The Shape of a Mother:
Pregnancy, Motherhood, and Feminist Rhetoric in Cyberspace

Wendy Olson

A post-pregnancy body is one of this society's greatest secrets.
—Bonnie, The Shape of a Mother

[1] Historically, within and across public venues, women have struggled to appropriate a space from which to speak and to write, a space to be heard and taken seriously. Yet when we acknowledge that with the authority to speak comes the power to name and to shape knowledge formation, we understand what is at stake for women in the realm of rhetoric, more broadly, and within new media as a specific kind of rhetorical space, more particularly. As we well know, popular culture is a powerful construct within which ideologies are shaped and transmitted. And as Henry Jenkins notes, the convergence between old and new media is the location wherein popular culture is being restructured (18). As a rhetorical endeavor, this restructuring is where meaning-making occurs.

[2] Media scholars David Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin identify this restructuring, repurposing, and—ultimately—redefining as remediation: the process by which emerging media, "which are embedded in the same or similar contexts," refashion earlier and contemporary media. That is, they establish that new media is not a new and separate cultural formation, but that it grows out of and develops from the social and cultural conditions that shaped earlier media. A significant outcome of this process is "the remediated self," the process by which the double logic of remediation—what Bolter and Grusin locate as contradictory impulses toward immediacy and hypermediacy—both mediates and remediates our identity, contributing to our concept of selfhood (231). Thus, while new media carries with it the baggage of old media—such baggage as stereotypical racist, classist, and sexist representations of women, for example—it also affords the possibility for creating alternative identity formations as we engage with new technological and rhetorical affordances. Donna Haraway's much cited cyborg identity is one such powerful example of this ambiguous process.

[3] Increasingly, new media dictates the means by which we consume, interact with, and create cultural knowledge. Though virtual, cyberspace is a place where hegemonic struggles for representation and naming have real consequences for people's lives. From a feminist perspective, it is therefore essential that women are able to maneuver within this new rhetorical realm and use its affordances not only to disrupt the sexist and patriarchal structures that are reproduced within new media environments, but also to create new discourses which enable new meanings and representations to emerge. As a rhetorical enterprise that engages in such substantive meaning-making processes, The Shape of a Mother is a Web site that demonstrates one such feminist rhetorical practice in action. Focusing primarily on the pre- and post-pregnancy body, this Web site invites women to post pictures of their bodies and share their stories of both struggling and coming to terms with the ways in which their own bodies do not always match up with the idealized images of women that are often circulated in U.S. culture. In writing their bodies, these women challenge cultural assumptions about how beauty is defined, a process that also works to script and make visible the physical and physiological effects of pregnancy and mothering, demonstrating how a feminist rhetoric might be used to confront and interrupt the discourse of silence surrounding the material effects of motherhood on female bodies. In so doing, these women are able to position themselves—at least tentatively—as subjects rather than objects, as cultural agents disrupting the status quo. Through this Web site, we can see how women exploit new media for their own purposes, how they utilize multimodality in developing rhetorical strategies which in turn allow them to redefine both themselves and motherhood within new digital spaces. Before turning to my analysis of the Web site, I highlight the key tenets of an online feminist rhetoric as outlined in earlier cyberfeminist scholarship, moving from there to discuss how these principles manifest themselves in the specific digital space of Shape of a Mother.

Constructing a Cyberfeminist Rhetoric

Cyberfeminists have the chance to create new formulations of feminist theory and practices which address the complex new social conditions created by global technologies. Subversive uses of the new communications technologies can facilitate the work of a transnational movement which aims to infiltrate and infect the networks of power and communication through activist, feminist, projects of solidarity, education, freedom, vision, and resistance.
—Faith Wilding, "Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?"

[4] For at least the last decade, technofeminist scholars working at the intersections of feminist theory, technology, and rhetorical theory have moved to define the characteristics of a feminist theory as manifest in cyberspace. For Wilding writing in 1998, cyberfeminism means theorizing the impact of new technologies on the lives of women, employing the traditional strategies of feminist resistance and social and political activism, and when appropriate, shifting feminist practice to employ subversive "cybertechniques" within the new global communication order. Implicit in Wilding's critique and theorization of cyberfeminist practice is the role of rhetoric, for it is the rhetorical implications of new technologies that inscribe meaning and power relations in cyberspace. Rhetoric provides the means by which subversive cybertechniques might take place within the discursive realm of the digital.

