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How Social Media Censorship Impacts Self-Expression

6 creatives on why Facebook and Instagram's murky content policies need to change.

"If you wouldn't show the photo or video you are thinking about uploading to a child, or your boss, or your parents, you probably shouldn't share it on Instagram." As with the rest of Instagram's Community Guidelines, the familiar tone of this cautionary statement belies its swift and autocratic enforcement. A photo that violates the ban on "nudity or mature content" will get taken down, and the user will be served with either a perfunctory warning or a suspension of their account and content; sometimes, the person's account will be terminated entirely. Like Facebook, Instagram doesn't get into the messy business of distinguishing between pornography and nudity, art and smut. Their blanket ban on so-called "mature content," and the inconsistency in its enforcement, has users struggling to wade their way through a murky, finicky morality. Male nipples, the thong-clad asses that populate Dan Bilzerian's feed, and posts of Kim Kardashian's PAPER cover are allowed to stay, while female nipples, bare asses that don't belong to Kim Kardashian, and even a Blue Period Picasso risk tripping the censors.

The image-sharing app's censorship policies came under serious question earlier this year, after Instagram deleted artist Petra Collins' account for posting a photo of her clothed but unshaven bikini line. Collins raised hell, writing an essay on The Huffington Post that read, "I did nothing that violated the terms of use. No nudity, violence, pornography, unlawful, hateful or infringing imagery. What I did have was an image of MY body that didn't meet society's standard of 'femininity.'" Instagram had accidentally revealed some of the logic driving its censoring, and it wasn't pretty: the platform hadn't flagged nudity, but, rather, an iteration of the female body it wasn't used to seeing, or didn't want to see. Users grew suspicious of the conservative biases lurking behind the Community Guidelines, and accused Instagram of censoring nudity more aggressively than other types of banned content, like violence.

For young artists, social media presents a paradox: Instagram and Facebook are crucial for building a brand and a fan base, but they often force artists to tamper with the provocations that define their work. The six creatives we interviewed for this piece all had different takes on social media censorship, but they agreed on a few key points. All six praised the ease of use and wide reach of these platforms, and saw their careers (and in some cases, their art) inextricably bound up within them, but they also found that as their popularity increased, so did the frequency of censorship. None of them had a clear understanding of Instagram's censorship methods or saw a consistent pattern in their enforcement, and all of them were able to identify other kinds of content on Instagram that they find more offensive and destructive than nudity: violence, pro-anorexia accounts, hate speech, racism.

The argument for a more lenient attitude toward nudity on Instagram and Facebook is easy to counter: won't these platforms just become overrun with porn? If these artists must post content containing nudity, can't they just stick to Tumblr or, better yet, their personal sites? If Instagram and Facebook became a nudity-free-for-all, how would they shield underage teens from X-rated material? There have been precedents to substantiate these concerns: Vine's initial lack of censorship quickly ran the company into trouble, and an unregulated Android app called Pornstagram lived up to its namesake. At the same time, other mainstream platforms like Twitter and Tumblr have thrived despite dramatically looser content guidelines. Like many of the creatives we spoke to, blogger Karley Sciortino—who writes under the moniker Slutever—argues for a workable compromise between freedom and censorship: "There's no image filter on Twitter, and I'm sure there's so many porn Twitters, and so much porn on Tumblr—but I rarely see any." Sciortino adds, "I don't feel like it's one or the other. I don't think a nudity ban and a porn aggregate are the only two options. There's a middle ground."

Rachel Libeskind

Artist


"I've had multiple artworks of mine removed, even if they just had a nipple pasted onto something else. I put up a Blue Period Picasso once and got my account suspended for that. Instagram doesn't give a shit about violence, or about disgusting, empty images of females. They don't censor these crazy "fitspo" diet accounts encouraging girls to juice for three weeks. There's so much destructive material floating around Instagram and instead they censor nudity on artists' pages. Instagram has its own values system and its own economy of censorship and the female nipple is up at the very top.

Instagram's whole notion of "community" is so empty. The "community guidelines" encourage self-censorship, which is so dangerous for society at large, let alone artists. I grew up in Europe, and every Jergen's commercial has tits in it because the nude form is just not sexualized in the same way there. I think censoring a female's nipple or bush encourages this negative culture of fetishization and covetization. Things like Jennifer Lawrence's leaked nudes will just grow in importance for 13-year-old boys. What are you actually seeing that you haven't seen before in one of her movies? The shape of her nipple? The line of her pussy crack? You can literally break it down to the semiotics of lines: a line down a triangle, a circle with a circle in it. It's horrible that our nudity can be used against us. You're a lawyer and your nudes leaked, so your career is over. I think that's so scary, and I think it's important for artists to explore that."

Follow Rachel on Instagram.

Rachel Libeskind
Artist
Gabriel Held

Stylist


"Instagram kicked me off in late May or early June of this year, after a year or so of being on. I think the last straw on my first account was either a Tom Wesselmann painting that was pretty abstracted but had a penis in it, or a repost from James Franco of a scandalous selfie he took but didn't get kicked off for. Now, on my second account, I've been much more cautious about nudity. I'd love to post more Helmut Newton photos but most have nudity, and I'm not going to stick stickers over them, I'm not going to interfere with the image in that way.

