Iconography of Suffering in Social Media: Images of Sitting Girls

  • Anna JohanssonEmail author
  • Hans T. Sternudd
Part of the Social Indicators Research Series book series (SINS, volume 56)


This paper examines the online iconography of mental suffering by using the visual trope of a hunched-over sitting girl as a case in point. By analyzing images of sitting girls found in YouTube video montages on self-harm, and also tracking their further online existence through image search engines, we suggest that the popularity of this trope stems from its generic character, through which the girl can be read simultaneously as docile and as actively refusing to engage with the world around her. While not new in itself, the trope is circulated and put to use in new ways through social media with an emphasis on remixing and visual communication. We argue that media-specific features, together with gender and mental health discourses, enable particular representations and aesthetic styles that may both reinforce and alleviate suffering.


Mental suffering Mental illness Social media Digital media Image Gender Girl Young femininity Remix Emotion YouTube 


  1. Aapola, S., Gonick, M., & Harris, A. (2005). Young femininity: Girlhood, power and social change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, L. S. (1996). The methodologies of art: An introduction. New York: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  3. Anderson, R. (2014). Human suffering and quality of life: Conceptualizing stories and statistics. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Atkinson, R. (2003). Domestication by cappuccino or a revenge on urban space? Control and empowerment in the management of public spaces. Urban Studies, 40, 1829–1843.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beer, D. (2009). Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media and Society, 11(6), 985–1002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burgess, J. E., & Green, J. (2009). YouTube: Online video and participatory culture. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  7. Busfield, J. (2000). Introduction: Rethinking the sociology of mental health. Sociology of Health & Illness, 22(5), 543–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Collishaw, S., Maughan, B., Goodman, R., et al. (2004). Time trends in adolescent mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(8), 1350–1362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Frosh, P. (2001). Inside the image factory: Stock photography and cultural production. Media, Culture and Society, 23(5), 625–646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Frosh, P. (2003). Image factory: Consumer culture, photography and the visual content industry. Oxford: Berg Publishers.Google Scholar
  11. Getty Images. (2013). Accessed 13 Dec 2013.Google Scholar
  12. Goffman, E. (1979). Gender advertisements. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  13. Good, K. D. (2012). From scrapbook to Facebook: A history of personal media assemblage and archives. New Media and Society, 15(4), 557–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Google. (2014). Reverse image search. Accessed 11 Dec 2014.
  15. Grace, V. (1997). Reading the silent body: Women, doctors and pelvic pain. In M. de Ras & V. Grace (Eds.), Bodily boundaries, sexualised genders & medical discourses (pp. 85–98). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.Google Scholar
  16. Howard, R. G. (2008). The vernacular web of participatory media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25(5), 490–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Huberman, G. D. (2004). Invention of hysteria: Charcot and the photographic iconography of the Salpêtrière. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. jellyfish. (2008). self harm/injury **TRIGGERING**. YouTube. Accessed 1 Feb 2013.
  19. Johannesson, L. (2003). Sittandets semiotik och den kvinnliga modernismen. In Y. Eriksson & A. Göthlund (Eds.), Från modernism till samtidskonst: svenska kvinnliga konstnärer (pp. 22–47). Lund: Signum.Google Scholar
  20. Johannisson, K. (2006). Sjukdomsestetik och kultur: Exemplen hysteri, anorexi och apati. In J. Beskow & L. Berglund (Eds.), Att se det osedda: Vänbok till Ann-Sofie Ohlander (pp. 29–55). Stockholm: Hjalmarson & Högberg Bokförlag.Google Scholar
  21. Johansson, A. (2013). Hybrid embodiment: Doing respectable bodies on YouTube. In S. Lindgren (Ed.), Hybrid media culture: Sensing place in a world of flows (pp. 16–32). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Kleinman, A., Das, V., & Lock, M. (Eds.). (1997). Social suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  23. Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  24. Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Machin, D. (2004). Building the world’s visual language: The increasing global importance of image banks in corporate media. Visual Communication, 3(3), 316–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Manovich, L. (2005). Remixability and modularity. Accessed 15 Mar 2014.
  27. Marcus, G. (1995). Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 95–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and other pleasures. Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Murray, S. (2008). Digital images, photo-sharing, and our shifting notions of everyday aesthetics. Journal of Visual Culture, 7(2), 147–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Navas, E. (2010). Regressive and reflexive mashups in sampling culture. In S. Sonvilla-Weiss (Ed.), Mashup cultures (pp. 157–177). Vienna/New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. oxKaylaa2xo (2010). Self injury – Pictures (GRAPHIC). YouTube. Accessed 27 Nov 2012.
  32. Panofsky, E. (1982 [1955]). Meaning in the visual arts. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  33. Rose, G. (2012). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials (3rd ed.). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  34. Rutter, M., & Smith, D. J. (Eds.). (1995). Psychosocial disorders in young people: Time trends and their causes. Chichester: Wiley for Academia Europaea.Google Scholar
  35. Shields, R. (1989). Social spatialisation and the built environment: The West Edmonton mall. Environment and Planning D, 7, 147–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Showalter, E. (1985). The female malady: Women, madness and English culture 1830–1980. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  37. Snickars, P., & Vonderau, P. (Eds.). (2009). The YouTube reader. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden.Google Scholar
  38. Sternudd, H. T. (2012). Photographs of self-injury: Production and reception in a group of self-injurers. Journal of Youth Studies, 15, 421–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sternudd, H. T., & Johansson, A. (forthcoming). The girl in the corner: Aesthetics of suffering in a digitalized space. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.Google Scholar
  40. Tatman, L. (2012). The other thing about suffering. In J. Malpas & N. Lickiss (Eds.), Perspectives on human suffering (pp. 43–48). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Thompson, R. (2012). Looking healthy: Visualizing mental health and illness online. Visual Communication, 11(4), 395–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. TinEye. (2014). Frequently asked questions. Accessed 15 Mar 2014.
  43. Torsheim, T., Ravens-Sieberer, U., Hetland, J., et al. (2006). Cross-national variation of gender differences in adolescent subjective health in Europe and North America. Social Science & Medicine, 62(4), 815–827.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Ussher, J. M. (2011). The madness of women: Myth and experience. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. van Dijck, J. (2008). Digital photography: Communication, identity, memory. Visual Communication, 7(1), 57–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Vivienne, S., & Burgess, J. (2013). The remediation of the personal photograph and the politics of self-representation in digital storytelling. Journal of Material Culture, 18(3), 279–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. WHO. (2014). Violence and injury prevention, “Explaining away violence” poster series. World Health Organization (WHO). Accessed 25 Mar 2014.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.HUMlabUmeå UniversityUmeåSweden
  2. 2.Department of Music and Art, Faculty of Art History and Visual CultureLinnaeus UniversityVäxjöSweden

Personalised recommendations