[5] Following Wilding, Laura Sullivan makes this connection between rhetoric, technology, and feminist activism explicit. In "Wired Women Writing," she articulates a feminist theory of the Web, what she identifies as a "feminist activist hypertext" (26). Synthesizing what she sees as the most useful positions across the spectrum of feminisms, Sullivan argues that through hypertext's linked and multifarious forms, it might be used to deconstruct binaries and counter traditional narratives through fragmentation and open-endedness, all of which allows for situated knowledge to be created in the World Wide Web. For Sullivan, both personal and social transformation must occur in realizing a feminist online rhetoric. While Wilding recovers cyberfeminism from feminist debates surrounding its authenticity and usefulness as feminist practice, Sullivan turns then burgeoning feminist conversations about cyberspace toward the textual production of Web sites by women within the cultural space of the World Wide Web.

[6] Furthering this trajectory in the Spring 2002 Rhizomes issue focusing on cyberfeminism, Michelle Kendrick ponders what a feminist hypertext might mean for new media, rhetoric, and feminist theory. Drawing on the work of Hélène Cixous and l'écriture feminine movement, she proposes that hypertext in particular might allow for an embodied writing process and experience, a feminist practice that affords women the opportunity to claim agency amid "a history of phallocentric language and writing practices" (par. 20). As Kendrick notes following Cixous, such a feminist rhetoric is not easily defined or theorized. That is to say, an embodied feminist rhetoric is not fixed, not classified, so much as it is carried out; it is, rather, an oppositional praxis in context, karios in action—a process which is only complicated by the virtual environment of cyberspace. Indeed, because such practice is formed out of antagonistic cultural struggle, to define and theorize it is in some cases inevitably to incorporate it. So while such practice should not be abstractly "theorized, enclosed, or coded" (Cixous 353), it is nevertheless important to articulate the key features of feminist acts of resistance as they manifest themselves in digital spaces. And an emphasis on the rhetorical nature of these features, as noted above, highlights both the contextual and material qualities of such feminist work. For significant to rhetorical feminist theory, such an embedded and embodied practice demonstrates how women might appropriate writing and rhetoric for their own uses, how they might speak—rather than be spoken by— in a society where discourses on/about/of female identities are inextricably shaped by capitalist patriarchy. Collectively, Wilding, Sullivan, and Kendrick, along with other early cyberfeminists, provide a foundation for imagining how rhetorical acts of resistance might challenge and subvert the patriarchal structures and discourse patterns that permeate electronic environments.

[7] In the last ten years, cyberfeminist scholarship has continued to take up the intersections among feminist theory, rhetorical theory, and cyberspace, at times turning to discourse analysis of specific cyberspace communities. And whereas earlier strands of cyberfeminism sometimes eschewed popular online women's sites, more recent scholarship acknowledges the rich rhetorical agency that such popular sites might afford female users. For example, in their analysis of popular online women's Web sites, Michelle Eble and Robin Breault discuss how such cyberspace communities can function as public agoras for women, where knowledge is created and exchanged, "validating and challenging how knowledge is constructed and how hierarchies of institutional power function" (316). More recently in Webbing Cyberfeminist Practice: Communities, Pedagogies, and Social Action, Kristine Blair, Radhika Gajjala, and Christine Tulley bring together essays that focus on the complex relationships between women's lives and digital technology. Among these collected chapters, authors analyze such popular online sites as Web sites constructed by women mourning pregnancy, perinatal, and neonatal deaths (Nesbitt), commercial and alternative infertility support communities (Hass), and pro-Ana Web sites (Downer et al.). In each case, the authors implicitly or explicitly highlight rhetorical features of the texts they are examining, revealing key points of connection between cyberfeminist practice and rhetoric. For example, Nesbitt identifies how shared features of Web site design contribute to how mourning women both network and build community online; Hass and Downer et al. examine how the feminist discourse that develops in online communities can be both empowering and limiting for women, always situated within larger cultural constraints. From varying perspectives, these scholars take up the rhetorical strategies used by women in different popular online spaces and observe how these strategies are used to perform feminist collaboration, resistance, and/or subversion in digital spaces.

[8] Following the lead of these scholars, I look to how cyberfeminist rhetoric is employed by women at one particular Website, The Shape of a Mother. A site developed by one mother and sustained by a community of women, "The Shape of a Mother" commemorates the pregnant and postpartum bodies of women. The users of the site perform embodied, oppositional writing, cultivating a rhetoric that explicitly undermines our society's cultural mythoi on motherhood and feminine beauty. In doing so, these women talk back to the ritualized commodification of women's bodies in our culture, demonstrating the kind of feminist resistance and subversion that Wilding and others imagine might happen in new digital spaces. As such, they construct a cyberfeminist rhetoric. If a key characteristic of rhetoric is not only communicating but also meaning-making, as a number of contemporary rhetorical theorists suggest, and if an important aspect of feminism is the disruption of dominate ideologies, as the above mentioned feminist scholars agree, then the contributors to The Shape of a Mother act on both accounts, doing so in an electronic environment. They construct a rhetoric that subverts traditional narratives on femininity and motherhood, while simultaneously reconstructing these narratives in ways that allow users to claim agency as mothers, women, and citizens. Consequently, I suggest that such sites provide an important virtual space where women might create not only community, but also alternative discourses on identity.

