Artist and activist Emma Shapiro's anti-sexist-nipple-censorship protest image from her Exposure Therapy Project @nipeople, 2020 (courtesy the artist)

Righteous vindication fills the air this week as activists, artists, and creators who have long contended with Meta’s notorious “female nipple” policy read the anticipated “Gender Identity and Nudity” opinion from Meta’s Oversight Board. Giving a stark rebuke of policies that are outdated, misguided, and badly applied, the opinion included a comprehensive overview of Meta’s human rights missteps, its “binary view of gender,” and the precarious “Sexual Solicitation” and “Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity” guidelines. Reading the news provided many “a crucial acknowledgment that the personal and artistic expression of female, trans, and nonbinary individuals has been wrongfully suppressed on social media,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. But while this moment has been validating, we will have to wait and see whether Meta chooses to implement the Oversight Board’s recommendations.

The Board considered, together, two images from the same account which had both been removed citing “Sexual Solicitation.” The cases, featuring a transgender and non-binary couple topless with nipples covered, highlighted discrepancies in human moderation practices and the problem of gendering images. However, the larger situation became clearer when public comments came pouring in and the Board noted considerable instances of similar bias, usually from users who identified as trans, non-binary, and cis-gender women. 

Meta’s anti-“female nipple” policy infamously hinders LGBTQ+ creators, women’s health, artists, and activists, and the relatively-recent implementation of a “Sexual Solicitation” violation has added insult to injury. This has long been a glaring issue to many, including author and director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, Soraya Chemaly, who told Hyperallergic that a female nipple ban by default “highlights the social construction of gender and conflates women’s nudity with pornography by positing that women’s bodies are intrinsically sexual.” The Board expounded on the implications of gendering and sexualizing the body, stating “Meta’s policies on adult nudity result in greater barriers to expression for women, trans, and gender non-binary people on its platforms.” As such, their recommendations to Meta include “ensuring equal treatment of all people that is consistent with international human rights standards, and avoid[ing] discrimination on the basis of sex or gender identity.” 

Meta has 60 days to publicly respond about whether they will be taking action on the Board’s extensive recommendations. Chemaly doubts that Meta will make the recommended changes, stating, “I don’t see Meta doing anything differently. We have been having this conversation — specifically about women’s artistic and political freedom of expression —  for more than a decade now.” Dr. Carolina Are, a platform governance researcher whose research and personal experience contributed to the Oversight Board decision adds, “It’s a very tricky situation; they’re going to have to re-evaluate the way their system works [and] overhaul everything.”

If Meta chooses not to enact the recommendations, it may only reveal that gender bias is such a foundational piece of the platform that its removal may risk toppling the system. Regardless, this momentous public admonishment was vindication for the many activists, artists, and creators who have been proven right by it.

Emma Shapiro is an American artist and activist based in Spain. She is the creator of the international body equality project Exposure Therapy and is the Editor-at-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign....