beyond "free the nipple"

Instagram is home to more than a billion users worldwide. The majority of them are daily users snapping latte foam art and OOTDs (outfit of the day). However, there are subsets of the Instagram population who take their platform very seriously. For such ones, this platform can equal not only their heart and soul, but also their livelihood. These content creators thrive off Instagram for activism/advocacy, businesses both small and large, atypical work, artistic creations and journals, photography and much more.

Yet there lurks an imminent threat. The threat of it all being taken away in a matter of seconds due to misunderstanding and miscalculation… or is it? Close your eyes and imagine the life you have built around you. Imagine your life, business, job, or all the art you’ve ever created. Then imagine it being deemed inappropriate and taken away from you.

Just. Like. That.

Censorship is defined as: suppression of speech, information, or content that is considered “harmful” or “sensitive”. Sites like Instagram use moderating technology to either delete or blur (censor) sensitive content. The problem lies in that Instagram does not specify exactly what it considers to be “inappropriate.” Instagram’s stance on nudity is defined as:

“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”

Unfortunately these “guidelines” do not translate well into a life lived in photos. Alex Dacy, also known as @wheelchair_rapunzel on Instagram, has noted being censored several times for rather innocuous content.

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“There seems to be grossly negligent “social media censorship bias” phenomenon happening on Instagram lately. I’ve been victim of this bias several times where Instagram has removed my photos and flagged my account, limiting my account functionality when I did not violate their nudity terms. Most notably, my Kim Kardashian remake was removed. When I remade her Instagram post ... mine was deleted while hers didn’t violate Instagram’s nudity terms and was left up — that’s what set the tone for this obvious ongoing social media censorship bias.”

Dacy, like many others, has dedicated her life to disability advocacy. She has been featured on Snapchat, on Barcroft and on BBC3. Her platform is her voice as well as livelihood. She wants to show the world that disabled bodies can be sexy and self-expressive with things like her #disabledbodiesmatter campaign.

“I’m a 25 year old disability advocate who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) who focuses on body positivity and disabled body representation. I post “risqué” photos like millions of other models and influencers, but mine keep getting removed. This is angering the disability and Instagram community at large due to the obvious bias that’s occurring. It reeks of discrimination, in my opinion — especially when I’m sent nude photos with bare nipples on Instagram on large accounts and those weren’t removed. This entire situation encompasses an inherent problem with our societal views and how we view disabled people…”

Alex and her followers would simply like to know why her posts are deleted whilst others “more risque” than hers are kept up. Quite frankly, I think we would all like to know. It seems rather impossible to not take this sort of self-expressive gatekeeping personally.

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Unfortunately this goes beyond artistic and sexual creative content. In the name of education and advocacy, Elizabeth Bert, Maxim model and business woman, has also faced censorship and profile elimination threats. Bert notes her mission is [“to raise awareness for invisible illnesses and disabilities— to give a voice to the voiceless”]. She has faced several surgeries and health crises. In a recent post, she attempted to educate the public on self-examinations to check for breast cancer. She reported that the post had been taken down for “nudity”.

Instagram mentions that “nudity” could possibly be removed. However, does this image constitute as nudity? Instagram’s moderating process is flawed and inconsistent. For one, there are no visible female nipples in this image and, for two, it does not take into account the actual context of this photograph. Instagram’s process fails to understand the importance of this photo and the educational purpose it promotes.

If we hypothetically entertain that it is the limited clothing or risque content of a photo that marks it for deletion, then it should prove out that fully clothed pictures of modestly dressed women should be spared from auto-censorship or deletion. This hypothesis fails in the case of Brianna, the blogger behind The Laughing Stoma. Brianna Valois, an American based in the Netherlands, is an ostomate (an ostomy bag user) who shares lifestyle posts often revolving around her ileostomy.

“I created the account @thelaughingstoma — [and I have since connected with so many lovely ostomates from all over the world.] We exchange tips and tricks, commiserate over inevitable ostomy mishaps, and share the non-medical aspects of our lives to show that, despite having a bag, you can still live a “normal” life with very few limitations.”

Brianna fits snugly into an entire community of ostomates who share similar advocacy goals: to normalize medical devices. Consequently, these awareness photos have started being censored at an alarming rate. This sparked the #freethestoma movement- credited to Veronica Villanova (who runs @vees.ileostomy). Brianna adds that she was so “appalled by such [ludicrous] censorship” that she decided to take part in the movement herself. Sadly, she was not surprised to see that her photos, too, were slapped with the blurred content mark.

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“We shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about what we live with on a daily basis. When people consider stomas to be too graphic, and Instagram responds in their favor, it makes our efforts at spreading awareness feel futile. We work hard to fight the stigma surrounding ostomies, yet as long as stomas are seen as “offensive” and “disturbing,” the negative stereotypes will remain — and it’s absolutely damaging to the ostomy community. The censorship simply needs to stop.”