A Feminist Social Self in Cyberspace

Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experiences. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.
—Adrienne Rich, "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying"

[9] A significant theme that threads its way through and across feminist camps is the need to accurately portray the lived experiences of being women. As Rich confides above, this is not only a need but at times an act of survival, an act whereby the material conditions of women's lives are uncovered and recovered amid the cultural processes that elide and devalue our various experiences. While this kind of professing might be historically linked to earlier feminist traditions, such powerful rhetorical acts take on new relevance within the discursive space of new media. Such acts of portraying and sharing might not be inevitably reduced to essentialism, a common critique of feminist projects that seek to identify commonalities among women's experiences. Certainly, as third wave feminists have rightly argued, it is a myth to assume that all women share the exact same experiences simply by virtue of being women. As bell hooks and other scholars have long noted, just as men are not valued equally within "white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure[s]," neither are women (18). It is important to recognize, then, that women's identities are fragmented along various cultural, economic, social, and historical markers. Yet at the same time, it is also necessary to acknowledge that women's lived experiences do intersect and overlap with one another at times due to some of these very same and other equally important lived markers. Collectively, the narratives of the various women who share their stories at The Shape of a Mother demonstrate one such intersection: motherhood.

[10] In her discussion of postmodern feminism, Angela McRobbie offers a useful approach for moving beyond universalist vs. relativist debates surrounding the politics of female identity, the "feminist social self": "the feminist social self, it might be suggested, is an amalgam of fragmented identities formed in discourse and history and called into being both by the experiences of femininity and by the existence and availability of a feminist discourse" (607). In other words, the feminist social self is a discursive subject, called into formation through rhetorical acts. Grounded in a politics of location and borrowing from Rosi Braidotti's materialist theory of becoming, McRobbie's feminist social self evokes a feminist subject complicated by the conditions and accountability of postmodernism. [i] Central to this feminist social self is the possibility of political mobilization and community among women through discourse formation, even as women work through "assumed sites of essentialism" (604). Thus coming together as women to interrogate feminine experiences by writing our distinct yet sometimes overlapping realities and lived experiences might be founded on a politic rather than on the assumption of essentialism. Consequently, acts of portraying, of publicly writing and thus professing these material markers, provide one avenue for politicizing such shared realities. And since new communication technologies make it easier to both network and archive in electronic environments, digital spaces like the Web can provide a powerful medium for realizing such political and activist work.

[11] Further, McRobbie's feminist social self provides a framework for bringing a feminist politic to Bolter and Grusin's theory of the remediated self. That is, Bolter and Grusin describe the remediated self as an idealized subject "desir[ing] to be immediately present to oneself" while also being constructed as "she oscillates between media" (236). The remediated self is discursively defined by media. Also discursive, McRobbie's feminist social self complicates this constructed self by insisting on a mediated self that, in addition, acknowledges both material markers and a collective politic. Thus while Bolter and Grusin's remediated self theorizes a relationship between identity formation and new media, McRobbie's feminist social self allows for the possibility of agency in this new configuration of self. In what follows, I examine how these feminist tenets—an emphasis on materiality and community—provide a foundation for the feminist rhetoric women generate in digital form at The Shape of a Mother.

On the Material

[12] The main page of The Shape of a Mother succinctly captures how the feminist project of describing the material realities of motherhood might be realized in cyberspace. Multimodal in design, the site's rhetoric builds on the interplay between traditional texts and visual imagery to communicate its message to readers. Upon entering the site, viewers immediately encounter five black and white pictures across the top of the page. These images highlight the breasts, abdomens, and backsides of both pregnant and postpartum women, visually announcing the logos of the site: pregnancy transforms the body. Contrasting sharply with the hyberbolic yet constructed images of female bodies that we come across in mainstream magazines, television, and more contemporary forms of media, the real bodies of these women are marked. Literally, stretch marks streak across stomachs and surround nipples. Bellies appear both swollen and deflated. Black letters making out the Web site's title, "The Shape of a Mother," scroll across the page beneath these portraits, instructing readers to reinterpret the images in light of the claims implied by the juxtaposition of words and images: this is what pregnancy can do to a body, this is what many women look like as a result, and thus this is how beauty might be redefined in light of such materiality.

