Electronic Self-Presentations: Mother in Internet Forums on Children’s Clothes

Kristina Bartley, Margareta Oudhuis, Viveka Torell

Motherhood in internet forums

Parents often have an interest in presenting their children in certain ways, since the way the child is dressed also reflects the parents’ life-style, economic status and views of childhood (Johansson, 2005; Andersen et al., 2008; Brusdal & Frönes, 2013). Today fashion-interested mothers communicate their views on consumption in online discussion sites and share knowledge and opinions on children’s clothes. Consumer culture has changed considerably due to online environments (Rokka, 2010; Kozinets, 2002; Shau et al., 2003; Heinonen, 2011). Online communication in the form of specific forums has increased significantly in recent years (Friedman, 2013).

Research shows that mothers’ online discussions help to reinterpret and transform representations of motherhood, since such discussions are a source of both self-expression and collective identification. Motherhood is therefore no longer just a part of the private sphere (Lopez, 2009; Friedman, 2013; Gibson and Hanson, 2013; Parmaksiz, 2012). By studying mothers’ online discussions on children’s clothing various self-presentations of motherhood and consumption dilemmas can be made visible. This study seeks to give insight into discussions on mothers’ consumption behaviour and doing motherhood in public writing.

Motherhood and consumption

Contemporary motherhood cannot be usefully understood apart from commercial life and its extensions. We cannot be aware of motherhood without knowing the consumer and commercial contexts of mothers’ lives and the commercial lives and contexts of children and childhood (Cook, 2008). Marketing and consumer culture construct particular images of what mothers are, what they should care about and how they should behave. Women’s use of consumer goods and services shape how they mother as well as how they are seen and judged by others. Previous research has explored how women create and develop their own particular maternal identities, experiences and relationships through everyday consumption practices and rituals (Colett, 2005; Andersen et al., 2008; Brusdal & Frönes, 2013; O’Donohoe et al., 2014). Children’s clothing is an important category of expressing the mothers’ identity and ideals of motherhood. The clothing style underlines parents’ values and simultaneously shows their concern with shaping their children as unique individuals (Brusdal & Frönes, 2013).

Research on the ideology of good mothering maintains different themes of child-centeredness, self-sacrifice and devotion (McNeill & Graham, 2014; Dedeoglu, 2006; Andersen et al., 2008; The Voice group, 2010; Thomsen & Sörensen, 2006). Being perceived as a good mother is a central identity issue for many women (Colett, 2005). Andersen et al., (2008) found that the ‘perfect mother’s’ interest in children’s clothing is a result of her wish to show dedication and care for her child. The ‘self-sacrificing’ mother in turn cuts her own consumption of clothes in favour of vicarious clothes for the child making the child part of the mother’s extended self.

However, different forms of consumption ambivalence can occur when mothers are trying to manage a new phase in the life cycle. Consumption may appear as something positive, but also as a complicated, complex and confusing process. This ambivalence can take the form of consumer uncertainty, consumer resistance, fear of consumption and a sense of overconsumption (The Voice Group, 2010).

Within consumer research, two predominant views on children prevail, that affect mothers of today. One of them involves a consumption-critical perspective when it comes to protect the child from commercial influence. The second has a more market-oriented perspective, where children are seen as consumers “here and now” with influence on family consumption. There are varying degrees of these approaches, but both of them indicate that children of today are socialized early to become consumers (Rubinstein, 2000; Boden et al., 2005).

Theoretical Perspectives

Mothers’ consumption can be categorised by their use of various capital, such as economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1984; Bourdieu, 1995). Economic capital encompasses primarily material assets, whereas cultural capital includes good taste and cultivated style. Social capital in turn describes how social networks and contacts can be used as a resource within a certain practice, such as in this case of mothers’ online discussions. Symbolic capital constitutes what is considered as valuable within a certain group in relation to economic, cultural and social capital and can therefore be related to social hierarchies within that group, in our case mothers’ online discussions. Two other concepts are habitus and social fields (Bourdieu, 1984). Habitus organizes and creates individuals’ taste and lifestyle and can be understood as the embodiment of taste on different social fields. A social field is a group of people who are united through a common interest, i.e. mothers’ online discussions on children’s clothes, where taste becomes a way for mothers to position themselves and create similarity or distinction.

