Six years ago, Rachel Hollis went viral on social media. The party-planner turned writer, mom of three, and then-wife to Disney exec Dave Hollis posted a picture in a monogrammed bikini, proudly showing her post-kids stomach with the caption “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini.”
The picture was shared, liked, and reposted millions of times, earning her global acclaim from moms and women, and giving Hollis her first taste of influencer fame. But now, in the aftermath of scandal after scandal, many of her former fans are coming to a different realization about Hollis, one that isn’t so much related to self-empowerment as it is to self-exploitation: Rachel Hollis makes a living out of oversharing.
The popular self-help guru has definitely fallen far from grace in the last year, and yet she’s still trying to maintain her footing as the go-to motivationalist for stay-at-home moms, high-powered, high-achieving career ladies, and the young, impressionable women who want to be her.
Parasocial Relationships are Dangerous
Rachel Hollis, like so many other influencers who live the entirety of their lives online, has forged parasocial relationships with her dedicated fanbase. A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship, like what we build with our favorite celebrities and social media personalities. The weakness in these relationships lies in that one-sidedness, wherein we invest time, energy, and emotion in the celebrity or influencer in return for feeling like we’re confidantes or friends with them – even though they don’t know us or even that we exist.
It’s not normal to want perfect strangers to know the intimate ins and outs of our lives.
These relationships are entirely artificial and only grounded in the audience’s knowledge of what the influencer offers up about themselves to their following. With Rachel Hollis, the brand she’s made for herself is curated on these relationships, where fans feel as if they “really know her” because of the honest, direct, sometimes heartbreaking vulnerability she doles out on social media or her podcast on a constant basis.
We know from her earliest publications that she’s a child of divorce and had a difficult, strained relationship with her parents. We know that her brother committed suicide during her childhood, a trauma she still struggles with even today. We know that when she was 19, she started dating a much older man who was, for all intents and purposes (and by her own admission), emotionally abusive to her, a man she later ended up marrying and having children with. We know that she and her husband struggled with their marriage for years before finally calling it quits – but not before raking in thousands of dollars from a marriage conference they hosted for couples.
These are not just tragic events in Hollis’ life – they’re pillars of hardship, emotional turmoil, and most importantly, lessons that she has built her career as a self-styled motivationalist on. Most of us would never dream of airing every facet and detail of our childhood trauma or romantic relationships online, but for Rachel, it’s a point of pride.
Rachel’s Mixed Messages
Many former fans and critics of Rachel’s have started to point out the cracks in her façade. Not only does Rachel’s brand thrive on the parasociality of her persona, but also in her utilization of curated imperfection.
Curated imperfection is a tool many influencers are very well-skilled in, but especially Rachel. It’s the idea that was originally exemplified in that bikini picture which shot her to mainstream recognition all those years ago – the idea that she, an influencer, is being real and authentic and genuine with her audience. But that isn’t actually the case because as with anything that’s shared on social media, we’re only seeing what Rachel wants us to see, no matter how vulnerable or “real” it may seem.
That, coupled with the fact that Rachel and her now-ex husband made gobs of money from their supposed “expertise” when it came to marriage, now makes their Rise Together weekend conference for married couples seem just a bit tacky. In fact, by their own admission, their marriage woes go years back, even in the wake of their joint podcast which lectured couples on the importance of intimacy and navigating marriage with kids. See? Curated imperfection. Rachel and Dave talked all they wanted about working hard to keep their relationship strong, while charging couples for the privilege of their advice, yet throughout the entirety of this venture they were on the brink of divorce.
Rachel and Dave charged couples for their advice, yet were on the brink of divorce themselves.
Then there’s Rachel’s “relatability.” Again, going back to the bikini picture, Rachel was creating the undeniable pull of her brand to her audience. She’s successful, she’s on top of it, she’s a millionaire with an entire brand named after her, yet at the end of the day, she’s still quirky and unique (an affectation most commonly seen in her podcast Rach Talk, which is cringey more than anything else).
But back in May, Rachel came under fire for not only comparing herself to leading historical figures like Harriet Tubman, RBG, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, and more (yikes), but for saying it’s not her goal to be “relatable” when confronted with the accusation that she’s “privileged AF.” Rachel’s entire personality, love it or hate it, is built on being the relatable #girlboss we all supposedly want to be, but when confronted with her obvious hypocrisy, her condescending response was to defensively argue that she’s worked harder than any other woman in order to “live a life that is unrelatable.”
The Pitfalls of Unqualified Therapists
At the heart of the Rachel Hollis conflict is a harsh realization. She may be a mom, a girl boss, and an influencer, but Rachel built her empire on her books and her social media posts with lengthy captions, which dole out pithy insights on life and hardship and read more like a manual on how not to live your life. To many of her fans, she’s the therapist they never had, urging them to confront their first-world problems or recognize how they’re getting in their own way.
Rachel built a business out of unlicensed therapy.
There’s just one small problem. Rachel is not even remotely qualified to be giving out this kind of advice, yet she justifies her insight and perspective by living the entirety of her life on social media.
Therein lies the problem with curated imperfection, with parasocial relationships, with not just Hollis but those who make their living like her. In the end, they’ve built businesses out of unlicensed therapy, created followings from their own individual experiences masking as unprofessional, unqualified advice, and when confronted with it, they have the audacity to protest that everything they have is because they’ve “worked hard” and not because they’ve actually taken advantage of their following.
Rachel is a businesswoman, first and foremost. No matter how hard she may try, she isn’t the cool older sister or wise aunt we never had. She seems more comfortable speaking in arenas full of thousands of people than she does one-on-one, and taking any of her watered-down (plagiarized) words to heart when it seems she doesn’t take her own most of the time would likely be unwise.
It feels like oversharing is now the thing to do on social media, and influencers like Rachel Hollis have played a huge part in normalizing this trend. But no matter how normalized it may be, it’s not normal at all to want acquaintances or even perfect strangers to know the intimate ins and outs of our lives.
People like Rachel Hollis argue that there’s empowerment to be found in vulnerability, especially if that vulnerability is put on display for everyone else. But wallowing in vulnerability can very quickly turn into worshipping our victimhood, which is how we end up needing therapy from influencers when we should be getting it from professionals.
In this day and age, anyone with a following on social media can say that their life experiences qualify them to make any claim they want. But if we invest time and energy into relationships where respect and admiration will never be returned, we’ll inevitably end up disappointed.
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