Shape of a Mother Homepage

[13] Below the title of the Web site, four headings organize the site's contents: "Welcome," "News!," Recent Submissions," and "Find Entries Categorized." Under "Welcome," the site's designer, Bonnie, briefly explains her reason for creating the site, a desire to make visible and celebrate the post-pregnant bodies of women. The "News" section includes bulleted updates from Bonnie, where she posts links to messages and announcements. For example, the link "Happy Mother's Day!" takes users to a poem written by Bonnie and dedicated to site contributors. In this poem she wishes the other women a happy Mother's Day while simultaneously reminding them of the importance of the activist work that they do and need to continue to do through the Web site:

There is so much we have to fight for as women and as mothers. Today let's take just a little bit of our dignity back. Today you should appreciate your body in any small way that you can, and today you will forgive yourself a little of the pain of trying to fit physically into this Barbie world. Today - give yourself a happy Mother's Day.

In this post and others, Bonnie often uses the "News!" section to remind reader's of the central purpose of the Website. The remaining two sections, "Recent Submissions" and "Find Entries Categorized" arrange the blog posts of women posters either chronologically or according to topics, respectively. Of note, the topics under "Find Entries Categorized" vary from events, such as "Postpartum," "Pregnant," and "Child Loss," to specific body parts, such as "Breasts" and "Belly." As such, these categories collectively work to emphasize the material conditions of motherhood.

[14] Accessible under a number of categories, including "Belly," one user's post in particular, "I'm Proud," exemplifies how such digital spaces allow for the realization of a rhetorical practice that addresses rather than elides materiality. In this post, Ewa shares a picture of the stretch marks that cover her abdomen. Her pride in these stretch marks is elucidated in the forum post that accompanies the picture, wherein she comments that the stretch marks bring her "great satisfaction" in affirming her sense of self. Ewa contemplates painting her stretch marks "like flames from a fire or volcano" for all to see instead of hiding them in shame. As another women keenly observes in response to Ewa's post, rather than representing physical flaws brought on by pregnancy, stretch marks serve as "beautiful reminders" of the materiality of childbirth. Similar to the l'écriture feminine writers, Ewa finds both pleasure and agency in writing these excesses of her body. In contrast to the pervading cultural logic that suggests such marks are aberrations, Ewa's rhetoric reclaims these physical markers as both beautiful and empowering. As such, this act of embodied writing contributes to an alternative rhetoric of motherhood by positing an active rather than passive motherly subject. Through visual representation, Ewa subverts the idealized depictions of women's bodies that we find elsewhere in mainstream culture. Through narrative, she associates this alternative representation of the female body with the physical labor of pregnancy and childbirth, calling attention to the material aspects of motherhood that are often elided or idealized in our culture. In writing/speaking her body, a specifically public act of claiming agency when we remember that she does so in an online forum with both words and images, she both contributes to and alters traditional representations of motherhood. In short, Ewa practices a feminist online rhetoric via the affordances of multimodal composing.

Ewa - User Post

[15] As practiced in cyberspace, multimodality is not inherently feminist or materially-based. Rather, such a material emphasis is only arrived at strategically, through, as demonstrated above, the feminist cybertechniques that Wilding and others note can be used strategically to achieve subversion and political contextualization. Indeed, it is the same characteristics of l'écriture feminine that Kendrick likens to hypertext, "excess, circularity, and repetition," which hypertext theorists such as George Landow use to emphasize hypertext as a postmodern form. As Kendrick and Sullivan note, for these earlier theorists, the postmodern and inherently deconstructive nature of digital media is concomitant with immateriality. Furthermore, many of these theorists of new media more often than not neatly packaged new writing technologies within the patriarchal tradition of rhetorical theory more so than reading them as potentially oppositional rhetorical forms, forms that might emphasize the materiality of rhetoric. As Kendrick notes, these theorists "'galvanize' a tradition of writing that assumes the primacy of masculine reason" (par. 80) over an embodied rhetoric. Such moves are aptly illustrated in Bolter's discussion of new writing technologies as exercise in "writing the Cartesian mind" (193), whereby the mind is split from the body. Landow's insistence on situating hypertext within the tradition of high critical theory is another case in point. [ii]