Another theoretical tool is Goffman’s (1959/2006) dramaturgical perspective on social life where he uses the theatre-metaphors backstage and frontstage. Backstage an individual prepares for the role to be played when entering the frontstage. Even though Goffman’s notion of social situation has been restricted to face-to-face interaction, we argue that some of his concepts are most useful also within the context of mediated environments (cf. Rettie, 2009; Meyrowitz, 1985), for example, impression management and selective and indirect self-presentation. Impression management is the process in which we try to influence other people’s perceptions about an object, event or ourselves. Selective self-presentation is the way we conceive ourselves, and the role we are striving to enact. The indirect self-presentation is our use of associates for our own benefit (Goffman, 1959/2006; Colett 2005).

Meyrowitz (1985:47) has widened and developed Goffman’s model as regards back- and frontstage to include a new middle region that contains a new frontstage as well as a new backstage, which may be useful in the analysis of online interaction. The middle region contains elements of both frontstage and backstage behaviour, the performer moves from backstage to frontstage to backstage. The backstage is divided into a deep backstage and a forefront of the backstage.

                                                         Research Methods

For this article a total of 284 posted messages in five internet forums regarding mothers’ views on children’s clothes have been analysed through qualitative content analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Langer & Beckman, 2005; Atkinson & Coffey, 2004). The posted messages have been extracted from three web-communities tied to different media-houses and from two Swedish parental internet forums published by individual parents. On three of the internet forums a mother has posed a question or made a statement about children’s fashion. These five internet forums are accessible without any restrictions, and with free and public access. The online discussions can therefore be characterized as public communication in a public media context. Langer and Beckman (2005) and Rageh et al., (2013) argue that this kind of online communication is open to researchers and research can be conducted in the same way as in communication and media studies. The choice has been to do a non-participant observational study of these online discussions. We have not been active parts of “face-to face” relationships in these online communities and we have not posted any contributions (cf. Langer & Beckman, 2005; Rageh et al., 2013).

To find the internet forums we used the keywords “bloggar”, “barnkläder”, “barnmode” in Swedish, and “blogs” “children’s clothes” and ”children’s fashion” in English. Internet forums that only show photos of children and children’s clothes with references to shops where the clothes can be bought have not been included in the sample since they did not contain the information we sought. The five internet forums are the Swedish Alltförföräldrar.se, FamiljeLiv.se, Ladydahmer.nu and Ettbättredu.se and the American Circleofmoms.com. This has enabled an analysis of the mothers’ discussions on children’s fashion and clothes. Table 1 (Appendix) shows the material and the distribution of posted messages.

All 284 posted messages have been printed and filled 97 printed pages with text and photos. The content analysis was conducted through repeated readings of the material, in several stages. First the material was read through in order to create an overview, getting hold of the context of the discussions and to structure and categorize the content. Then thorough, detailed readings, aimed at interpreting how the online discussions relate to the theories of Goffman and Bourdieu, were done several times. All comments and contributions were critically read and coded. Analysis showed that the mothers use various capitals in their self-presentations and position themselves in relation to each other. The following core categories emerged: self-presentation and child participation, self-presentation and gender norms and thirdly self-presentation and hierarchy and status.

All comments received a classification number from C 1 to C 284 (cf. Langer & Beckman, 2005; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Quotes and excerpts are used to increase the transparency of the analysis and we are using fictitious names in order to keep the individuals anonymous (cf. Kozinets, 2002).


