Hip Mama's spring issue cover was banned from Facebook for being "obscene"—now, it would be allowed.
Two weeks ago, Facebook made a small change to its Community Standards, redefining what is considered “obscene.” Specifically, the company now allows its customers to publish photographs of women breastfeeding in which an exposed nipple might be seen. This may seem like a small change, but since Facebook has one billion users—making it the third largest “country” in the world—this new approach to breastfeeding is significant.
Prior to this change, if a user reported any photographic hint of lady-nipples in this context, the image was tagged “pornographic” and removed. Many people—including me—protested this policy for years and petitioned the company to change its stance on breastfeeding. There are two prevalent responses. One, is that many people will be “offended” by the site of women’s breasts and two, as The Onion basically put it, “So what? There are breasts all over the internet!”
Breasts are all over the Internet, but all breasts are clearly not created equal. Despite this small step by Facebook, women’s breasts are still, by and large, considered “obscene.” And obscenity is regulated. And, like so much else, what is regulated is gendered. Women are grossly more negatively affected by obscenity regulations, and broader body-based ones, than men are.
Eve's nipples—but not Adam's—in this "New Yorker" cartoon by Mick Stevens drew Facebook's ire.
When I pressed Facebook for a public statement about their position, their spokesperson explained: “We regularly review our Community Standards to ensure they’re balancing the varying interests of the people who use Facebook. These interests are particularly diverse when it comes to nudity, which is why we gather feedback from people and organizations who use Facebook.”
What struck me the most about this statement was its assumption, both on the part of the corporation and on the part of most readers, of neutrality. Like so much else most people accept that a company that promotes, publishes, and regulates media can be neutrality exists and, secondly, that we are all affected by regulation in equal measure.
On Facebook or out in the offline world, mainstream ideas about naked bodies and “obscenity” silence and harm women, often under the aegis of “protecting” us. From Facebook, to the Motion Picture Association of America ratings systems, to the Federal Communications Commission “nipplegate” indecency rules, ideas about "obscenity" continue to be calibrated to heterosexual male erotic consumption. The rules around the way society sees women’s bodies continue to mean that women are not in control of their own bodies or how people think about us.
In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed the Spirit of Justice statue in a federal building be covered with a blue curtain—at a cost of more than $8,000.
Last year, prior to a campaign I was involved in called #FBrape—which addressed images of violence against women—Facebook still banned mastectomy and breastfeeding photographs (if they showed a woman’s nipple), but allowed two 19-year old creators of a slut-shaming page to post a picture of a pink-lipped and pouty five-year old girl wearing a tank top that read "I love COCK." “Free speech” and had no visible nipples. The rules are changing slowly on Facebook, but they have not shifted as much on other platforms, such as Instagram, or in mainstream traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, broadcast television and a large chunk of cable.
Last month, the cover of Hip Mama magazine featuring Spanish artist Ana Alvarez-Errecalde standing, topless, holding her baby, was censored to hide her bare chest. Facebook flagged the image as pornographic—which wouldn’t happen now, thanks to the rule changes. Meanwhile, print distributors expressed concern about having the magazine on US newsstands, so Hip Mama was forced to publish not one cover, but two. The censored "family-friendly" version was mailed to newsstands and one featuring the mom’s uncovered breast was mailed to subscribers. At the same time, the 50th Anniversary issue of Sports Illustrated blanketed newsstands across the country and featured three topless (no nipples) bikini-thonged beach babes, buttocks oiled and ready.
While we are accustomed to thinking about double standards, the ways in which this idea of “obscenity” affect freedom of speech and expression is often overlooked.
Regulations regarding women’s bodies are more stringent, repressive, and aggressively policed—whether by law, religion or Internet company policy. By their very existence, the regulations sexualize women by forcing the conflation of women’s nudity with pornography. This was the case with the mastectomy and breastfeeding pictures in Facebook. This insistence that naked female nipples are offensive, not “family friendly,” and somehow dirty definitively undermines our ability to see women’s bodies as just bodies, not sexual objects.
Widespread objectification of women, particularly sexual objectification, is well understood and linked to harful realities. It’s dehumanizing, plain and simple, and dehumanization is the first step to normalizing violence against a class of people.
Additionally, the seeing women’s bodies as inherently pornographic often results in censorship of information regarding women’s health. In the past, Facebook has removed post about the abortion rights. Reproductive rights groups Women on Waves, Mama to Mama, and Feminists at Sea have all had their content blocked or removed online. In many instances, after the fact, Facebook apologizes and restores the account or content.
The impact on women’s free expression of double standards of obscenity is clear when you consider art and politics. Women artists, who regularly use their naked bodies for social critique are censored out of media regularly. They are also omitted from educational materials for children. So, while younger students of art might learn about Jackson Pollack, they are far less likely to learn about Carlee Schneemann’s radical vision, which included strapping her naked body to a sling and using it to draw. Likewise, photographs of women using their bodies to protest colonialism, Capitalism, sexism, religious misogyny, and violence against them are suppressed or edited to make them palatable—and less threatening. Models protesting racism, anti-Catholic feminists protesting outside of Cathedrals, determined, older women in the Niger Delta, the Uprising of Arab Women and The Girls Guide to Taking Over the World are just a few examples of women whose images, and therefore messages and intention and reach, have been censored.
Lastly, the flip side of our apparent cultural commitment to male sexual gratification sometimes results in strange, funny and unhelpful ways. Net Nanny, a popular internet filter used by schools and parents to control children’s access to “inappropriate” materials on the web, recently blocked ads for breast pumps and a feminist news website, but allowed access to the article “Why Penis Size Matters in Bed.”
While it’s positive, Facebook’s decision, which builds on the earlier one to allow mastectomy photographs, can be seen as reinforcing fundamentalist belt ideas about “good women” (those who are maternal or have suffered) and “bad” ones (those who are expressing political, artistic or sexual ideas). Breast-feeding photographs, however, do offer a counter-point to the underlying message that women’s bodies are ultimately sexual objects. Change is slow, but does happen.
Related Reading: Facebook Versus the Activists.
Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and feminist activist whose work focuses on free speech, sexualized violence and the role of gender in pop culture, politics, media and religion. You can find her at @schemaly on Twitter or on Tumblr.