[16] Both theorists position hypertext as a vehicle that furthers the supremacy of a Western logos even as they celebrate its nonlinear structures and multiplicity. As Carlton Clark notes, the ideological foundation grounding such theories is Enlightenment humanism, whereby the "ideal citizen is a rational, self-interested, autonomous man." Consequently, in this light, electronic media is imagined as a medium for continuing the Enlightenment project of disembodied reason, a project that feminist theorists have historically critiqued for its elision of both female subjects and materiality. These theorists are able to perform this maneuvering, Kendrick proposes, by asserting the reader as the autonomous subject in the void left by the disembodied and fragmented author:

the disappearance of the body, with its historical connection with the feminized, coupled with hypertext's theorists evoking of a purified and disembodied mind, suggest cyberspace as an ahistorical, utopian, and masculine is rewired in discourse surrounding hypertext, away from the authorial responsibility and towards readerly acts of "consumption." (par. 13)

If we are to follow the reasoning of these "hypertext boys," as Kendrick dubs them, alternative rhetorics such as the likes of what Ewa constructs and what other women users at The Shape of a Mother produce are likely to be devalued because these women writers seek to use electronic media to both declare authorial agency and to do so through a distinctly embodied rhetoric. For these women, the visual and textual renderings of their bodies are meant to represent their actual material bodies. That is, they are not attempting to transcend corporeality via cyberspace, as these earlier male theorists might have posited. Rather, they enlist multimodality in order to embrace corporeality.

[17] This emphasis on new media's material possibilities is what allows for the shaping of an oppositional online feminist rhetoric. Reminding her readers that "rhetoric is material" because "speech acts are material" (115), Marguerite Helmers goes on to link the materiality of rhetoric to a feminist agenda. Theorizing a materialist feminist rhetoric, she points out the importance in recognizing the visual literacy of objects as sites of discourse. In particular, she notes that a rhetoric of objects regards "objects at the nexus of social and communicative processes" (118). This materiality is compounded when we consider the interplay of textual and visual rhetoric at work in The Shape of a Mother. Not only does multimedia allow for logos to form from the interdependence of the written prose and the visual imagery, but it also opens up a space whereby the visual representation itself acts as an object or artifact that produces its own materiality and rhetoric.

[18] Taking into consideration both the purpose and communicative character of the site, the postings by women at The Shape of a Mother are then best read as material rhetorical artifacts. According to Helmers, such representations are material in that they are marked by the context of their presentation; they are rhetorical in that they are used to communicate and evoke an audience response (122). And since the work of material feminists, as she writes, "contributes to an understanding of the ways that discourse is implicated in relations of power and derives from multifarious experiences of speakers" (122), it is worth analyzing how women at The Shape of a Mother contextualize their posts within broader discourses of power. Likewise, materiality is notably the most significant quality of l'écriture feminine. As Kendrick states, writing for the l'écriture feminists "is an embodied practice, drawing on our undeniable materiality, and a material practice which could be grounded in the excesses and pleasures of the body (par. 8). Consequently, multimodality's potential as a feminist rhetorical form is realized only in foregrounding its materiality.

[19] Through multimodal design, The Shape of a Mother scripts female bodies, explicitly attending to the "excesses and pleasures" brought on by pregnancy and motherhood. We can see this scripting process drawn out in the course of Ewa's post. As one of its most celebrated rhetorical functions, digital media allows users to combine both images and traditional text in persuading the audience/readers, so this scripting is hypermedial as well as hypertextual in form. Via blogs, posts are organized and linked to one another in a variety of non-linear structures. These structures include forums, hypertext tags embedded within forum posts, and both internal and external links. In response to a call to action on the home page or in response the posts of other women, users at The Shape of a Mother post pictures of their bodies, contextualizing these pictures through individual narratives that highlight and enhance the authorial intention of their communication. That is, in contrast to the de-centered authorial subject position assumed by scholars such as Landow, Bolter, and others, these authors seek to assert authorial agency. This rhetorical agency is augmented not only through Web 2.0's interactive capacity which affords communal authorship, but also through the archiving capabilities of webblogs, both points which I elaborate on below.

On the Communal

[20] The central message of The Shape of a Mother is further drawn out under the "Welcome" where Bonnie post a mini manifesto after explaining her reasoning for creating the Web site:

It is my dream, then, to create this website where women of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret. So we can finally see what women really look like sans airbrushes and plastic surgery. I think it would be nothing short of amazing if a few of our hearts are healed, or if we begin to cherish our new bodies which have done so much for the human race. What if the next generation grows up knowing how normal our bodies are? How truly awesome would that be?

