The female nipple: Why does this little bit of our bodies get us in so much trouble online? Why do half of us need to use pixels, emojis, and clever tricks to cover this bit which all bodies have? Odds are that you have seen or experienced censorship of female nipples on social media. While it may have felt embarrassing, unjust, or simply annoying in the moment, what are the implications of censoring the female-presenting body in this way?
Facebook and Instagram have a combined worldwide usership of over three billion people, and only one rule book split between them. Their “Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity” section of the guidelines firmly assigns nudity to sexual activity without room for negotiation. Within this section, they have dedicated a big portion of text to describing when and how a female nipple is and isn’t allowed, therefore making an exposed female nipple a sexually explicit act by default — with a few vague exceptions, such as for breastfeeding and “acts of protest.” These guidelines prohibit “visible genitalia” and “fully nude close-ups of buttocks” in the same breath as “uncovered female nipples,” making a female-presenting body twice as likely as male-presenting body to be flagged as obscene simply for possessing and showing her nipples.
This censorship means that content for and about women and female-presenting people is more likely to be censored, actively threatening years of labor by users that aims to fulfill Facebook’s own stated mission to “ensure that everyone’s voice is valued … in particular those of people and communities that might otherwise be overlooked or marginalized.”
So, what exactly makes the female nipple controversial? In fact, the only biological difference between the male and female breast is the presence of lobes, the glands which produce milk. The rest of the breast — fatty tissue, ducts, areola and nipple — are present in both men and women, and sexual nipple stimulation is frequent and popular for all sexes. This leads to the conclusion that women and men being treated differently on the basis of this body part has nothing to do with our biology, and everything to do with judgement of the female-presenting body.
In 2018, Facebook issued an article about what they were doing to support their content moderators. The writer, Ellen Silver, a vice president of operations, outlined how they account for context and cultural sensitivities when it comes to language or references. However, Silver explicitly points out that this particular attention is not needed when it comes to nudity, because their blanket rule of “no nudity” is applied without context or nuance. Silver contends that “It often takes a local to understand the specific meaning of a word or the political climate in which a post is shared …” But “Nudity is typically very easy to establish and can be reviewed within seconds.”
With this statement Facebook admits to giving no consideration for an image’s intent or context if it contains nudity — and remember, female-presenting bodies are twice as likely to be flagged according to their rules. They have proven they are capable of nuance in adjudicating other matters that have to do with language and cultural sensitivities; they are surely capable of being nuanced about bodies shown in art and activist contexts. In fact, in the past they have.
Several years ago Facebook faced growing pressure to change their guidelines to allow for images of breastfeeding, beginning with the “Nurse-In” protest in 2008. Following the public outcry Facebook changed their guidelines on breastfeeding images repeatedly, eventually allowing for all breastfeeding imagery in 2014. Basically, representation matters — seeing more women breastfeeding in public helped to diminish the stigma. If Facebook/Instagram started treating all bodies with equal respect, other aspects of our society might start to mirror this respect.
Until they do, there are real-world stakes and real-world consequences to their censorship. This willful misunderstanding of the female body affects the health, expression and livelihood of women and female-presenting people in serious ways. It inhibits education about breast cancer, perpetuates harassment, and keeps artists, performers and advocates from being seen, therefore limiting their opportunities for success. This censorship perpetuates the idea that female bodies are dangerous, obscene, and sexual objects which ultimately belong to the viewer.
As long as Facebook and Instagram maintain the policy that female nipples are offensive and male nipples are not, they get to decide whose bodies count as valid for public viewing and whose bodies don’t. These platforms’ global importance for artists, activists and creators means that bodies censored there are therefore excluded from our zeitgeist — unable to connect, succeed, and perform in the ways our society requires. If Facebook’s intended mission includes to “ensure that everyone’s voice is valued”, then they clearly do not value the voices of the women and female-presenting users who are calling for change.