Instagram won’t revise its policy and perhaps it’s right not to
The tumult has died down somewhat since last week’s #FreeTheNipple saga, leaving us to consider the facts. The movement was kicked off by Scout Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who tweeted pictures of herself running errands topless in New York in response to Instagram deleting one of her photos. The picture in question showed her in a see-through t-shirt that revealed her nipples, which is against Instagram’s policy.
The campaign gathered support and momentum in a matter of hours, with the likes of Rihanna and Kendall Jenner showing their support on the campaign’s preferred soap-box, Twitter. Both A-listers had experienced previous run-ins with Instagram, as had US Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington, teen Dazed&Confused photographer Petra Collins, model Anja Rubik, as well as a breast-feeding mother whose photos were deleted. Rihanna, perhaps most famously, received a warning from Instagram after posting a picture of her much-hyped LUI cover in which she appears topless. After posting a picture of herself topless and smoking last week, the photo was deleted and Rihanna subsequently canceled her account and has not returned to Instagram.
Scout Willis’s topless protest caption “Legal in NYC but not on Instagram #FreeTheNipple” rang like a battle cry for women, gender equality and women’s right to self-expression to many. On her blog yesterday she referred to the campaign as tackling “Matters like the taboo of the nipple in the 21st century, public breastfeeding, slut shaming, fat shaming, breast cancer awareness, body positivity, gender inequality, and censorship.” Yet, Willis has remained modest as to the impact of the campaign, describing herself as being pleased to have simply opened up the discussion. And by gum she has too!
“The taboo of the nipple”? Really? Perhaps we have lived an overly liberal, millenial, European existence of frequent nudity and an oversexualized smorgasboard of the senses, but in 2014 nipples do not feel taboo to us. This is not the 1970’s, we have come a very long way from “I’m a feminist, so let me ditch the constraints of this bra and get my breasts out” – in fact, arguably we have come full circle. Rihanna’s dress at the CFDA Awards, that has been all over the internet in the past two days, is a case in point. We do not lack for nipples in mainstream media, high fashion, visual art, cinema, or in the music industry. To refer to Instagram as oppressing women by not allowing them to post topless photos of themselves is understandable, but only in part. There is a hit of misguided girl power to it, that misunderstands and misuses the term “feminist”. It’s hard to disagree with any movement that describes itself as against the oppression of women, it feels as though you’re weakening the cause and letting team down. But the fact is, this is not a feminist issue. When Petra Collins’s Instagram account was deleted for posting a picture of herself in a bikini that very visibly exposed pubic hair, the outrage surrouding that was very much against the normative beauty standards that Instagram’s action exemplified. It was anti-woman. The nipples campaign is more nuanced – the pics of Rihanna and Scout were definitely sexy and of a sexual nature. But then again, what’s wrong with that.
Statistics show that Instagram is fast becoming one of the more popular social media platforms among teens along with Snapchat, especially among women, who are more frequent users than men by 8% it would seem. In spite of the controversy and the high-profile backing of the #FreeTheNipple campaign, Instagram’s CEO, Kevin Systrom is holding strong and defending Instagram’s stance on nudity. Its policy states – “If you wouldn’t show the photo or video you are thinking about uploading to a child, or your boss, or your parents, you probably shouldn’t share it on Instagram.” The fact that young women are among the top users of the photo sharing app, would suggest that perhaps a strict vetting policy is not altogether an act of oppression, but perhaps it has a valid reason to “protect” its young and susceptible users from pseudo pornographic and explicit content that is generally readily available and universally present. The line has to be drawn somewhere according to Instagram, and it would seem that nipples are that line.*
The trouble around the #FreeTheNipple controversy is that it hinges around the issue of ‘taste’. And nothing gets people’s backs up like questions of judgement and taste. Instagram has set a loose parameter of ‘no nipples’ in the hope of limiting the amount of inappropriate photos it has to vet. If it were to lift this policy, it would then be reduced to eliminating a far greater number of photos in all probability, and it would have to do so on the basis of ‘appropriateness’- ergo, relying on judgement and taste. The reality is that a lot of Instagram is filled with vaguely sexual content, that the images of breasts that both Rihanna and Scout Willis put up weren’t particularly empowering or naive, and that perhaps the fervor and energy that this campaign has rustled up could be applied to a good few worthier female-centric causes. But then again maybe that’s just the opinion of a judgemental crank who still believes in good taste.
*Pictures of mastectomies for instance are allowed on Instagram though, as they have no nipples.
Roisin Agnew @Roxeenna