Self-presentation and child participation

Most mothers in our material believe that children already at an early age can decide what to wear. Many of their children are participating in decisions as early as at the age of two, or as soon as they start to show an interest and become aware of choices. However, whether or not to let the child decide entirely appears to be a dilemma since, according to the mothers, it can lead to a decision overload for the child. Therefore the choice has to be made with guidance from an adult. Posted messages show that negotiations occur between mother and child, where the mother puts practical limits. Various suggestions on how mothers can minimize the children’s choice of clothing, linked to the child’s age, are presented. One facilitating strategy for small children is to allow them to choose between two to three outfits. Other limitations include clothes’ appropriateness to the situation and weather. In some cases mothers allow children to choose what clothes to wear indoors but not outdoors. This is an example of Goffman’s (1959/2006) back- and frontstage in real life: indoors is backstage and outdoors the frontstage. Outside the home, the child’s attire is important, since it reflects on the mother, her self-presentation and extended self. A balancing act is at hand, adults are in control and steer the choice of clothes while at the same time they let the children feel they are involved in that choice.

Some arguments the mothers make for an early influence on clothing are that it stimulates creative thinking and imagination. By choosing clothes themselves children can learn how to create their own style and be unique. One mother stresses the importance of teaching the child to have a good and educated style, and by giving children choices they develop important skills.

These arguments can be interpreted as examples of Goffman’s socialized performance (1959/2006). The mothers adapt to norms that are consistent with the perception of children in post-industrial society. The child’s individual, unique potential is highlighted. Celebrating the individual has become a norm in middle-class upbringing. This norm is in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Bartley, 1998; Brusdal & Frönes, 2013). Jane puts it as follows:

I absolutely love the creativity and imagination that goes with dressing up! So I think as

soon as your child would like to choose their own clothes let them. Putting different

fabrics, textures and colours together does promote creative thinking so go for it I say!!!

My son is now 2 and he absolutely loves to dress up and has already started to choose his

favourite pieces!! (C 14, Jane)

Sandra says that letting children select their own clothes is important to encourage independence and that it can also be seen as a way to let her son experiment with different roles and identities: ”I think ultimately clothing plays a huge role in self-expression. To explore who he is, what he likes, and eventually who he will become” (C 30, Sandra).

Clothes are used as a means in his upbringing and development. Sandra encourages the child’s habitus, taste and life style, in order to help the child become a unique individual (Bourdieu, 1984). Sandra also teaches her son self-presentation and impression management (Goffman 1959/2006; Colett, 2005).

In a few cases mothers are expressly opposed to allowing children to choose their clothes at an early age. For these mothers letting children decide what to wear is equivalent with abdicating parental responsibilities. This position could be interpreted as an expression of moral capital, or also as a confirmation of the parent’s authoritative and economic power. Randa experiences the discussion about letting small children decide what to wear at an early age as an authority dilemma:

Personally I think that children up to 6 years old just have to wear whatever the parent

chooses. If we let kids decide what to wear, when to go to bed and when to hit the shower,

we can pack up. (C 34, Randa)

Lilly states that “this idea that children should be allowed to determine the wardrobe all by themselves is strange and insane, and above all a MODERN invention. In the past you got the clothing available and were grateful” (C 85, Lilly). Another argument is that the parent has the economic power. The same mother writes, ”as long as I pay for the clothes the children have to be contented” (C 85, Lilly).

To sum up, by analysing these mother’s advice and arguments, we can see how their online discussions can be used as a socially situated practice where the mothers perform and position themselves as responsible mothers. In their self-presentations two different images of mothering emerge. One of them is the negotiating mother and the other the authoritative mother. These two categories of mothering clearly indicate two different views on children and childhood, one viewing the child as an individual, competent enough to make its own decisions on purchasing and choice of clothing, and the other one, displaying a more traditional view on children asserting obedience with maintained parental power and control. The first perspective is more child-oriented while the second one is mother-oriented (Bartley, 1998). It is thereby evident that the online discussions constitute a social field where the mothers present both similar and different views on child upbringing using cultural, social and economic capital as arguments (Bourdieu, 1984).

