We will walk 39 miles for them, spend tens billions of dollars researching them and even dedicate an entire month to them. But posting naked breasts on social media? Then you’ve crossed a line.
The sexualization of breasts in America has caused some serious controversies over the past few years, and inspired Free The Nipple, a self-described “equality movement” with “a mission to empower women across the world.” Although legislation implicitly states that women have the right to breastfeed in any public or private location exists in 49 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, the debate over whether women should have the right to be topless in public continues.
A much-debated topic for the Free The Nipple movement is whether or not to allow photos of topless women on social media. Artist Nicol Hebran believes censoring women’s nipples on social media is hypocritical and unnecessary, and in June 2014 she began posting photos of herself topless with Photoshopped male nipples covering her own.
But what happens when photos that show female nipples are posted in order to advocate for breast cancer awareness? Last week, Facebook abruptly answered this question. Forty-year-old Rowena Kincaid has attracted more than 10,000 followers on Facebook, documenting her battle with breast cancer and was the focus of a BBC documentary “Before I Kick the Bucket,” which explores life after her diagnosis. On Jan. 23, Kincaid posted a photo of a rash around her nipple to her Facebook page in order to raise awareness of the lesser-known breast cancer symptom. The next day, Kincaid posted the following: “Facebook notified me that it has automatically taken down my last post down due to nudity rules.”
Immediate outrage followed, and rightfully so. Her situation, which supporters of Kincaid have called “Boobgate,” demonstrates how sexist social media censorship can be. Women can post photos of their entire breast without violating Facebook’s anti-nudity policy, so long as the nipple is covered. Men can freely post photos of themselves shirtless and no one bats an eye.
The strangest part of Kincaid’s story is how she was able to later post the same photo with a smiley face over the nipple. What is it about the female nipple itself, the one part of the breast that serves a biological purpose, that makes people feel the need to shield their childrens’ eyes? Kincaid said she considered it “disgusting” that Facebook “took down a photograph that could potentially save lives.”
Kincaid and her supporters believe Facebook’s Community Standards are sexist and encourage further unnecessary sexualization of women’s breasts. The standards ban “images of female breasts if they include the nipple.” This rule is part of a paragraph that also bans postings of “photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing in on fully exposed buttocks” and “images of sexual intercourse.”
The ban on photos of female nipples seems even more outrageous when acknowledging that in 2013, Facebook lifted its ban on videos of extreme violence such as beheadings under the notion that that these videos can raise awareness of issues of violence. Yet photos displaying female nipples are considered inappropriate and not a method of combating sexism and the sexualization of breasts.
This isn’t exclusively a social media problem, but rather a societal issue.
“Women’s bodies are sexualized to the point where nipples, a necessary part of feeding a child, are thought of as inherently provocative,” DePaul freshman Alexis Kleefisch said. So long as Facebook, Instagram and other social media outlets prohibit photos of female nipples, they will continue to help preserve America’s sexist status quo.
Freeing the nipple may seem irrelevant when compared to other aspects of the feminist movement, but it has done a tremendous job of bringing attention to its fight. According to Google Trends, in 2015 “Free the Nipple” garnered more interest than phrases such as “gender equality” and “equal pay.”
On Feb. 1, Facebook reposted Kincaid’s unedited picture to her page. While this move is definitely a step in the right direction, it will take further extreme instances of discrimination against female breasts, both online and in public, for the Free The Nipple movement to achieve its goal of “equal rights for men and women (and) a more balanced system of censorship.”