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On June 2, human installation artist Spencer Tunick staged an action in partnership with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) outside of Facebook’s New York offices to protest the censorship of nudity on social media. Hundreds of naked people appeared in formation, holding round placards of nipples over their genitals, and wearing pasties with images of males nipples over their own nipples. It was undeniably an arresting sight, and was much documented on social media and in various press outlets, thanks to the reach of the NCAC. When I saw the coverage in my social media feeds, the first thing that came to mind was Micol Hebron’s project, begun in 2014, for which she made and distributed stickers of male nipples to cover female nipples as a response to the deletion of Instagram and Facebook posts that documented an event in which female breasts were shown, uncensored.
In 2014, Micol Hebron was one of 125 artists who contributed work to a show in Los Angeles benefiting cancer research and cancer survivor support. To promote the show, Hebron posted on social media that if she could get 100 people to RSVP to the Facebook event for the exhibition, she would appear topless at the opening. Her entreaty worked, many people attended, and she — along with several friends, both male and female — went topless. The event was a big success, fun was had, money was raised for cancer research and support, and many people posted images from the event on social media. But a few days later, the images of Hebron and her friends topless were removed from Instagram. She subsequently found out that according to the platform’s guidelines, men can appear topless, but women cannot. This irked her; it seemed completely random and unfair, especially in the context of the breast cancer benefit, so she started her male nipple sticker project, and shared it on social media.
The visuals of the two projects look remarkably similar, and left many wondering: did Tunick know of Hebron’s project? He initially said he did not know until several women commented on his Instagram posts in the days before the action, alerting him of Hebron’s pasty stickers. Here, the timeline gets murky. Tunick says he started acknowledging her on subsequent posts as the first to make the male nipple pasties, and that he contacted her asking her if she wanted to participate. Hebron says that Tunick first sent her a message saying that he was about to do the action but she should not tell anyone (presumably so as not to spoil the big reveal?), then asked her if she would like to participate. To Hebron, participating would have meant dropping everything; flying across the country (and buying a plane ticket on a few days notice at her own expense) to promote something that looked almost exactly like her own work, but presented under another artist’s name. She declined.
Although the NCAC now describes the action as “inspired by the work of Micol Hebron,” Tunick and NCAC initially told me by email that the action, entitled #wethenipple, was modeled on Lina Esco’s #freethenipple, not Hebron’s work, and that they did not know of Hebron or her art. As I was not familiar with Esco, I had to do some Googling. What I found was a young actress who has started what she considers a movement, including a film, which was promoted heavily in the entertainment press, including an interview and photo spread in Playboy in November of 2018.
While Hebron initially posted about the Instagram deletions of her photos in June of 2014, in 2015, a few social media influencers reposted her nipple pasties, and from there, celebrities including Perez Hilton and Sarah Silverman shared them, which resulted in them going viral. Playboy then requested an interview with the artist. Hebron tells me she debated whether or not she was interested in the interview, but ultimately consented to an interview on the Playboy blog (which was later deleted from the site).
In the 2015 interview with Zaron Burnett III, Hebron spoke plainly about her work, saying:
I thought a lot about the irrationality of Instagram’s policies regarding nipples and tried to figure out why they would censor female breasts and not male breasts. I understood the social reasons—the disproportionate objectification of women’s bodies — but not the logic. I decided to adopt Instagram’s “rationale” and try to use it against them to make a point about how sexist these policies are.
That was when I created the “acceptable male nipple template” or “digital pasty” and put it over the images of me and my friends topless that had been censored. I then reposted the now “appropriate” image to Instagram. I posted a male nipple template on my Facebook page and invited everyone to use it to make images of nude women “Internet Acceptable.”
When asked if she considered the work “protest art,” she said, “It was an act of institutional critique, and I am critiquing social media, the Internet and patriarchy.”
Did NCAC know about Hebron’s male nipple pasties? According to Nora Pelizzari, Director of Communications at NCAC, “during the course of the campaign, of which the art action is only a part, we were made aware of Micol’s digital male nipple pasty.” She continued:
We immediately took steps to include her name and Instagram handle in our messaging. We also reached out to her multiple times … but did not receive a response. We would be eager to speak with her about her experiences of censorship and get her perspective on how our campaign can best help artists like her, as well as what level of involvement she would like to have with us.
Hebron confirmed with me that NCAC did contact her on May 17, but as she had submitted her censored work to NCAC several times in the past with no response, this felt to her like a last-minute attempt to “include” her in someone else’s appropriation of her work, and because she was in the middle of so many other projects, and annoyed at the whole affair, did not respond.
At the end of its statement about the project, the NCAC wrote: “We celebrate Micol Hebron, a feminist artist who created the Male Nipple Pasty in 2014. She encourages artists to cover female nipples with a male nipple icon to both avoid censorship and call out the gender inequality of nudity restrictions.”
Tunick now includes an acknowledgment in his current Instagram posts that Hebron was the first to design and put into circulation the male nipple pasty, and he expresses remorse and support for Hebron and her work, and continues to tag her and credit in posts going forward. In an email, he told me that while he was initially only aware of Esco, and not Hebron:
The NCAC included Micol in their press release before the event, after the art action and on their webpage, I posted, and I continue to post that it was her nipple pasty concept. The mass media and media in general does have a way of not including all the information in a press release. This is unfortunate. I consider Micol a champion. I, We, “We The Nipple” are all following in her footsteps. If the work is exhibited or donated, I will try my best, to credit Micol and to reiterate that the idea was originally generated and inspired by Micol Hebron.
Late last night, NCAC triumphantly announced that Facebook had agreed to revisit its policies on nudity in photography (they already had a policy of allowing nudity in images of painting and sculpture, although these often got censored too, and the posters put in “Facebook jail” for 30 days). In this new press release, they pronounced that the action was inspired by Hebron’s. But these questions remain: What did they know and when did they know it? Now that most of the press coverage of the action has happened, how many of those press outlets will revisit the story and include Hebron’s name prominently? Corrections and retractions after the fact are one thing, but the majority of the press coverage, including CNN, artnet, Artsy, and Rolling Stone, is on record without mention of Hebron’s work.
Case in point: around noon on June 6, NCAC made a victorious post on Instagram celebrating the fact that Facebook “has agreed to meet with anti-censorship campaigners and figures from the art world.” There is a long list of hashtags, but Hebron’s name is not included, nor is she tagged by her Instagram ID, unicornkiller1. This leaves me to wonder: Will Hebron be one of the figures they meet with? Will Micol Hebron’s name just be a footnote to this anti-censorship victory, even though she has been laying the groundwork for 5 years? Yes, the goal has been partially attained (the extent to which the new possible change in policy is put into action remains to be seen). But how much will the retroactive credit do to restore the rightful authorship of this work? Will there be gains in reputation (not to mention monetary gains) that accrue to Tunick and not to Hebron as a result? (Since her project started as part of the fight against breast cancer, Hebron tells me she would like any financial proceeds from the action to go toward breast cancer research.) Will this be another case of under-acknowledged, in-the-trenches labor of a woman subsumed into the myth of the Great (male) Artist? Or can we change the narrative?