A Relational Approach to the Digital Self: Plus-Sized Bloggers and the Double-Edged Sword of Market-Compromised Identity





relational self, social imaginary, consumption, plus-sized fashion blog, identity, gender

How to Cite

Harju, A. A. (2018). A Relational Approach to the Digital Self: Plus-Sized Bloggers and the Double-Edged Sword of Market-Compromised Identity. M/C Journal, 21(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1385
Vol. 21 No. 2 (2018): automediality
Published 2018-04-25

Digital Articulations of the Relational Self 

Identity continues to be one of the enduring topics in digital media research. This interdisciplinary take on the digital self extends the discussion in my dissertation (Harju) of contemporary articulations of the relational self in the digital context by focusing on potentiality of the evolving self. I adopt a relational approach to being (Gergen Relational) where the self is seen as always already a product of relations, borne out of them as well as dependent on them (Gergen Realities). The self as fluid and processual is reflective of our liquid times (Bauman), of globalisation and digitalisation where we are surrounded by global flows of images, taste and trends (Appadurai).

The view of the self as a process underlies future-oriented action, emphasing the becoming of the self. The process of becoming implies the potential of the self that can be narrated into existence. The relational view of the self, perhaps indirectly, also posits the self as a temporal interface between the present and the future, as a site where change unfolds. It is therefore important to critically reflect on the kinds of potentialities we can discover and engage with and the kinds of futures (Berardi) we can construct.

Extending Gergen’s conceptualisation of the kinds of relations to include non-human actors (e.g. media technologies) as well socio-cultural and economic forces allows me to explore the conflicting forces shaping the self, for example, the influence the market exerts on self-construction together with the media logics that guide digital self-production practices. Because of the market’s dominant position in today’s imagination, I seek to explore the relational processes of inclusion and exclusion that position individuals relative to as well as in terms of the market as more or less included or excluded subjects (Harju).

The digital environment is a unique setting for identity projects as it provides spatial and temporal flexibility, the possibility for curation, consideration and reconstruction. At the same time, it lacks a certain historicity; as Smith and Watson note, the self constructed online lacks narrative beginning and end that in “analog life writing [are] distinguishable by birth or death” (90). While it is tempting therefore to assume that self-construction online is free from all constraints, this is not necessarily so as the self is nevertheless produced within the wider socio-cultural context in which it also needs to “make sense,” these conditions persisting across these modes of being. Self as a relational process inevitably connects what for analytical purposes may be called online and offline social spaces as there is a processual linkage, a relational flow, that connects any online entity to a form outside the digital realm.

Media institutions and the process of mediation (Rak Boom!) shape the autobiographical practices (Poletti), and the notion of automedia was introduced as a way to incorporate images, text and technologies as constitutive in autobiographic accounts (Smith and Watson) and help see online life as life instead of mere representation (Rak "Life"). The automedial approach rejects essentialist accounts of the self, assuming rather that the self is called into being and constructed in and by the materiality of the medium, in the process of mediation. This furthermore entails a move beyond the literary in terms of autobiographies toward consideration of the enabling and restricting roles of media technologies in the kinds of selves that can be constructed (Maguire 74).

Viewing the self as always already relationally emergent (Gergen Relational) and combining this view with the framework of automedial construction of the self allows us to bring into the examination of the digital self the socio-cultural and economic forces and the diverse discourses meeting at the site of the self. Importantly, the relational approach prioritises relations and therefore the self is constituted in a relational flow in a process of becoming, placing importance on the kinds of relational configurations where the becoming of the self takes place.

This paper explores how the digital self is forged under the joint pressures of consumerist logic and media logics in the contemporary society where “being a consumer” is the predominant subjectivity (Firat; Bauman). I draw on sociology of consumption to examine the relational tensions shaping identity construction of marginalised individuals. To empirically illustrate the discussion I draw on a previous study (Harju and Huovinen) on plus-sized fashion blogging and examine fatshion blogging as a form of automedia (see also Rak "Digital" on blogs).

