© Copyright 2018 Julia Lennox, Ryerson University.
For thousands of years, the image of motherhood has been the subject of interpretation by countless artists. Perhaps the most iconic example would be renderings of the virtuous, Virgin Mary found throughout history, tinged with religious and cultural significance. In contrast, 20th century portrayals within mainstream media were shaped by society’s dominant ideologies, coupled with capitalistic motivations in order to sell both men and women an all-encompassing lifestyle mothers should strive to achieve. Think June Cleaver, the ultimate 1950s homemaker from Leave It To Beaver.
Despite the significant strides made by second-wave feminists in normalizing the notion of working moms, women in 2018 are constantly being bombarded with conflicting images of what their gendered parental role looks like. Television, print, and online media continue to perpetuate outdated stereotypes — whether deliberately or subconsciously — with a main goal of stimulating profit. But what happens when technological advancements give birth to a platform where child-rearing women can craft their own images based on individual, everyday experiences?
In comparison to traditional and mainstream depictions of motherhood, Instagram facilitates the presentation and curation of a more accurate, multifaceted picture of the modern mom by giving her visual authorship of her own agency. Through the in-depth examination of personal photos pulled from the popular social media app — including blog-inspired, day-to-day documentation and images of breastfeeding — I hope to highlight how mothers use Instagram to reclaim their complex identities.
The term ‘mommy blogging’ has deep roots within the social media lexicon. Traditionally appearing as text-based, personal web pages, the genre has expanded to include the use of various online social technologies (Ringel Morris, 1274) and features all kinds of documentation methods in order to capture and preserve familial records (Daniels, 43). According to research established in the 2011 case study New Mothers and Media Use: Associations Between Blogging, Social Networking, and Maternal Well-Being, women caring for newborns are fully “immersed in new age media” (McDaniel et al, 1516). During their averaged 3 hours of daily computer usage, most of that time is spent on the Internet (1515), with social networking identified as the top-ranked activity (1513). The reasoning behind this trend is likely two-fold. The postpartum period is often isolating, thus driving new moms to actively seek out social connection (1509). But as Cyberfeminism 2.0 contributor Jessie Daniels points out, this practice also demonstrates how “women’s emotional labour has been grafted onto new technologies” (43) by way of creating digital archives of childhood and maintaining family ties (45).
For the purpose of this scholarly exploration, our working definition of blogging is simple: the act of sharing images that depict mothers’ lives. Therefore, it’s important to touch on the work of Meredith Ringel Morris as outlined in Social Networking Site Use by Mothers of Young Children. Despite prevalent stereotypes “that new mothers post incessantly and exclusively about their offspring, [her] findings indicate that this is a greatly exaggerated perception” (1280). In fact, she concludes that a mother’s use of social media is actually “a channel for identity preservation, in order to maintain connections to non-mothering hobbies and interests” (1280). Daniels reaffirms this statement in her work; by referencing scholar Lori Lopez and the feminist notion of mommy blogging as a radical act (Daniels, 30), she notes that this practice “offers women the potential to build communities and challenge dominant representations of motherhood” (30). The act of blogging via Instagram initiates the curation of the modern mom’s multifaceted visual representation, providing a far more accurate depiction than that of a single snapshot or a scene on screen.
The image above captures a small selection of posts I’ve uploaded to Instagram. I share a few pieces of my son’s artwork in an attempt at online scrapbooking; I chronicle his Halloween experience, and make him pose for a silly picture. These postings not only leave a somewhat permanent record (Daniels, 43) of certain moments in my son’s life, they also convey specific emotions attached to each: pride, joy and love. In addition to the content where my son is the subject, this portion of my page includes a self-portrait, a video still from a concert recording, and a photo of me with my friends. In contrast, these images capture how I see myself, and perhaps more importantly, how I desire to be seen — separate from my role as a mom.
Jill Walker Rettberg, one of the many authors included in the SAGE Handbook of Social Media, further unpacks this idea through her work regarding self-representation — specifically the selfie. Dubbed word of the year in 2013 by Oxford Dictionaries (Rettberg), the medium is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (Oxford Dictionaries). Sharing an image like this “can be a way to communicate with others, but they can also be a way for the photographer to imagine how he or she could be different” (Rettberg). Within the context of this paper, the difference noted in Rettberg’s summation is the looking; how do the affordances of the selfie change the way the modern mom is viewed, or looked at? There is a dual purpose to this particular kind of self-expression: to reclaim one’s physicality, and to reposition the body to highlight various traits — including (but not limited to) confidence, beauty and sexuality — which are not always associated with motherhood.
