#117: Astrology’s relentless appeal
On the mainstreaming of mysticism
Years ago, when I was working in media full-time, I was invited to a dinner hosted by an expert in “human design.” To RSVP yes, I had to share where and when I was born to the provided email address. Out of morbid curiosity, I agreed. When I arrived at the candle-lit space, perched above a busy Soho street, I was given a glass of wine, led to a large table, and handed an envelope with my name on it. From the head of the table, a striking woman with a short sweep of blonde hair introduced herself as the host of the evening. She told us that her human design expertise combined astrology, Kabbalah, and other ancient traditions to assign people one of five “energies.”She worked with many big-name executives, she said, helping them harness their professional and personal potential. That night, she would do the same for us.
At the time, I edited a monthly horoscope column. Although we were a fashion and culture site with no express interest in mysticism, it was almost always our most-read article of the month. So, we made more astrology stories: what type of friend you are, according to your sign; how to change your life, according to your sign. You could tell when we published an astrology piece by tracking the traffic spikes, like little blips of life on our proverbial heart rate monitor. Judging by the uptick in astrology-related content on other women’s media sites, we weren’t the only ones to catch on to its appeal.
Back in the Soho loft, the woman explained that we’d find one of five designations in the envelopes: manifestor, generator, manifesting generator, projector, and reflector. Each identified a particular mode of being and set of best practices for navigating the world. She told us to open our envelopes. “Generator,” my card read. (Later that night, I’d learn that 70% of all people are generators, which was of course devastating to hear.) As she delved into each of the energies and their proclivities, people nodded emphatically in recognition. “When you enter a restaurant, do you find that you have an opinion on where you’d like to sit?” she asked. Yes, I thought, of course! “That’s because you’re a manifestor,” she said, to a group that didn’t include me. I’d learn that generators, meanwhile, should say yes to things that excite us and no to things that don’t; we should also beware of people-pleasing and overwork, and make decisions based on our guts. As the advice was doled out, I searched for the eyes of another cynic around the table.
When I first started editing horoscopes, I assumed most people read them not because they believed them to be incontrovertibly true, but because it was fun. I heard other reasons too, like that it could be a prism for understanding, like an MBTI or enneagram result—shine the details of your life through it and see yourself in a new light. This seemed harmless enough. But as astrology further proliferated across apps and platforms, worming its way increasingly into mainstream discourse, it started to feel less like a tool for introspection than a tool for stereotyping. I saw people test the compatibility of prospective roommates or romances, or sum themselves or others up in astrological terms—sun, rising, moon—as if the definitions were final. Like a trendy term you start using ironically and then, after a while, with a straight face, the chicanery of astrology became less a part of the conversation. “You have to admit,” friends would say when I confessed my doubts, “it can be eerily on point.” In their faces I saw genuine belief.
Over those years as an editor, I witnessed astrology go mainstream. But when I started, in 2016, its permeation was well on its way. In a 2013 piece about how the infamous Susan Miller of AstrologyZone (6M monthly visitors) became a guru to the fashion world, Molly Young described an industry that was loath to sign contracts if Miller deemed it celestially unfavorable. At the time, Miller had columns in 10 international fashion magazines. In the ensuing years, the astrology touchpoints multiplied and expanded into new spaces: irreverent push notifications from the Co-Star app (20+ million downloads), celestial poetry from Twitter darling Astropoets (700k+ followers and a published book), memes from Glossy_zodiac (4.7M followers), in-feed pep talks from Chani Nicholas (500k+ followers). Astrology’s become unavoidable even for those who don’t seek it out, with references in every major publishing title, in big-brand advertising, in songs by Drake and Beyoncé, in social media feeds every time “Mercury’s in retrograde.” Growing up, I associated astrology with hippies, loveable weirdos, and nonconformists. Today it wouldn’t feel accurate to deem it an “alternative” mode of thought.
This puzzles me for obvious reasons. Astrology is an ancient practice originally based on geocentrism, a.k.a. the view that Earth is the center of the solar system, which was disproven by Copernicus in 1543. Although astrologers have tried to account for myriad scientific discoveries that have threatened the practice, their flexible explanations don’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s not surprising that astrology’s regarded unequivocally by the science community as a pseudoscience (with exhaustive empirical studies to back that up). “After having put up with decades of scientific probing, it has retreated to the one area that shields it from a rational critique: mysticism,” writes Jonathan Jerry M.Sc, science communicator for McGill and host of the Body of Evidence podcast. Of course, science can’t explain everything. But astrology’s not even a mode of belief based on feeling, like the existence of love, or morality, like many religions, or even some deeper sense of community. It is a cobbled together framework for self-understanding that happens to be quite profitable. As a form of shared faith, it’s unusually individualistic.