Despite repeatedly being taken down, Brianna happily reports that the censorship will “[NOT prevent me from sharing another one for this cause. In fact it motivates me even more to keep posting...]”.

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Sophie Mayanne, UK-based photographer, will also not be silenced. In June 2019, the entire Facebook page for her labor of love, Behind the Scars, was permanently removed without warning. Fortunately, Behind the Scars continues to live on in its Instagram incarnation. But being that Facebook, Inc. owns Instagram, BTS’s fate is uncertain, and the account has already seen censorship and algorithm-burying tactics. Sophie’s message helps promote individuals with unique scarring or body differences. She states:

“Behind The Scars is a project where people can unapologetically be themselves, and embrace the skin they are in. [It’s a place to share your stories, encourage others to feel more confident.] It’s a place where people who don’t have scars can also learn...”

Instagram does not state scarring as an off-limits posting point; the platform actually states:  [“... photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed …”]. This is noteworthy, as BTS reports that in the past they’ve had [“various images of mastectomy scars, stretch marks and others removed..”]. So where is the consistency? BTS sometimes features individuals with self harm scars to which the photographer says:

“I understand the content can be triggering. Which is why I wanted to discuss what I had noticed on my account. Since the censorship screens have arrived – Instagram have, in fact, actually made it easier to find the content if someone is actively seeking out said pictures…”

BTS’s message is all about giving the voiceless a platform. It is understandable Instagram might want to censor triggering content like self harm scars. However, what about those who want to learn? Or those who feel alone and are seeking help or connection? There is a sense of a lost learning opportunity.

“What I would like, is Instagram to reconsider their wording. Think about the person you are censoring, as well as the other side of the picture. Think about the opportunities to learn from people openly sharing their stories…”

My name is Julian Van Horne (@thedisabledhippie), and I am a disabled transgender advocate who primarily uses Instragram as a platform to express my mission through writing, life coaching, and modeling. While I initially began to blog about my life as a trans patient with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, I also regularly discuss issues that people with more privileges do not consistently address. I stand up for my rights and I speak on bigotry like ableism and transphobia.

I use my platform to educate others on the struggles I experience. However, as of recently, Instagram has shadowbanned me; my content no longer shows in hashtags. The hashtags I use are meant to reach my respective trans and disabled communities.

Without these tags, those individuals have no idea how to reach me. Instagram has also taken to disabling my account multiple days out of the week to commenting and liking others photos, as well as to blocking my ability to promote photos.

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When you’re part of multiple minority groups, such as being trans and disabled, your prospects can seem grim. I’ve played by Instagram’s rules to get where I am now. Yet, after all the hard work I’ve done and the career I’ve built—which wouldn’t have been possible without the platform—I’m becoming invisible. My opportunities have been halted.

I’ve been offered a chance to make something of my trials and tribulations. And Instagram is trying to take that away.

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I work side-by-side with my best friend and emotional translator (as we joke) on tackling a lot of these issues at hand. As an attempt to push back, we posted this photo first on his Instagram (@carpe_that_diem), to see what would happen. There is no nudity or graphic content.

Yet, the very same day, Ariel was blocked from all hashtags.

It’s intriguing because we are fully clothed and the context of the photo discusses our difficulty finding Pride merch in the height of Pride month. It has absolutely no “inappropriate” content—whatever that means anymore.

What I’m curious to understand is this: how does Instagram’s algorithmic moderating get so smart that it can distinguish my underwear-clad behind from that of a cis, able-bodied woman’s underwear-clad behind as “inappropriate” within minutes, yet it can’t seem to identify a child’s murdered body for several hours?

Every account that has been profiled here has touched the lives of many people who used to feel as alone as I did before discovering Instagram. I remember being very young, disabled, and trans… I used to never see individuals “like me”. I never saw representation. Now, imagine all the other younger individuals who want the same thing that I did. Except now they will be unable to find that existing community due to suppressive tactics.

I fear we are seeing a decline in all artistic and educational content due to its “sensitivity”. Silencing and censorship tactics have been used for generations. It will seem like a slow burn, at first, in hopes that no one notices. This has historically been the case in the way that shadowbanning has affected sex educators and pole athletes. Before you know it… it’ll all be gone.

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Julian Van Horne is a disabled trans masc individual based in Florida and NYC. He lives with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic connective tissue disorder. He spreads his advocacy work through writing, modeling, and multiple business avenues. Julian works hard to represent his respective communities, educate the public, and connect with his audience.

"I remember growing up and not seeing people who looked like me. My hope is that my story reaches the individuals who need to see it so that they can say, this could also be ME." -JVH

Copy of beyond "free the nipple"
Copy of beyond "free the nipple"