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What a “spiritual” beauty subscription box says about religion today

Moonbox sells self-care products to use at different stages of the lunar cycle.

Moonbox’s monthly offerings are pegged to the lunar cycle.

Lingerie. Macarons. Small-batch liquors. Bacon. Weed. What do all these things have in common? You can get them in subscription boxes.

Now, spirituality has also made its way into the subscription box economy. From “Enchanted Crystals” — a monthly crystal subscription service — to “Goddess Provisions,” which promises its customers supplies like candles and special teas that work “positive energy, magic, self-care, and self-love” into customer’s lives, the aesthetic trappings of witchcraft, folk magic, and New Age spirituality are now just a browser click away.

Among the latest forays into this space, the $34-a-month Moonbox, billed as a “monthly checkup for the soul,” entered the market in its current form earlier this year. (A previous version of the product debuted under different leadership in 2015.) The current box combines explicitly spiritual items (say, crystals) with beauty products designed to be used during different phases of the lunar cycle.

A typical box might feature Tarot cards, instructions for performing new-moon and full-moon rituals, a guided meditation packet, pillow sprays, and artisanal beauty supplies. October’s “Balance” themed box, for example, featured among other items an eye shadow wheel, in which each shade is pegged to a different astrological sign of the zodiac, and a packet of “emotionally balancing” spices.

What makes Moonbox notable, even among spiritual subscription boxes, is the way in which it blends more explicit forms of New Age spirituality — crystals, rituals, tarot cards — with the broader and less spiritually loaded language of beauty and self-care. Within the confines of the Moonbox, there is little distinction between, for example, a skin care ritual and a full-moon ritual. Here, self-care, self-beautification, and spiritual identity become one.

The “bundling” of Moonbox’s items correlates with the “unbundling” of spiritual identity in America

The fact that Moonbox can take such a “mix and match” approach to spirituality is evidence of a wider trend in America: the phenomenon that Harvard Divinity School researcher Casper ter Kuile calls “unbundling.”

While we’ve traditionally thought of religions as “bundled” — a collection of elements, including beliefs, rituals, sacred objects, and specialized language that are inseparable from one another — ter Kuile argues that, in the internet age, we’re more open to “unbundling” those collections. The contemporary spiritual landscape, he says, is defined by our willingness to take elements of different religious or spiritual traditions and splice them together.

“In an internet-defined generation,” ter Kuile told Vox, “we’re used to finding our own sources of information, and mixing it together with eight different perspectives. We want to contribute in the comments section; we want to engage with it in a more discursive way.” In an increasingly multicultural society, ter Kuile adds, “people’s identities and relationships become mixed … Maybe they have a Buddhist practice. Maybe they use a tarot deck.”

Increasingly, ter Kuile argues, people — including the religiously unaffiliated, though not exclusively — are willing to create their own individualized religious practice by synthesizing the elements of traditional ones they find most affecting.

Some of these people attracted by “unbundled” elements of spiritual identity and ritual may belong to one of America’s fastest-growing religious groups: the approximately 20 percent of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Others may be part of the wider spectrum of the “religiously unaffiliated,” which comprises a full third of adults under 30.

But others may still identify as part of an established faith tradition. A Pew poll from early October found that up to 61 percent of self-identified American Christians (and 62 percent of the United States population more broadly, as well as 69 percent of women) report believing in one or more principles more widely associated with New Age practice as a whole, such as the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects, psychics, reincarnation, and astrology.

What this suggests is that the kinds of items found in a Moonbox or a Goddess Provisions box, and the spirituality they represent, aren’t necessarily replacing other spiritual or religious practices. Rather, they are reflecting a wider trend of contemporary millennials curating their religious identity the same way they do their social media feeds: blending and “remixing” diverse spiritual, ritualistic, and religious traditions.

This month’s Moonbox offerings include a jade roller and “emotionally balancing” spices.

But “unbundling” also means taking spiritually significant items out of context

The founders of Moonbox, Paula Pavlova and Katie Huang, actively stress the “remixing” angle of Moonbox. “There’s lots of different practices handed down by different cultures,” Pavlova told Vox. “Our generation is the most ‘melting pot’ generation that we’ve seen. We take up all these different things and make our own version of spirituality. And I think that’s incredibly beautiful.”

Huang added that, ultimately, these rituals connect to “mindfulness,” or the practice of being fully present in a moment. She accesses that mindfulness through exercise, meditating through running, while Pavlova says she prefers yoga.

In each case, Pavlova and Huang present Moonbox as, fundamentally, a reimagining of religious and spiritual ritual specifically as a form of self-care, rather than a form of engaging with a wider or coherent spiritual tradition or search for meaning. Huang cites “the overwhelming need for people to find their balance again,” but notes “that doesn’t necessarily have to be through religion.”

But Moonbox also raises a wider question: What, exactly, is spirituality for? Central to Moonbox’s ideology is the idea that spirituality is a form of self-care: something you do for yourself in the same way you would wash your face before going to bed. The same consumer-focused ideology has become ubiquitous across the wellness world. Consider the rebranding of Weight Watchers as WW, focusing on guided meditations and mindfulness training instead of pounds lost. Similarly, spirituality is for you.

As Pavlova puts it, “That’s what people crave when they find some spiritual practice or religion — that it grounds them, and makes them feel that everything will be okay … and that their problems aren’t really the end of the world.”

What’s less clear is the connection between individual spiritual practices and a wider sense of either communal or metaphysical meaning.

What is lost, for example, when the act of burning sage for purification — something traditionally practiced by some Native American tribes — is removed from its cultural context, and the necessary supplies are sold to an unfamiliar audience in a monthly subscription box? What does a ritual mean if its elements don’t coalesce into a single meaningful tradition? If it’s not done as part of a community? If it isn’t tied into wider, bigger questions about how we should live in the world? And what does it say about our society that our most meaningful rituals are increasingly isolated and self-contained, focusing on personal growth instead of community?

The proliferation of the spiritual subscription box, therefore, represents both an “unbundling” of spirituality and also an increasingly narrow conception of it, as something designed to make bearable, rather than challenge or transform, a life within modern capitalism. It’s difficult to argue with the fact that most of us need to feel that “everything will be okay” at one point or another.

But it’s worth asking — when we fit spirituality into that small of a box, what do we have to leave outside it?

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