Plus-Sized Fashion Bloggers and Market-Mediated Identity

Plus-sized fashion bloggers, “fatshionistas,” actively seek social and cultural inclusion by way of fashion. As a collective activity, plus-sized fashion blogging is more than diary writing (see also Rak Digital) but also more than fashion blogging: the blogs constitute “networked, collective and active consumer resistance,” illuminating “marginalised consumers’ identity work at the intersection of commercial culture and the counter-representations of traditional femininity” (Harju and Huovinen 1603). Blogging resistant or subversive identities into being is thus also a form of activism and political action (Connell). 

As a form of automedia and autobiographical production, fatshion blogging has as its agenda the construction of alternative subjectivities and carving out a legitimate social space in the “fatosphere,” “a loosely interconnected network of online resources aimed at creating a safe space where individuals can counter fat prejudice, resist misconceptions of fat, engage in communal experiences and promote positive understandings of fat” (Gurrieri and Cherrier 279). Fashion blogs are rich in self-images portraying “fat fashion”: thus, not only fashion as a physical medium and the images representative of such materiality, but also the body acts as a medium.

Plus-sized fashion bloggers feel marginalised as women due to body size but they also face rejection in and by the market. Normalised discourses around fashion and the female body as one that is fashioned render fashion blogging an avenue to normativity (Berlant): the symbolic power of taste (Bourdieu) embedded in fashion is harnessed to construct the desired self and to mobilise discourses of acceptable subjectivity. However, it is these very discourses that also construct the “state of being fat” as deviant and stigmatise the larger body as something falling outside the definition of good taste (LeBesco).

The description on the Fatshionista! Livejournal page summarizes the agenda that despite the focus on fashion carries political undertones:

Welcome, fatshionistas! We are a diverse fat-positive, anti-racist, disabled-friendly, trans-inclusive, queer-flavored, non-gender-specific community, open to everyone. Here we will discuss the ins and outs of fat fashions, seriously and stupidly--but above all--standing tall, and with panache. We fatshionistas are self-accepting despite The Man's Saipan-made boot at our chubby, elegant throats. We are silly, and serious, and want shit to fit.

In a previous study (Harju and Huovinen) on the conflicted identity construction of plus-sized fashion bloggers (see also Gurrieri and Cherrier; Limatius) we found the complex performative tactics used in constructing the plus-sized blogger identity both resisted the market as well as embraced it: the bloggers seek similarity via appeals to normativity (see also Coleman and Figueroa) yet underline difference by rejecting the demands of normative ideals.

The bloggers’ similarity seeking tactics (Harju and Huovinen) emphasise shared commonalities with the feminine ideals (ultra-femininity, posing and girliness) and on the face of it contribute to reproducing not only the gendered self but also the market-compromised self that endorses a very specific type of femininity. The plus-sized blogger identity, although inherently subversive as it seeks to challenge and expand the repertoire and imagery available to women, nevertheless seeks inclusion by way of the market, the very same that rejected them as “consumers”. This relational tension is negotiated on the blogs, and resistance emerges through articulating difference.

Thus, the bloggers’ diversity asserting tactics (Harju and Huovinen) add to the complexity of the identity project and constitute explicit resistance, giving rise to resistant consumer identity. Bodily differences are highlighted (e.g. the bigger body is embraced, skin and body revealed rather than concealed) as the bloggers take control of how they are represented, using media to challenge the market that defines acceptable femininity in ways that ostracises fat women. 

The contradictory processes at the site of the self give rise to relational tension (Gergen Relational) and blogging offers a site for collective negotiation. For the plus-sized bloggers, to be included means no longer occupying the margins: self-images displaying the fat body contribute to corporeal empowerment (Harju and Huovinen) where flaunting the fat body helps construct the identity of a “fatshionista” blogger liberated from shame and stigma attached to the bigger body:

I decided to start this blog after being a regular poster on the Fatshionista LiveJournal community. Finding that community changed my whole outlook on life, I was fat (still am) & unhappy with myself (not so much now). I was amazed to find a place where fat people celebrated their bodies, instead of being ashamed. (Harju and Huovinen 1614).