More often than not, professionally created (Rettberg) visual representations explicitly reference a mother’s relationship with her children — whether they are pictured together, or her parental role is somehow signified. They are not presented as independent individuals; therefore the sense of self is lost. This illustrates the struggle many women deal with after giving birth: how to preserve their own identity while devoting themselves to the care and development of another human being. Within this framework, the act of taking a selfie is somewhat revolutionary, particularly when posted alongside contrasting images. As researcher Elisabetta Locatelli explains, “by sharing their selfies, Instagram users construct their identities and simultaneously express their belonging to a certain community” (Locatelli). The functionality of the app allows the modern mom to present herself and her offspring as distinct entities, while also acknowledging their connection at the same time; a duality that’s rarely depicted otherwise. This particular blogging method invites its audience to select a variety of ‘lenses’ with which to look.
Not only are 21st century moms using Instagram as a means of reclaiming identity, they’re also using the platform to oppose oppressive social norms. The visual representation of breastfeeding women in mainstream media is debated throughout Brown and Peuchaud’s Media and Breastfeeding: Friend or Foe? The two authors succinctly articulate why this act is rarely presented for audience consumption: “the media may have realized what some research now suggests are deep-seated negative reactions to seeing breastfeeding mothers. This also suggests how difficult it may be to shift cultural norms using media that are increasingly visual, and typically show breasts as erotic rather than functional” (Brown & Peuchaud). It’s undeniable that women’s bodies have become hyper sexualized within contemporary pop culture, predominantly positioned for the heteronormative male gaze. Cyberfeminism 2.0 author Natalia Rybas also holds this view, noting: “because breasts visibly and tangibly signify womanliness, breasts undergo a cultural construction in male-dominated Western society” (264).
While social media has become one of the main sites of polysemy representation of the female body (Locatelli), Instagram had to negotiate a set of boundaries in order to preserve its own ethical integrity. The platform launched on October 5th, 2010 (“Welcome to Instagram”), but as reported by Today’s Parent contributor Emma Waverman, its Community Guidelines weren’t altered until April of 2015 (Waverman). Prior to the update, photos of women actively breastfeeding were routinely removed, with the risk of accounts being fully disabled due to its policies regarding nudity (Waverman). This demonstrates Rybas’ assertions that “technology and gender get co-produced and co-performed” (263); they function within direct relation of one another. Through protest and advocation, mothers — including celebrity ‘lactivists’ like Alyssa Milano — harnessed their power as users, putting pressure on Instagram to changes its practices (Waverman) in order to become a space where breastfeeding is detached from sex (Locatelli) and the circulation of these images is encouraged.
Choosing to post a breastfeeding selfie — more commonly referred to as a ‘brelfie’ — like the one above online is an act by the modern mom to reclaim her biological womanhood. To provide an in-depth analysis of this particular picture, it’s vital to mention the conclusions derived from Elisabetta Locatelli’s study entitled Images of Breastfeeding on Instagram: Self-Representation, Publicness, and Privacy Management. Based on the camera’s framing, “the subject taking the picture (the mother) is hardly seen” (Locatelli). Locatelli’s research then references Tifentale and Manovich’s work on photography, agreeing that this attempts to “include the observer in the experience itself.” In this instance, the viewer is exposed to the mother’s specific point of view, and thus her natural, maternal role in providing nourishment for her child. This kind of positioning highlights the anatomical function of the breast, in an attempt to remove the sexualized lens often used when looking at women’s bodies.
This is a powerful type of representation, as it isn’t posed or designed by paid writers, editorial staff or professional photographers (Locatelli). Instead, the mother controls the authorship over her own biological agency, “express[ing] the female desire for autonomy in self-presentation” (Locatelli). Due to Instagram’s impressive reach — with over 600 million users worldwide as of December 2016 (Locatelli) — saturating the app with brelfies aids in destigmatizing and normalizing the act of breastfeeding (Locatelli). It also fosters an environment in which moms can cultivate their own emotional and educational support networks, thus empowering users to embrace a socially politicized symbol of motherhood and work to dismantle its controversial position within society.
The digital age has forever changed visual culture; groundbreaking tools and technologies have made disciplines like photography far more accessible, and the advent of social media has given millions of people a platform to share all kinds of autobiographical content. There is profound liberation in the ability to tell your own story and share your own unique experiences; that is the true value of Instagram. Who knew a smartphone and an app would become the modern day oil and canvas for today’s moms? We now hold the power to capture the multifaceted mosaic that is motherhood.
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Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.