Self-presentation and gender norms

Some mothers problematize the cut and colour of boys and girls clothing and also the choices of pattern and prices. Lilly brings up the difference between boys and girls clothing by showing pictures of T-shirts with Angry birds print. On the boys’ T-shirts figures look angry and the message is “Angry is the world” and “Angry faces”. On the girls’ sweaters however, the birds are happy with texts such as “Sweetie Bird” and “Cute & Bubbly”. Garments for boys are dark, while those for girls are bright. Girls’ sweaters have narrower shoulders and narrower arm openings and are slightly narrower in width. She argues that the images indicate that boys fight while girls create relationships (C 193, Lilly).

Lilly is of the opinion that these gender stereotypical clothing sends signals about how a boy and girl are expected to behave, which she opposes. She uses her cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984) arguing against gender-marked clothing while promoting equality. However, trying to break this traditional gender segregation of clothes can also be seen as a dilemma. Katrin describes this dilemma when buying clothes to her son:

I bought some clothes today of which some were obvious “girl’s clothes”. My mother saw

them and found them ridiculous. What I find the worst is that a girl can wear boys’ clothes

and be seen as tough… while if a guy wears something girlish, he is regarded ridiculous!

Why are girlish garments only good enough for girls? (C 211, Katrin)

Even the shape of clothes is something mothers discuss. Emma complains that girls’ clothes are tight with a limited choice of colours and she also compares the cut on baby clothes: “Boys’ bodies have a straight cut with straight sleeves, while the girls’ bodies were narrow with a hint of waist and puff sleeves. And by the way: puff sleeves?? How nice is that to be lying on?” (C 215, Emma).

In the quotes above it appears that the gender construction starts very early and affects mothers and children’s choice of clothing. There is also a discussion about whether girls’ clothes adorned with ruffles and sequins prevent active play, and the blog posts also contain opinions on the sexualisation of girls (cf. Berggren Torell, 2004).

Others strive to escape the gender stereotyped thinking. These mothers give each other advice on how to mix boys and girls clothes, how to make girly clothes less girlish so that even boys can wear them. Nevertheless, a gender dilemma remains even for this group. To let boys wear pink or ruffles and sequins is unthinkable. The colour pink is problematic and the fear that the boy should be seen as feminine remains (Ambjörnsson, 2011). This means that while some mothers are actively taking part in reproducing traditional gender roles, other mothers are trying to neutralize and break these traditional gender patterns. This also reflects how cultural capital and different habitus related to gender conceptualize what is masculine and feminine, and take the form of symbolic capital, i.e. values recognized or not recognized in different social contexts (Bourdieu, 1995).

Self-presentation and hierarchy and status

Some mothers express their own status, style and taste through their children by designer clothes and branded clothes and related items. Fashion is a lifestyle statement and through clothes or related items of a particular style or specific brand these mothers position themselves socially (cf. Bourdieu, 1984). One mother expecting her yet unborn child shows a picture of a bag and writes as follows:

Here it is, little brother’s diaper bag. Of course he should have his own Mulberry. Diaper

bags are important I think, besides the obvious that it must be big enough and practical, it

should be durable and above all stylish (….) This time, we wanted a simple, neutral and   not too feminine every-day bag that can hang on the stroller and always contain a small child’s necessities. The choice fell on a Brynmore from Mulberry in durable leather. It will be nice… only the child is missing. (C 273, Sofia)

Sofia’s statement indicates an experience of motherhood before giving birth to the child (i.e. Thomsen & Sörensen, 2006) and is also part of the transition into motherhood. The quote illustrates how Sofia with the diaper bag wants to construct her own and the child’s identity. It is important that the bag should be tailored to the coming child’s gender and her own habitus. Sofia hereby uses different kinds of capital, such as symbolic, cultural and economic, when she performs and positions herself in front of the other mothers in that specific internet forum (Bourdieu, 1995). Her purchase of exclusive merchandise can also be interpreted in relation to impression management and indirect self-presentation. The yet unborn child becomes an associate; a part of Sofia’s own self-presentation, where the diaper bag represents her extended self (Goffman, 1959/2006; Colett, 2005).