Like Rich, Bonnie strives to make the personal political. She hopes that in sharing images of their bodies with one another, women might not only heal one another, but also construct a new understanding of what constitutes feminine beauty, and subsequently female identity, for future generations. As such, she demonstrates the ways in which feminist Web sites might contribute to both personal and social transformation. At the center of this politic, she hopes to construct a feminist rhetoric based on mutual authorship.

[21] The affordances of Web 2.0 make the co-construction of this feminist rhetoric possible. As Diane Greco observes, recovering a politics of hypertext necessitates an understanding of how people actual use hypertext over an abstract theorizing of hypertext (par. 18). Thus, another assumption that needs to be addressed from earlier new media theorizing is the presumption of a single, solitary author. [iii] As we can see in the actual rhetorical practice of its users, communal authoring is a key factor in the realizing of The Shape of a Mother's feminist rhetoric. While there are certainly instances within the Web site whereby individual authorship is promoted and valued, the predominant means by which users make use of and create knowledge within the site is fundamentally collaborative. The community-building potential of cyberspace has long been celebrated within cyberculture studies, and a predominant theme within cyberculture studies continues to be an examination into the benefits and drawbacks of virtual communities with respect to identity formation. [iv] For the purposes of this analysis, however, I'm less interested in the impacts of virtual communities on individual identity formation per se than on how individual identity formation is mediated through community building and communal interaction in online communities, and in how these particular discourse communities contribute to specific kinds of knowledge formation. It is this within this complex process whereby an oppositional feminist rhetoric is realized.

[22] Eble and Breault identify two processes by which knowledge production might occur in online communities: the trickle-down method and the interactive method. In the trickle-down method information is produced and disseminated by "experts" and then made use of by the site users: "expert knowledge is disseminated as information which, depending on its use-value, becomes incorporated within the personal knowledge of the audience" (324). Of note, in her discourse analysis of online fertility communities, Angela Hass critiques they ways in which patriarchal doctors and drug companies control female discourse through such means in predominately female virtual infertility communities. [v] We can see trickle-down knowledge production occurring in some of the hyperlinks that Bonnie posts and regulates as the site designer. For example, upon entering the site, a hyperlink to La Leche League is made available to users on the right side of the screen. If they choose to do so, users can access information through the La Lech League Web site and use it as a resource for making decisions about breastfeeding. This kind of knowledge production can certainly empower users, but as noted above, it is knowledge disseminated by a single authority.

[23] Interactive knowledge production, on the other hand, is created collectively by the site users:

knowledge in these forums is not released as expert information but generated through live and posted online conversations. Women bring personal and local knowledge to the chats and boards, and, through dialogic and collaborative processes, generate new knowledge collectively as well as individually. (Eble and Breault 324)

In this scenario, knowledge is co-constructed in the online interaction made possible through the affordances of new media. This interactive process is not exclusive to online rhetoric, of course. Yet its possibility is significantly enhanced through the variety of multi-media and multi-composing processes found in digital technology. While this co-construction of knowledge abounds at The Shape of a Mother, one particular blog demonstrates the formation of this alternative feminist discourse quite nicely.

[24] In "Body Image, Bulimia, and a Beautiful Baby Boy," Katie, like many posters, situates her own story within the context of Bonnie's manifesto. She shares a narrative that speaks to the ways in which mainstream myths of feminine beauty have influenced her own sense of female identity and describes the impact it has had on her physical and emotional well being. She opens her post by emphasizing this impact: "I struggled with my weight all my life. I struggled with a vicious eating disorder that ruled my every moment, and nearly killed me. I was 106 pounds, and had no menstrual cycle to speak of, fainting spells, seizures, ulcers, and heart problems." In this confession, Katie goes on to share that she cycled through binging and purging for many years, miscarrying once, until she was finally able to recover from her bulimia in the face of a second pregnancy. Noticeably, a surface reading of Katie's post might question a feminist reading of it. While her post engages in the kind of reality description that Rich elicits, it seems to suggest that it is only through motherhood that Katie is able to gain confidence and a sense of self. That is, in this conversion narrative, salvation is delivered only once Katie embraces her roles as wife, mother, and child bearer.

[25] A more nuanced reading of Katie's narrative, however, might acknowledge the ways in which she asserts a feminist rhetoric even alongside the unexamined assumptions of motherhood that she professes. For example, near the end of her post, she observes, "I realized later that I became self conscious and embarrassed with my body when we got television." Reflecting from this observation, she is able to contextualize her own experiences within the larger context of societal accountability. This revelation occurs not by posting her story in isolation, but from sharing her story within the context of other women's stories at The Shape of a Mother: 'Then, I found this site. I felt embarrassed then. Not for my body, but for having sold my soul to the ideals of a SOCIETY with an eating disorder." Katie's rhetorical agency is made possible only in dialogic collaboration with other site users, a process which affords her both social and material agency as well. Through this communicative process, we see her subject position transform from self-blaming victim to cultural critic.