Whenever the topic comes up in conversation, my friends that subscribe to astrology will often cop, when pressed, to the fact that it may be a sham. But this only invites more questions. Isn’t the idea that we’re entitled to believe things as long as they suit our narrative, or offer us comfort, the very ground upon which most political discourse currently takes place? The mainstreaming of astrology seems, if not an ill portent, at least representative of a broader intellectual apathy. Some might generously call it a deeper spiritual yearning. But I could also (less generously) call it a scammy, pseudo-existential branding exercise; a nail in the coffin of the personality, increasingly understood through and reduced to labels. I can appreciate its relative harmlessness compared to other instances of suspended disbelief, but the questions astrology seeks to answer aren’t frivolous. They’re fundamental: who we are, what to do, how to be, what’s to come. It makes sense that astrology’s introspective aims have drawn particular interest from women and queer communities, known for their social acuity and intuitive openness, but surely there are better, less limiting ways to pursue self-improvement. Sometimes, astrology’s enduring popularity feels like a joke that’s gone on too long. Or at the very least, like its influence has far outgrown its substance.
Last week, I decided to read my natal chart on Co-Star, then enter random birth data and read several more charts, pretending they were describing me. As you might expect, I felt that most of them fit “eerily” well. The Forer effect is a psychological phenomenon whereby people believe descriptions apply specifically to them when in fact they apply to a wide range of people. Ironically though, relative to the others, my own chart seemed the most off-base. I resonated most with a chart for a person born in New York in 1985, which described someone who frequently questions and rethinks their views (which can occasionally make them indecisive), someone who works hard to maintain security and stability in relationships, and someone who is curious, analytical, and hardworking, but leans a bit sentimental. I noticed how each reading seemed to describe a different person without necessarily contradicting the others—like how my real chart said I try to distinguish myself through philosophy, while one of my fake charts (born in Denver in 1992) said I try to distinguish myself through introspection. I could of course make arguments for both.
Despite the fact that I could easily convince myself that each reading was about me, they all encouraged me to see myself in a fundamentally different way. My real chart described me as fiercely loyal and attention-seeking. A fake chart described me as concerned with justice and artistic pursuits. Another described me as family-oriented and curious about the motivations of other people. Each reading, cleverly designed to match anyone eager enough to find evidence of its truth, made me like myself more or less.
Astrology may offer us a view of ourselves and the world, but it’s a necessarily limiting one: pigeonholing us into one specific version of our personalities, or arbitrarily narrowing our focus onto one element of our day, week, month, year. As a prism for reflection, it replaces more nuanced explanations for what’s going on in our lives and heads. At its less noble, it offers comfort in the way other prejudicial frameworks do, by replacing the more difficult work of reality-based analysis and insight. And at its worst, it profits off people who feel they have less control over the circumstances of their lives, which, at some point, captures most of us, but some more than others.
I sometimes feel like I begrudge its popularity on a level that’s a bit irrational itself. Aside from anecdotal stories of people making consequential decisions according to their horoscopes, I have no proof this is happening enough to make a difference. Most friends who engage with astrology do it unseriously, because they simply find it entertaining, and I love those people. Whether their lives (or the world) would markedly improve without it, I really couldn’t say. My real problem is probably a curmudgeonly one: Astrology annoys me. I resent its pseudo-existentialism, its conveniently trendy wellness-orientation. I resent the way it alienates me from my peers, and that it reminds me of the unstoppable force of popular ideology against which my little opinions are utterly benign. Ultimately, then, it underlines my own insignificance—the very condition, funnily enough, astrology is designed to soothe.
Years ago, after the human design expert’s presentation ended, an astrologer with a big Instagram following who happened to be sitting next to me offered to read my birth chart. Nascent in my cynicism, I said yes. I don’t remember what she told me, but I remember how it felt to want to believe her: the pleasure of giving in, however briefly, to the idea that there was a divine order to my life because I was born in San Jose at 2:17 p.m. When she got certain details wrong, I felt myself adjust to make them fit. She was warm and generous, and I wanted her to feel my vote of confidence. I wanted to feel it myself. I stayed for a while after that, talking to the handful of people I knew there. At one point, the conversation drifted to how someone’s chart confirmed why they wanted to quit their job and then I was reminded that I didn’t belong there. I left soon after, dropping my Generator card in a trash can on Lafayette Street.
My favorite article I read last week was “‘Nature Has Its Way of Ending Life. I’m Changing the Manner and the Time,’” an interview for The Cut by Rachel Handler with her grandfather-in-law, days before his planned death, which had me in full, non-stop tears. (Also emotional reads: These two interviews about the Iranian protest movement.) Last week’s 15 things also included a book I couldn’t put down and was sad to finish, the perfect rainy day documentary, my current favorite fall accessory, and more. The rec of the week was favorites recipes for handheld baked goods. I might be baking one when you read this, who’s to say…
The podcast this Tuesday is a pop culture roundup with Avi and Harling. Avi will be unpacking Elon’s texts, Harling will be recapping fashion month, and I’ll unfortunately be deep-diving the Try Guys, who apparently exist. Ep drops 9am!
Hope you have a nice Sunday and thanks as always for reading,