Censor This! Five Art Projects Challenging Social Media Obscenity Rules

It’s no secret that the community guidelines of social networking sites Facebook and Instagram have been generating serious blowback lately. In numerous instances, the sites’ obscenity guidelines have led to photos of women breastfeeding, revealing mastectomy scars, or showing small amounts of menstrual blood being flagged as offensive. The community guidelines seem to treat female nipples as sexual organs and male nipples as, well, just nipples. But a new crop of social media–savvy artists and activists are spotlighting these hypocrisies and using photo projects to call out the sites’ double standards. 

Many of these projects speak to the absurdity of a social-media world where hypersexualized images of female bodies abound and are totally acceptable as long as they’re being used to advertise products to a hetero male audience. But nonsexualized depictions of the female body fulfilling a natural function like breastfeeding or menstruating, or going through the tremendous transformation of a mastectomy? Photos flagged for removal. Accounts suspended. A woman’s lived experience deemed taboo. 

Over the years, Facebook’s and Instagram’s policies have evolved, but current guidelines still prohibit “photos of female nipples,” while allowing photos of “post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding,” as well as “nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures.” But who makes these determinations—and when and why—is still a subject of debate. Here are five art and activism projects pushing boundaries on social media. 

Micol Hebron, Acceptable Male Nipple

Photo from @amiamiang

Micol Hebron first created the “Acceptable Male Nipple” image in June 2014. But after the digital pastie turned up in the Instagram feeds of musicians Our Lady J and Le Sera nearly a year later, it achieved true viral status. Hebron’s playful yet, erm, pointed template highlights the hypocrisy in drawing a distinction between depictions of male and female nipples—and gives armchair activists a handy tool to stir up conversation and rouse rebels with its simple yet effective cut-and-paste. Interesting (and evolving) side note: Hebron’s @Nipscapes Instagram account, created in cheeky response to @Nutscapes (which features nutsacks dangling or splayed in otherwise unexpected—and unsuspecting!—settings) was disabled in November for violating community standards. @Nutscapes was also shut down on Instagram, but is still going on Twitter

Rupi Kaur, Period series, #LetsFaceItPeriod campaign

Photo by Rupi Kaur

Artist Rupi Kaur’s photograph of a woman with a period stain leaking through her sweatpants and onto rumpled sheets was pulled from Instagram twice in early March last year. Kaur responded by posting on Facebook, “Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique.” The photograph, along with Kaur’s full response to Instagram, was shared and reshared by thousands of people, and Instagram soon reinstated the photo and scrambled to apologize. Kaur’s stated original intention in sharing the photo (there is a whole Period series) was to “demystify the period and make something that is innate ‘normal’ again.” After her tangle with Instagram, Kaur launched the #LetsFaceItPeriod campaign, which works to share information about and break taboos surrounding menstruation. 

Courtney Demone, #FreeAllBodies, #DoIHaveBoobsNow

Photo by Rivkah Photography, via Free All Bodies' Facebook

After beginning hormone replacement therapy during her male to female transition, Canadian writer and activist Courtney Demone started posting topless pictures of herself on Facebook and Instagram. “When people start to consistently see me as a woman, my privilege to be comfortably topless in public will be gone for good. We can challenge that,” she writes. And thus #FreeAllBodies and #DoIHaveBoobsNow were born: Demone is posting shirtless photos on Facebook and Instagram to see if, one day, the sites will start flagging them as offensive. Only time will tell where the experiment leads, but for now the #FreeAllBodies campaign has opened up a new frontier in the social media–censorship conversation. 

Amy Black, Pink Ink Fund 

Photo from @PinkInkFund

Not long after inking her first post-mastectomy tattoo for a breast cancer survivor in 2010, tattoo artist Amy Black started the nonprofit Pink Ink Fund to help women educate themselves about and find funding for post-mastectomy tattoos—whether full-on nipple and areola repigmentation, aka “nipple tattoos” (Black has perfected an amazing 3-D technique), or artful imagery for women who choose not to have reconstruction. But on November 14, Instagram yanked the Pink Ink Fund’s account. That seems to violate the platform’s community standards policy that explicitly allows post-mastectomy photos. Black contested the shutdown, and a media outcry ensued, leading Instagram to reinstate the Pink Ink Fund’s original account in full—one more win for the power of protest in the digital age? Or one more reminder of just how far we still have to go? 

Lina Esco, #FreeTheNipple

Photo from @FreetheNipple


#FreeTheNipple is both a movie and a campaign—each of which draws attention to the double standards applied to male and female nipples by social-media censors (i.e. male nipples are A-OK, but female nipples are sexualized to the bejeezus-belt and depictions are tightly controlled). Started by activist and director Lina Esco in 2013, the #FreeTheNipple campaign has garnered major press and celebrity support. The campaign had a hand in Facebook’s relaxation of restrictions on breastfeeding photos, and the high-visibility hashtag shows no signs of fading. 

by Haili Jones
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Haili Jones is a writer, editor, and performer living in Portland, Oregon. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Notebook: A Progressive Journal for Women & Girls with Rural and Small-Town Roots, The Tishman Review, and online at LunaLuna, The Manifest-Station, and Hip Mama. She also performs with Mortified Portland. 

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