[26] Katie's dialogic feminist voice is made more obviously material and oppositional by way of the pictures that she shares. As noted in Bonnie's manifesto, creating a space for alternative images of female bodies to be displayed is paramount to the mission of The Shape of a Mother. While Katie's written post suggests an emerging yet tentative feminist self, her pictures reveal a definitively subversive and defiant subject. Seven pictures, which follow her written text, sketch a visual vignette that begins with a picture highlighting Katie's pre-pregnancy (or close to it) abdomen and ends with a picture of her topless and nursing her son. Chronologically, the pictures narrate the physical transformation of Katie's body. At the same time, the pictures illustrate Katie's progression as she becomes more comfortable and confident with her female body in its life-giving functions. Pictures two and three feature her growing pregnant stomach, while picture four displays a celebratory drawing etched onto her late-pregnancy belly. Pictures five and six exhibit her post-pregnancy body from the neck to her thighs, calling attention to her stretched, sagging stomach muscles and her lactating breasts. Explicit in the collection and representation of these visual artifacts is the kind of feminist materialist discourse that Helmers imagines. When we read Katie's written post in conjunction with her pictures, reading—that is—the combination of the two representations as one rhetorical act made possible through multimodality, a less ambiguous feminist subject emerges, a feminist social self the likes of which is described by McRobbie. Consequently, Katie contributes to a feminist rhetoric grounded in confronting the exploitation and cooptation of women's bodies, a rhetoric made possible through communal rhetorical practices.

Katie's Narrative

[27] As noted above, Katie's consciousness-raising experience was prompted by her introduction to and interaction with other women's posts at Bonnie's site. A quick look at a few of the responses to Katie's post demonstrates the processes by which this kind of collaborative knowledge construction occurs specifically through chat exchanges. In response to her narrative, another poster, Deborah, congratulates Katie on her successful birth and newly-found sense of self. In doing so, she also takes the opportunity to further Katie's critique of media images by historically contextualizing how women's bodies have been represented. "Remember," Deborah writes, "that it is only in the last few years that hipbone and no tummy have become sexy. Look at nude paintings, not a bony woman to be seen." Here, Deborah supports Katie's claim of a "society with an eating disorder" by providing a historical framework. In doing so, she clarifies that the "ideals" by which women's bodies are judged for consumption in our culture are not natural but are, indeed, constructed and historically-specific mythologies.

[28] Because these blogs are archived electronically, the knowledge constructed by and among users is both continually accessible and always open for further construction. Two additional responses to Katie's post affirm her struggle with eating disorders by sharing their own similar experiences (Janel and Saggy Happy Girl). Another poster, Katherine, continues the critique of media initiated by Katie and complicated by Deborah. Finally, another poster, Stacie, suggests that "with sites like this we can take some of the power back." In their responses to Katie and one another, these women construct a public rhetoric that challenges the ways in which women have traditionally been left out of the discourses of power that profoundly shape their lived experiences. As such, they illustrate how, as Kendrick proposes, new media might provide women the rhetorical means by which to talk back to a history of phallocentric rhetorical practices—for they not only critique these discourses, but also construct an alternative and more inclusive rhetoric for women.

Rhetoric as Cyberfeminist Practice

[29] As Tara McPherson and others in the field of new media studies have observed, scholarship about the Internet can tend to adopt either utopic or dystopic approaches to technology. Utopic readings tend to see technology as only freeing and liberating. Under these circumstances, the Internet becomes a new landscape where ideal communities are created and dematerialized identities are recreated virtually, allowing folks to eschew or transcend the political and material problems of the real world. On the other hand, dystopic readings see technological advancement as yet another layer of control, domination, and in some cases, a catastrophe. In this view, humanity is at the mercy of technology, and the Internet itself might be blamed for the postmodern condition, for the onset of both cultural fragmentation and alienation (Silver 20).

[30] Notably, both approaches might be said to suffer from technological determinism and oversimplification. In particular, they do not address the complexity of the relationship between technology and culture, a relationship wherein technology is embedded within culture and culture within technology. That is to say, one does not drive the other; it is a dialogic and reciprocal relationship. Furthermore, it is an ongoing and continuing process, not a static one. As such, it is important to acknowledge both the hegemonic limitations and the counter-hegemonic possibilities afforded by technological communication and interaction.