Also other mothers position themselves through references to various brands such as Ralph Lauren, Chloé, Baby Dior and Gant. Eva writes: ”Ralph Lauren makes stylish, practical and durable clothing for small children with parents who love shopping children’s clothing” (C 278, Eva). She emphasizes her wish for her child to be unique: “At last the little one’s feet have become large enough to suit Hunter wellies. A pair of classical black (….) she will be the coolest kid at Södermalm [a part of Stockholm] as she splashes in the puddles” (C 274, Eva).

The “right” consumption goods signal not only taste and class (cf. Bourdieu, 1984). The parents’ styling of their child also emphasizes care and values ​​in an attempt to make the child into a unique being. Clothing and other attributes are transformed into important lifestyle markers, both for the mother and child. The mother in the above example is transforming her economic capital to symbolic capital by buying exclusive wellies for her child. Besides, via her internet forum other mothers belonging to the same group show her their appreciation. Here we can talk about conspicuous consumption (Bourdieu, 1995; Veblen 1925/1970; Brusdal & Frönes, 2013), but also as a way to express hierarchy and status.

In our material we notice that discussions about ethical consumption behaviour also can be interpreted as a way to highlight social status. This is done through positioning oneself as a highly moral person by lifting different ethical values. In so doing these mothers discuss the effects of consumption on the environment, workers’ working conditions, health hazards, and child labor. Moreover, mothers give each other advice on how to buy ecological and fair clothes in second-hand shops in order to avoid toxic substances, but also to encourage those who argue that they can’t afford to by ecological and fair clothes.

Discussion and conclusions

As is evident from this study some of Goffman’s concepts have proven to be most useful when studying self-presentations on internet forums, but need to be developed. When the mothers are offline and prepare posts, edit texts and so on, preparing for online performance they are back stage in accordance with Goffman. However, when they are online anonymously commenting each other’s posted messages they are in what Meyrowitz (1985) calls the middle region, which contains elements of both the front stage and back stage. When the mothers are anonymous the back stage elements are more prominent compared to when using their own names. Then front stage elements in the middle region are more dominant.

The present study indicates that mothers’ online discussions on children’s clothing represent a social stage were these mothers perform and present themselves as mothers (Goffman 1959/2006). Posted messages can be seen both as gathering experiences of motherhood and mothering, and as expressions of “doing” motherhood in public writing (cf. O’Donohoe et al., 2014; Lopez, 2009; Gibson and Hanson, 2013; Parmaksiz, 2012).

The study shows that these mothers strive to be seen as “the good mother”, by doing what they think is best for the child (Andersen et al., 2008). However, the results also indicate that the mothers do not always agree on what good mothering stands for and they experience different dilemmas, and are arguing for varied views. Dilemmas mentioned involve both child rearing and consumption of clothing and emerge in discussions on at which age children should be able to choose clothes, how they as mothers should relate to the supply of gender-stereotyped clothing and on ethical and environmental aspects. Official discourses in contemporary society on democracy, gender equality and sustainable development are discussed.

The mothers also create and develop different maternal identities and self-presentations through their online discussions as regards consumption experiences and relationships (Goffman, 1959/2006). By reading each other’s comments or posted messages, the mothers constitute what in previous research is known as a digital maternal community (Parmaksiz, 2012; Lopez, 2009).

Furthermore, children’s fashion is communicated both through writing and photos. The mothers contribute to how style and identity are created, both linguistically and visually. An issue to examine further is whether dissemination of online discussion material could lead to greater social conformity and/or increased social positioning.

