand on Christian values, and relying too heavily on aesthetics--all style, no substance. One of the more thoughtful and well-rounded critiques of the magazine, CAPC traces Kinfolk back to one of it’s original inspirations, the writings and poems of Wendell Berry--American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. Oh, and devout Christian. In the article “The Pleasures & Pitfalls of Kinfolk Magazine”, writer Ethan McCarthy implores Kinfolk to rectify the imbalance of the style/substance ratio:

“...a magazine depicting a lifestyle grounded in wholesome principles needs to get the style/substance ratio right. Thought informs aesthetics; aesthetics illuminates and incarnates thought. If the focal point slips too far in either direction, something crucial is lost. When Kinfolk slips too far toward style, it can quickly turn into vanity.”

He goes on to call out Kinfolk for playing into the “cult of conspicuous creativity”--the dangerous part of our culture that doesn’t care what you do, only how well you document it. He wouldn’t accuse Kinfolk of being responsible for this cult--insisting that we are all split by dual motives--our natural desire to appear a certain way to other people, and our desire to be “wholesome”. His analysis of Kinfolk reinforces that of the Kinspiracy blog, asking (rhetorically) if high ideals and superficiality can co-exist, and whether the radical departure from conventional lifestyle photography--when so easily duplicated by any Instagram user--is still radical.

Another biting response to Kinfolk is the Instagram account @socalitybarbie, run by Portland-based wedding photographer Darby Cisneros. Cisneros used a Barbie doll and perfect miniature replicas of commodities necessary to the Kinfolkian lifestyle to mirror the photography style and topical conformism found on the Kinspiracy blog. The term “socality” is a common hashtag used in conjunction with Kinfolk-related hashtags, and gets even deeper into the cult of Kinfolk. From socality.com:

1. Socality is committed to creating spaces of belonging online and turning these into real life interactions.
2. Socality encourages others to use their social influence collectively to develop local communities that are connected globally.
3. Socality connects and creates influencers for the message of the Gospel.
4. Socality equips people in their talents and mobilizes them outside the church walls to take their faith into action for community development and impact.
5. Socality partners and highlights cause-based organizations and brands that are ethically sound and socially responsible.
6. Socality, at the foundation, is about loving God, loving people and committing to the process.

Cisneros ran the SB account anonymously for five months, gaining 1.3 million followers (almost twice as many as Kinfolk itself!). She called it quits in November of 2015, outing herself as the human behind the Barbie, and stating in her final IG post:

“Hey guys, my name is Darby Cisneros and I am the creator of SocalityBarbie. I just wanted to introduce myself and thank all of you for enjoying this account. I started SB as a way to poke fun at all the Instagram trends that I thought were ridiculous. Never in 1 million years did I think it would receive the amount of attention that it did but because of that it has open (sic) the door to a lot of great discussions like: how we choose to present ourselves online, the insane lengths many of us go to to create the perfect Instagram life, and calling into question our authenticity and motives. It's been a blast running this account but I believe SB's work here is done. I will be leaving this account open for a while for people still want to look through and enjoy it. Again, thank you for following along. If anyone has any questions or just want to say hi feel free to email me at socalitybarbie@gmail.com ✌#RIP (account NOT for sale)”

Cisneros used the popularity of certain hashtags to speak directly to the audience participating in the phenomenon--a harsh yet clever tactic that drew attention to the lack of authenticity in a very #liveauthentic world. In addition to #kinfolk, she used tags like #livefolk, #neverstopexploring, #communityfirst, #wildernessculture, #adventure and of course #blessed, to name a few. The explosion in popularity of her account gained the attention of almost every popular culture media outlet, who--with the exception of one blogger who called SB a “mean girl”--agreed wholeheartedly with SB’s critique:

“...the carefully crafted casualness of your life, and its aesthetically pleasing authenticity, makes you one of thousands—maybe millions. And Socality Barbie is here to show you, with just the right amount of irony, how clichéd the #liveauthentic aesthetic really is.”

Recently, the meme of the “Instagram Husband” has surfaced as another revelation about the lack of authenticity of the Kinfolk aesthetic, as it is replicated by individuals on Instagram. Instagram husbands are the people behind the cameras for photos that look impossible: how does one get a photograph of themselves from 8 feet above? How does one take a selfie while sleeping? Who is holding that ice cream? Instagram husbands are revealing the actual effort that goes into each of the idealized yet supposed-to-look-casual photos that end up online. While the plight of the Instagram husband is not real (most people would find nothing wrong with a man playing a support role to a woman’s creative endeavor), the fact remains that a lot of effort is being put into these photographs, and to what end?

The aspirations of the people who attempt to mirror the life they see reflected on the pages of Kinfolk magazine do so with a startling level of dedication to the tropes that Kinfolk establishes. Meanwhile, it is clear that the Kinfolk lifestyle is not attainable--although cleverly designed to look as if it is. When a publication (or artist, craftsperson, designer, business, etc) has a stated mission, and that mission is meaningful--revolving in the case of Kinfolk around truly wholesome values and a less-contrived way of living, it is important that substance be privileged over style. What we see from the 5-year-old magazine is that when style outweighs substance on the page, when the original mission statement is deleted from the website, when the ideal of effortlessness becomes a commodity, when spontaneity is forced, the result is a confused brand of perfectionism. The cult-like following that Kinfolk has amassed lives in this confusion--waiting for the moment when the fig on the counter and the dirt on the apron start to bring the happiness and calm that the pages of the magazine promise, but never deliver.

Works Cited

Wood, Citrus, Lattes, Feet, Twine, Repeat: The Kinfolk Kinspiracy Code.” Gawker. March 31, 2015.

McCarthy, Ethan. “The Pleasures & Pitfalls of Kinfolk Magazine.” Christ & Pop Culture. May 26, 2015

Merelli, Annalisa. “Socality Barbie Hits Uncomfortably Close to Home.” The Atlantic. September 9, 2015.

Olmstead, Gracy. "Where Wendell Berry meets Martha Stewart: Kinfolk brings a crunchy ethos to entertaining." The American Conservative 12.6 (2013): 7+. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.

Shachar, Hila. “Kinfolk Magazine.” Desktop Magazine. July 25, 2011.

Tolentino, Jia. “PSA: Your Artsy, Minimalist Instagram Account Is Wildly Unoriginal.” Jezebel. February 5, 2015.