[31] While my own analysis of The Shape of a Mother focuses on the ways in which a virtual community of women uses digital technologies to resist dominant ideologies and to redefine motherly identity, I complicate this utopic/dystopic tendency in a number of ways. First, I illustrate how these women construct an embodied rhetoric, a rhetoric that serves to highlight their real bodies and their real lives, not transcend them. In doing so, I demonstrate the ways in which the real world experiences of these woman users frame and shape the embodied digital rhetoric that they perform. By emphasizing the performative and open-ended characteristic of this rhetoric, I reveal its strategic and malleable nature. As Wilding reminds us, as technological and cultural complexities shift, so must the forms and strategies of resistance recreate themselves.

[32] If the community of women who participate on The Shape of a Mother is to continue the feminist activism that they have started, the woman participants will likely have to find new ways of pushing back against the dominant ideologies they critique, appropriating new rhetorical forms that may or may not be digitally based. Nonetheless, my analysis suggests that in its current configuration, the Web site offers a powerful example of cyberfeminist rhetoric in action. As Bonnie had hoped when she began the site, a digital community has developed to counter the cultural silence surrounding the realities of women's post-pregnant bodies. In the process, other feminist issues have emerged and been taken up by these women, the community demonstrating how rhetoric might be employed to interrogate the fissure between our lived experiences and the cultural myths that sometimes negate them.

Works Cited

Blair, Kristine, Radhika Gajjala, and Christine Tully, eds. Webbing Cyberfeminist Practice. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2009.

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.

—. and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002.

Brandoitti, Rosi. Metamorpheses: Toward a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Cambridge: Blackwell, 2002.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 1524-1536.

Clark, Carleton. "Hypertext Theory and the Rhetoric of Empowerment: A Feminist Alternative." Kairos 7.3 (Fall 2002) 27 July 2008


Downer, Christa, Morgan Gresham, Roxanne Kirkwood, and Sandi Reynolds. "Who's Really a Cyberfeminist? Women Write Back: The Rhetoric of Pro-Ana Sites." Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley 85-106.

Eble, Michelle and Robin Breault. "The Primetime Agora: Knowledge, Power, and 'Mainstream' Resource Venues for Women Online." Computers and Composition 19 (2002): 315-329.

Greco, Diane. "Hypertext and Hypermedia." Cyberarts Database. 2002. Cyberarts and Cyberculture Research Initiative. 15 August 2008. «».

Haraway, Donna. "The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Haas, Angela. "Wired Wombs: A Rhetorical Analysis of Online Infertility Support Communities." Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley 61-84.

Helmers, Marguerite. "Objects, Memory, and Narrative: New Notes Toward Materialist Rhetoric." Teaching Rhetorica: Theory, Pedagogy, Practice. Eds. Kate Ronald and Joy Ritchie. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2006. 114-130.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York Press, 2006.

Kendrick, Michelle. "The Laugh of the Modem: Interactive Technologies and L'ecriture Feminine." Rhizomes 4 (2002): 21 pars. 12 July 2008 «».

Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1992.

McPherson, Tara. "'Resisting' the Utopic-Dystopic Binary." Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley 379-384.

McRobbie, Angela. "Feminism, Postmodernism, and the 'Real Me.'" Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks. Eds. Meenashki Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 2001. 598-610.

Nesbitt, Kris. "Angel Babies: Women's Webs of Loss and Transformation." Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley 43-60.

Rich, Adrienne. "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying." Literacies: Reading,Writing, Interpretation. Eds. Terence Brunk et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 405-413.

Silver, David. "Looking Forward, Looking Back: Cyberculture Studies 1990-2000." Webstudies:Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age. Ed. David Gauntlett. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 19-30.

Sullivan, Laura. "Wired Women Writing: Towards a Feminist Theorization of Hypertext." Computers and Composition 16 (1999): 24-54.

Wilding, Faith. "Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?" n. paradoxa 2 (1998): 6-12.


[i] See Braidotti's Metamorpheses: Toward a Materialist Theory of Becoming for a detailed discussion of her position.

[ii] See Landow's Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology for more on his positioning of hypertext within the narrative of critical theory.

[iii] I agree with Greco's contention that " 'the death of an author' sloganeering does not count, except ironically; celebrating the death of the author still underwrites an ideology in which the author still occupies a position of centrality" (par. 22).

[iv] See Silver's "Looking Backwards, Looking Forward" for a representative example of this discussion.

[v] See "Wired Wombs: A Rhetorical Analysis of Online Fertility Support Communities."