The fatshion blog as a form of automedia is driven by the desire for change in the social circumstances where self-construction can take place, toward the future potential of the self, by diversifying acceptable subject positions and constructing novel identification points for fat women. The means are limited, however, and despite the explicit agenda of promoting body positivity, the collective aspirations are rooted in consumption and realised in the realm of fashion and the market.

The question, therefore, is whether resistance outside the market is possible when so much of our social existence is bound up with the market and consumerist logic, or whether the desire for inclusion, manifest in aspirational normativity (Berlant) with the promise of social acceptance linked to normative way of life, necessitates market participation and the adoption of consumer subjectivity? Consumer subjectivity offers normative intelligibility in the various expressions of identity, providing tools for the becoming of an included subject. However, it raises the question of whether resistant identity can occur outside the market and outside the logic of consumption when it seeks social inclusion.

Market-compromised identity is a double-edged sword; while participation via the market may help construct a self that is intelligible, market participation also disciplines the subject to take part in a certain way, of becoming a certain type of consuming subject, all the time harnessing the self for the benefit of the market. With no beginning or an end, the digital self is in constant processual flux, responding to conflicting relational input. The market adds to this complexity as “the neoliberal subject is compelled to participate in society as both an enthusiastic consumer and as a self-controlled subject” (Guthman 193).

Social Imaginaries as Horizons of Constrained Possibility 

Identity possibilities are inscribed in the popular imagination, and the concept of social imaginary (Castoriadis; Taylor) provides a useful lens through which to examine articulations of the digital self. Social imaginaries are not unitary constructions and different imaginaries are evoked in different contexts. Likewise, although often shared, they are nevertheless unique to the individual, presenting as a terrain of conceivable action befitting of the individual engaged in the act of imagining.

In our socially saturated times relational input is greater than ever (Gergen Relational). Imagining now draws on a wider range of identity possibilities, the ways of imagining the self being reflective of the values of any given time. Both consumption and media infiltrate the social imagination which today is not only compromised by market logic but has become constitutive of a terrain where the parameters for inclusion, change and resistance are limited. Practices of performing desirable femininity normalise a certain way of being and strike a constitutive boundary between what is desirable and what is not. The plus-sized fashion blogging makes visible the lack of diversity in the popular imagination (Harju and Huovinen) while fatshion blogging also reveals what possibilities there are for inclusion (i.e. via consumption and by mobilising normative femininity) and where the boundaries of identity work lie (see also Connell).

The fat body is subjected to discipline (Giovanelli and Ostertag; LeBesco) and “becoming fat” is regularly viewed as a lack of control. Not limited to fat subjects, the prevalent discourses of the self emphasise control and responsibility for the self (rather than community), often masquerading as self-approval. The same discourses, however, highlight work on the self (McRobbie) and cultivating the self by various means of self-management or self-tracking (Rettberg). Such self-disciplining carries the implication of the self as somewhat lacking (Skeggs Imagining, Exchange), of being in some way unintelligible (Butler).

In plus-sized blogging, the fat body needs to be subjected to fashioning to become intelligible within the dominant discourses in the public sphere. The fatshionista community is a politically oriented movement that rejects the normative demands governing the body, yet regimes of ‘self-improvement’ are evident on the individual blogs displaying the fashioned body, which is befitting of the normative understandings of the female subject as sexualised, as something to be consumed (see also Maguire). Contrary to the discourses of fat female subjects where the dimension of sexuality is largely absent, this is also linked to the problematics related to the visibility of female subjects. The negotiation of relational tension is manifest as negotiation of competing discourses where bloggers adopt the hegemonic visual discourses to subvert the stigmatising discourses that construct the fat female subject as lacking. Utilising media logics (e.g. micro-celebrity) to gain visibility as fat subjects is an important aspect of the fatshionistas’ automedial self-construction.

