Mrs. American Pageant/Instagram
On Sunday evening, approximately a week and a half after giving birth to her eighth child, Hannah Neeleman, a.k.a. the influencer Ballerina Farm, got glam, squeezed into a ball gown, and strutted the runway to represent the United States in the international Mrs. World competition.
By Monday morning Neeleman had become the most talked-about person on the internet. She has been called, among other things, damaging, out of touch, controversial, and, perhaps most memorably, “not a person.”
This all may sound extreme but, in actuality, is somewhat par for the course for Neeleman, whose existence online has become one of the internet's favorite things to pick apart, analyze, and argue about.
If you’re unfamiliar, Neeleman is a millennial mother of eight (three sons followed by five daughters) who lives with her brood and husband, Daniel, on a working farm in Utah. The ballerina part of her online moniker comes from the fact that before settling down Neeleman was a professional dancer who had studied at Julliard. According to her posts online, after marrying and living for a few years in Brazil (the couple are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons), they found a passion for farming and the rural, slow life. They moved back to the US, purchased their property, and began to expand their business, now selling beef, pork, baked goods, and homewares nationwide.
For many years Neeleman operated in relative obscurity on the internet, posting about her life raising all of her children and farm animals and baking bread to a small audience of a few hundred thousand. She’d post videos of her dancing, she’d laugh as her kids milked cows, she’d walk followers through how to make a pie crust or a sourdough.
Naturally beautiful with long blonde hair and a wardrobe of floral dresses and skirts, she gave off a modern Little House on the Prairie vibe, if Ma was gorgeous and not constantly starving through the winter. Her life looked idyllic despite its obvious challenges (running a farm, all those kids), and she was rarely without a smile on her face.
The only time followers would ever see her not in her normal wardrobe was when she indulged in what seemed to be a family hobby: competing in pageants. Along with her older sister (Neeleman is one of nine siblings), she has been on the pageant circuit for years, competing in the Miss New York pageant as a young college student and moving on to the Mrs. American pageant (a pageant for married women) as she got older. After winning Mrs. Utah in 2021, she was crowned Mrs. American this year (she competed as Mrs. South Dakota, which is a whole other thing).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but around the time she competed as Mrs. Utah, Neeleman went from just another LDS influencer with an aspirational Instagram account to a bona fide Online Thing. There are several reasons this could have happened: the pandemic and boredom, the rise of influencer analysis both on social media and the mainstream press, or the rise of tradwife culture on TikTok, or, most likely, all of the above. But a few years ago, something changed.
For other women online, Ballerina Farm became a symbol of a certain type of mother, a certain type of influencer. She became a repository for the collective stress, ennui, and anger of American mothers riding through a pandemic. Her soft smiles while baking bread, the way her children always seemed happy to help her and never fought, her slim figure and great skin, began to seem almost sinister, and everyone began to dig.
Because, how did Neeleman and her husband afford that big ranch anyway? Turns out, her husband’s father is David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue, among other airlines. Far from some sort of entrepreneurial bootstrappers, people began to say, the Neelemans were nothing more than trust-fund-enabled nepo babies cosplaying as salt of the earth. Soon they began to pick apart everything else. Were the Neeleman kids, all of whom are homeschooled, really happy and obedient? Was she dressing her sons in cowboy hats and her daughters in paisley not because she thought they looked cute but because she was trying to portray a certain, completely unrealistic image of her family as 1800s homesteaders? And she has to have help, right? No, she definitely has nannies that she's hiding. She has to.
Along with the discourse, Neeleman’s popularity only continued to grow. She now has 8.6 million followers on Instagram and nearly 7 million followers on TikTok, and thousands of thousands of videos of people analyzing her content, picking apart her life, and rhapsodizing on what it all means.
Many pontificators speculate that Neeleman, by virtue of what she shows online, is trying to manipulate young women into becoming tradwives themselves or giving up their financial autonomy to retreat into a “traditional life” of domesticity. Others say that by posting videos of her home births, skinny waist, obvious bliss, and serene nature, she is actively harming other women. She’s making postpartum look like a breeze, they accuse, and is giving an unrealistic ideal for what motherhood is actually like.
When Neeleman made clear to her followers that she still intended to compete in Sunday’s Mrs. World pageant, her brand-new infant, Flora, in tow, the discourse went into overdrive. How dare she, the commenters said. By competing in a pageant so soon after giving birth, by wearing makeup and traveling and slipping into a dress while (probably) still bleeding and, worst of all, looking hot, she was being dangerously irresponsible at best and deviously sinister at worst.
The most interesting thing about all of this backlash is that Neeleman has barely seemed to register any of it, or if she does, she doesn't show it. I’ve followed her since 2020, when she had around 300,000 followers or so, and have watched with interest as she has grown from an interesting Instagram account I enjoyed perusing before bed to an emblematic symbol of everything wrong with modern-day motherhood content online.
And Neeleman has never wavered. She doesn’t publicly address her haters, she doesn’t engage with the discourse, and she doesn’t try to clear the air on, for instance, whether her wealthy father-in-law bought her ranch for her family. She just continues to make bread, post videos of her dancing, and live her life. She seems to be, at least online, completely unbothered and content. (Which, of course, is its own kind of privilege when you have eight kids. But on the other hand, we have no idea what her reality looks like, do we?)
Now the Mrs. World kerfuffle is adding another wrinkle to this whole thing. I noticed it this morning while scrolling through TikTok after TikTok from pop culture commenters jumping on the bandwagon. There is backlash, of course, but now also backlash to the backlash, with many women now speaking out to defend Neeleman against the claims of being antifeminist. Instead, they say, aren’t the commenters antifeminist for criticizing what seems to be Neeleman’s real, lived experience of motherhood? After all, isn’t the whole point of feminist liberation letting women compete in a pageant postpartum if for some reason that’s what they want to do?
Dr. Christine Sterling, an ob-gyn and mother of three who gives birthing parents tips and advice on her Instagram, tells me she decided to speak out in Neeleman's defense after seeing so much criticism online, saying, “There is not one universal postpartum experience.”
"Hannah’s experience and circumstances are quite unique,” she says. “The problem is not that she’s setting unrealistic expectations of postpartum but rather that we are expecting her to set expectations at all. I would ask those criticizing why it isn’t okay for her to make this decision for herself. I believe she, just like every other woman, has the right to make decisions about her own body.”
I’d imagine the discourse will continue to grow, and grow, and grow. After all, American mothers have a lot to be angry about and need somewhere to channel it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if soon the same writers and commenters begin to change their tune on Neeleman, as it seems the tides are beginning to shift. The Ballerina Farm hot-take industrial complex will continue to churn on.
To understand why dissecting Neeleman’s Instagram posts as if it were a master’s thesis has become a cottage industry online, we need to look at all the ills plaguing American mothers and actually start to examine them, not at Neeleman herself. Because it’s not really about her at all, is it?
Stephanie McNeal is a senior editor at Glamour and the author of Swipe Up for More! Inside the Unfiltered Lives of Influencers.
Originally Appeared on Glamour