“Mother-Child” Images in Online Profile Pictures

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“Mother-Child” Images in Online Profile Pictures

The choices we make when exploring, playing with, and constructing our digital identities through visual self-representation constitute a kind of performativity (see Manago, Graham, Greenfield, & Salimkhan, 2008; Sibak, 2009) as well as a rhetorically-informed process.  In this post, I am especially interested in women who visually self-present as mothers.  More specifically, I refer to women who, at least in part, construct an online identity through representative images either depicting them with their children or through images featuring only their children but that are used as personal avatars in social networking spaces, most notably but obviously not limited to Facebook.  If the profile picture functions “as a primary identity marker for a user’s profile” and “as the most pointed attempt of photographic self-representation on the Facebook profile,” standing in for “the user’s body in this virtual environment” (Strano, 2008, pp. 1, 2), then it stands to reason that women who embrace and celebrate their roles and identities as mothers would choose to visually self-present through images that display them in that role.  Sounds pretty straightforward, right?  Not so much.

At least not when visually self-presenting as a mother subjects women to arguably harsh scrutiny and criticism, suggesting their choices denote an absence of self-identity reflecting some forgone conclusion of motherhood.  One such criticism is that these sorts of “Facebook photos signal a larger and more ominous self-effacement” for women, relieving them “of the burden of looking halfway decent for a picture, and of the whole excruciating business of being [themselves]” (Katie Roiphe, “Disappearing Mothers”).  Roiphe technically refers to women who self-present through images depicting only their children, images in which the mothers themselves are visually absent.  Although questioning this rhetorical move is itself reasonable, Roiphe then analogizes this “trend” of visually self-presenting through images of one’s children with encountering “brilliant and accomplished” women who once engaged the likes of “Proust” and “who used to stay out drinking till five in the morning in [their] twenties” but who, after becoming mothers, expend all their intellectual “rigour and analytical depth and verve” on discussing little else besides their children.

I can appreciate Roiphe’s underlying message that women who are mothers - even educated, enlightened, professional women - may need to be liberated from the misconception that the best mothers live for and through their children, sacrificing and “effacing” themselves.  However, assertions such as this contribute to the age-old “mommy wars” by perpetuating the warrant that women who openly and wholeheartedly embrace motherhood, especially during the new and early stages of exploring this role, somehow forget or forsake all the feminist values for which they once stood and, in turn, contribute to a greater cultural demise of feminist values.  Posts such as Roiphe’s contribute to the fraughtness of motherhood by pitting women against women and by reminding us once again of how we fail to measure up to a feminist ideal.  

That said, given the rhetorical power of visuals, in this case Facebook or other social networking profile pictures, the question of why some women visually self-present not through pictures of themselves, but with standalone pictures of their children or with pictures depicting them as mothers merits critical reflection, for there are undoubtedly various reasons and motivations why women do so.  Take for example, Allison Tate’s poignant piece on the importance of mothers “stay[ing] in the picture,” (a nice juxtaposition, by the way, to the notion of disappearing) in which she addresses the awkwardness many women feel about their post-baby bodies and the ensuing reluctance to be photographed while “sporting mama bodies”; but, instead of chiding women about “looking halfway decent for a picture” (Roiphe), she encourages women to “get in the picture” despite their perceived bodily imperfections, if not for themselves, so that their children will have a “visual memory” of their mothers and “how loved they are.”

Although Tate does not frame her discussion in relation to constructing one’s digital identity, her emphasis on making motherhood visible through visual documentation suggests the significance of making visible the importance of mothers.  And, it’s the issue of visibility that concerns me most when I encounter arguments suggesting that to make motherhood visible in celebratory and identity-marking ways, such as through one’s profile picture, marks the diminishing, or worse yet, the disappearance of self.  Such claims, while disconcerting on many levels, are, perhaps, particularly so to women academics, as well as professionals, who have felt self-conscious about their pregnant bodies or have downplayed their roles as mothers for fear of being perceived as less capable and competent and, instead, distracted, unreliable, undedicated.

We know that such assumptions about women and mothers are unfair and unwarranted, but, yet they persist, and, apparently, also apply to more personal domains such as one’s Facebook user profile.  Granted, our networked lives make it difficult these days to discern boundaries between public and private, which pressures some women, like a close colleague of mine, to modify their mommy profile pictures, at least temporarily, for fear of discrimination while on the job market.

Decisions such as the one described above reflect how we still inhabit a culture - a culture where identity collapses between the digital and the physical - in which women’s roles as mothers, especially when these roles are made visible, are called into question.  Maybe we should involve more women in this discussion aimed at exploring why women visually self-present through images of their children and how they reconcile their approaches to motherhood with feminist values and cultural expectations of women in the workplace and the domestic sphere.  Maybe we should employ a more holistic approach to analyzing women’s visual self-presentation on Facebook by looking through the history of the images they have used to self-present, images that communicate visual narratives about the many facets of women’s identities, digital or otherwise, identities constructed, in part, through the many roles women assume at various points in their lives, past and present and overlapping roles that contribute to their complexity as individuals.

Manago, A.M., Graham, M.B., Greenfield, P.M., & Salimkhan, G. (2008).Self-presentation and gender on Myspace. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 29(6), 446-458. Google Scholar. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.

Roiphe, K.  Disappearing mothers.  (2012).  Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0bf95f3c-f234-11e1-bba3-00144feabdc0.html#axzz26UO8WkoCSiibak, A. (2009). Constructing the self through the photo selection - Visual impressionmanagement on social networking websites.” Cyberpsychology 3(1), 1-9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Nov. 2011.

Strano, M.M.(2008). User descriptions and interpretations of self-presentation throughFacebook profile images. Cyberpsychology 2(2), 1-11. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

Tate, A.  (2012). The mom stays in the picture.  Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allison-tate/mom-pictures-with-kids_b_1926073.html