I argue that social imaginaries that feed into identity construction and offer pathways to normalcy cannot be seen simply and only as enabling, but instead they construct horizons of constrained possibility (Harju), thereby imposing limitations to the kind of acceptable identity positions marginalised individuals can seek. Digital productions form chains of symbolic entities and acquire their meaning by being interconnected as well as by being connected to popular social imaginaries. Thus, the narrative construction of the self in the digital production, and the recognition of the self in the becoming, is the very utility of the digital object. This is because through the digital artefact the individual becomes relationally linked to chains of significations (Harju). Through such linkages and subverted discourses, the disenfranchised may become enfranchised.

Toward Horizons of Potentiality and Possibility

The relational self is a process under continual change and thus always becoming. This approach opens up new avenues for exploring the complexities of the digital self that is never ‘just’ a reproduction. Automedia entails both the media about the maker (the subject) and the process of mediating the self (Rak "Life" 161) The relational approach helps overcome the binary distinction in modes of being (online versus offline), instead bringing into focus the relational flow between various articulations of the self in different relational scenarios. Then perhaps the question is not “what kinds of selves become or are borne digital” (Rak Life 177), but what kinds of selves are possible in the first place under the current conditions that include the digital as one mode of being, mediating the becoming, with the digital as one relational space of articulation of the self among many.

Where in On Being Online I discussed the constraining effects of market ideology embedded in social imaginaries on how the self can be articulated, Berardi in his book Futurability offers a more optimistic take, noting how the different paths we take result in different possibilities becoming realised, resulting in different social realities in the future. Future is not a linear development from the present; rather, the present harbours the potential for multiple futures. Berardi notes how the “[f]uture is not prescribed but inscribed, so it must be selected and extracted through interpretation” (236). Despite the dominant code - which in our times is consumption (Baudrillard) - hindering the process of interpretation, there is hope in Berardi’s notion of inscribed possibilities for resistance and change, for different ways of being and becoming.

This is the space the plus-sized fashion bloggers occupy as they grasp the potentialities in the present and construct new ways of being that unfold as different social realities in the future. In blogging, platform affordances together with other media technologies are intertwined with future-oriented life narration in the construction of the fatshionista identity which involves retrospective interpretation of life experiences as a fat woman as well as self-liberation in the form of conscious rejection of the dominant discourses around fat female subjects.

The digital self is able to negotiate such diverse, even conflicting forces in the active shaping of the social reality of its existence. Blogging as automedia can constitute an act of carving out alternative futures not limited to the digital realm. Perhaps when freed from aspirational normativity (Berlant) we are able to recover hope in the inscribed possibilities that might also hide the potential for a transition from a subjectivity enslaved to the market logic (see Firat Violence) to a self actively engaged in changing the social circumstances and the conditions in which subjectivity is construed (see Firat and Dholakia). In the becoming, the digital self occupies a place between the present and the future, enmeshed in various discourses of aspiration, mediated by material practices of consumption and articulated within the limits of current media practices (Harju). A self in the making, it is variably responsive to the multitude of relational forces continually flowing at the site of it.

Although the plus-sized bloggers’ identity work can be seen as an attempt to transform or discipline the self into something more intelligible that better fits the existing narratives of the self, they are also adding new narratives to the repertoire. If we adopt the view of self-conception as discourse about the self, that is, “the performance of languages available in the public sphere” (Gergen, Realities 185) whereby the self is made culturally intelligible by way of narration within ongoing relationships, we can see how the existing cultural discourses of the self are not only inclusive, but also alienating and othering. There is a need for identity politics that encourage the production of alternative discourses of the self for more inclusive practices of imagining. Blogging as automedia is not only a way of making visible that which occupies the margins, it also actively contributes to diversifying identification points in the public sphere that are not limited to the digital, but have implications regarding the production of social realities, regardless of the mode in which these are experienced.


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Author Biography

Anu A Harju, University of Helsinki

Postdoctoral Researcher

Faculty of Social Sciences, Media and Communications Research