Children are seen as both subjects and objects (cf. Bartley, 1998). Most online discussions show that children have an influence from an early age when selecting which clothes to wear. However, some posted messages showing photographs of children in various outfits are linked to clothing companies and we suggest that in such circumstances they are treated as their parents’ belongings whereby they become objectified (Collett, 2005). As shown above children at times also become tools for impression management and mothers’ indirect self-presentation (Goffman 1959/2006; Collett, 2005).

From our study children’s fashion and discussions on children’s clothes still appear to be mothers’ domain. The fathers seem to be absent in the online discussions (cf. Andersen et al., 2008). Most of the mothers strive to get away from traditional gender roles when choosing clothes for their children, while they themselves in the exercise of motherhood reproduce the habitus of traditional gender roles by virtually excluding fathers in their discussions on children’s clothes (Bourdieu, 1984).

In the present study, posted messages were used in order to analyse how mothers discuss on children’s clothes at social forums. We have not posted contributions to the discussions, which could be another alternative approach. A limitation of the study is that since most of the online discussions are anonymous, we cannot comment on the mothers’ background or on social characteristics of the mothers such as socio-economic aspects, age and ethnicity. The study focused on the mothers’ perceptions of consumption of children’s clothes and not their actual purchasing behaviour or how they discuss in larger contexts of consumption practices. We only know how they perform and position themselves in this forum.

Future research could address these limitations by designing empirical studies with methods such as interviews, observations or questionnaires to better understand the use of social media and consumption behaviour. It’s also important to include fathers’ perception on consumption of children’s garment. Further research is also needed from the perspective of the child to explore internet forums for mothers that only show photos of children and children’s clothes with references to shops where the clothes can be bought. Even very young children emerge in these posted messages, too young to be able to decide about their participation. In order to move this debate forward, it seems important to continue research and ethical debate about children’s being, becoming and belonging in relation to motherhood and mother online discussions, or other similar social forums such as Facebook and YouTube.


Many thanks to Lena Thång who inspired us regarding mothers online discussions about children’s clothes and showed us the way to these domains


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Internet references

Internet Forums

http://www.circleofmoms.com/question/what-age-do-you-let-your-child-decide-what-wear-1701152 Retrieved August 14, 2013, 12.01 pm

http://www.familjeliv.se/Forum-3-369/m69629611-1.html – bör jag ge mitt barn kläder med tryck? Retrieved August 16, 2013, 14.20 pm

http://ladydahmer.nu/konade-klader-handlar-bara-om-pengar/ Retrieved August 16, 2013, 14.50 pm

http://ladydahmer.nu/man-behover-inte-kopa-klader-på-polarn-o-pyret-for-att-få-genusglada-barn/ Retrieved August 16, 2013, 14:49 pm

http://ettbattredu.se/blogg/?cat=130 Retrieved August 16, 2013, 10:08 am

http://blogg.alltforforaldrar.se/liniz/category/barnklader. Retrieved August 14, 2013, 10:44 am


Table 1: Description of material

Internet Forum Subject Category/Question/Statement Posted messages
Circle of moms.com

29 June 2011 –

19 Mars 2013

Motherhood Question: At what age do you let your child decide what to wear? 40 comments

22 April 2013 –

3 May 2013

Children’s clothing/Parents Question: Should I give my child clothes with prints? 27 comments



31 January – 7 February 2013

13 August – 15 August 2013

Feminism & gender Statement: You don’t need to buy clothes at Polarn and Pyret to get gender-happy children

Statement: Gendered clothing is all about money






29 May 2013 –

7 August 2013

Children’s clothes Today’s Outfit


Text and photos; no comments

12 contributions


23 February 2012 – 19 June 2013

Life as a mother Archive of children’s fashion



Text and photos; no comments

10 contributions







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