I was able to go to Brooklyn Museum's Sensation show [in 1999], back when Giuliani had his "decency committee" that was fighting for art censorship. I actually knew someone who on that committee who had, like, sailboat paintings hanging in his house—he had no interest in art. That whole era was really appalling to most artists, and censorship is always a slippery slope. There are some images I post, like that 2003 Gucci campaign, that would probably be more controversial if they came out today. Look at all of these police issues, look at everything happening in this country: it all speaks to a larger trend where we seem to be culturally backsliding."

Follow Gabriel on Instagram.

Gabriel Held
Stylist
Lina Esco

Writer/Director of 'Free The Nipple'


"One of Free The Nipple's logos is a drawing of a girl topless, a stick figure with two circles, and Facebook took that down. On Instagram, if you see a picture that reminds you of the film, you can't tag our account. They let us have an account because of the buzz, but there are restrictions.

The dialogue has to continue. Because of our "Everybody Has Got To Eat" campaign, Facebook reversed its policy on photos of breastfeeding. I get DMs all the time on these same platforms from young girls and boys sending me messages saying they're writing papers on this, doing presentations, dissecting these ideas. It's amazing when you talk to these young people, [who are] 17 or 18 years old, and they get it instantly. When you start talking to the older generation, people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, they just fight you, nonstop. It's like Albert Einstein said, "You can't fix the problem with the same one that created it." My generation and younger, they're all for this. It's the old system still trying to live and continue this mentality."

Follow Lina on Instagram.

Lina Esco
Writer/Director of 'Free The Nipple'
Alexandra Marzella

Artist


"My art is completely tied to social media. At this point it's such a part of my practice. Instagram is like my sketchbook. They just deleted my 15th account, but then I emailed some people Jerry Saltz told me about, and the next morning my 13th and 14th accounts were back. But I've gotten warnings for flagged pics since then. My work is not just about Instagram censorship, it's about life censorship. I used to be a sex worker, and that plays into my aesthetic, as well.

If you write under a picture on Instagram "this is a male nipple," that shit won't get flagged. It's so ingrained in us that nudity is wrong, that we should be ashamed of our bodies or acne or pubic hair. I did a project on Snapchat where I'd put out five nudes and receive hundreds back each day. It was kind of amazing, the trading of unmanipulated selfies and mirror pics and close-ups. A lot of girls send me nudes and say, 'You make me confident and make me want to appreciate my body and want to take photos of it.' That's the message I'm really trying to spread."

Follow Alexandra on Instagram.

Alexandra Marzella
Artist
Ian Reid

Photographer


"Sometimes the hardest part of the day is figuring out what photo to use for Instagram and how to censor it properly so that it conveys what I need it to convey. It creates so many limitations, in terms of creative freedom and art. Historically, art and nudity go hand in hand; you can't walk into a museum without seeing naked women. You can clearly differentiate between my work and what is deemed pornographic. I like debauchery and creating explicit scenes and these fantasy worlds with lots of nude imagery and sexuality—but it's not pornographic. Not that there's anything wrong with pornography, but I don't create that. Sometimes a photo's shelf life will be 20 minutes, sometimes it's a few days and then it's gone, or your account is just deleted. I'm on my fifth account now, and it sucks starting again: as a working professional people rely on Instagram to see what you're doing.

There is no such thing as protecting the kids in the digital age. My little dudes are seven, they haven't seen porn but they're in this generation where they would know what to type online to see what they want. If a kid is old enough to use Instagram, he's already seen whatever there is to see. Kids don't know anything about sexuality unless an adult labels it that. If they always look at boobs as an extension of a woman's body and don't sexualize them then that's what what they'll be."

Follow Ian on Instagram.

Ian Reid
Photographer
Karley Sciortino

Writer


"My Facebook got suspended for about a month once as punishment, because I was posting links from my blog. I have a public persona account for my website and my writing, and because I was posting links and sometimes the thumbnails were inappropriate. It was this kind of weird grey area where I would get warned for posting pornographic content, even though it was just a link to an article. Since then I don't post images on my blog that contain any nudity because I want to be able to promote through Facebook. So now, I'm censoring myself on my website—the center of my writing career; their censorship is trickling over into my work. And then you start having these thoughts where it's like 'I guess it's not totally necessary that I post images that contain nudity.' Why am I suddenly being convinced that nudity is bad? Because I can't post it on Facebook. Everyone wants to create shareable content, and these policies slowly push people towards content and art that's not progressive or not edgy.

It's so scary when there's no nuance, where the naked form of the body is treated as pornography. That, to me, feels scary and unsophisticated. I think that we can draw lines between what's pornography and what isn't. It's as if these platforms don't want to make moral judgements about what's good or bad, what's porn or not porn—but they clearly do make these judgments. When they censor female pubic hair or choose not to take down hate speech, those are moral judgments."

Follow Karley on Instagram.

Karley Sciortino
Writer

Lead image: Ian Reid

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How Social Media Censorship Impacts Self-Expression