The Nipple vs. Social Media

Nipples have been hot news over the last two weeks, with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter, Scout Willis, staging a very public protest against Instagram’s closure of her account.

To make her point, the 22-year-old offspring of Hollywood’s former golden couple paraded topless around Manhattan, with the aim of highlighting Internet censorship of this apparently controversial body part.

Scout’s protest began when her Instagram account was closed and deleted for “instances of abuse” after she posted two pictures: the first of a jacket she had customized with a topless (and headless) photograph of two friends, entitled ‘The Babe Bomber’, and the second of herself, sans brassiere, in a sheer top. Aghast at Instagram’s reaction, Scout began an on-going rant on Twitter, flagging up other images that the photo-sharing site deemed to be acceptable in comparison to hers, and tweeting questions like, “Why does @instagram allow photos of heroin being used but deletes a photo of a print of some smoke shows without tops on???”


The key difference between Scout’s photos and others she held up for inspection were that nipples were clearly visible on her pictures, and not the seedier images of which she made examples. Not to be silenced, Scout went out in her native Manhattan completely topless (which is legal in New York according to state law), documenting her walkabout by posting the accompanying shots on Twitter. She followed this up – and answered the immediate media backlash – in an undeniably eloquent post on xojane, in which she wrote:

“What began as a challenge to Instagram and its prejudiced community guidelines became an opportunity for dialogue. 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 have found their way into mainstream discussion.”

Scout isn’t the only high profile personality to have been suppressed by Instagram recently, as notorious rude girl Rihanna has also had her account removed more than once on account of posting topless selfies. After the superstar tweeted her support to Scout’s cause, Instagram apologised to the singer’s 1.3 million horrified followers by releasing a statement putting it down to a technical glitch. However, Rihanna’s account remains offline, with the media speculating that the singer has deleted it herself in protest. The same week, she made headlines worldwide with her choice of attire at the CDFA awards: an entirely see-through Adam Selman dress with just a nude thong and 216,000 Swarovski crystals preserving her modesty. This is a lady who simply refuses to be censored.

The issue in question is that the exposure of nipples shouldn’t be seen as a shameful activity, punishable by the law – whether that goes for attractive young women, mothers openly breastfeeding their babies in public, or cancer survivors proudly displaying their mastectomy scars. Interestingly, ‘nipple phobia’ wasn’t always confined to the fairer sex, as back in 1930 it was an arrestable offence for men to appear bare-chested in Coney Island. It took six years of organised protests by legions of shirtless men, many of whom ended up briefly behind bars, to change both laws and the social perception of decency – something that seems inconceivable now.

The #FreeTheNipple campaign itself isn’t new, having been originally formed four years ago in an attempt to decriminalise the female areolae, but it has certainly attracted a resurgence following Scout’s protest. Undoubtedly to this day nipple censorship contributes to inequality, sexualisation of breasts and breastfeeding stigma. Said Scout, “I am not trying to argue for mandatory toplessness, or even bralessness. What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body – and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.”


In the event you are concerned about what you can and cannot post on popular media sites, here is a brief summary of nudity guidelines for the main platforms:


Instagram states that users “may not post violent, nude, partially nude … pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content”. Facing the backlash following Scout’s protest, the company’s CEO justified the regulations in terms of making the social network, “the safest possible place for teens and adults”. Despite the fact that the site regularly allows women to be objectified with provocative captions accompanying nude flesh, the line appears to be drawn at the nipple – providing these are covered (with stickers, hands, tassels – you name it), then the photo is deemed acceptable.


Facebook first fell under scrutiny in 2012 when a leaked document revealed that employees had been instructed to remove photographs of women breastfeeding if their nipples were exposed. It has faced similar criticism for removing pictures of mastectomy scars and even cartoons (including #FreeTheNipple’s own logo, even though it’s only an inoffensive cartoon bearing more than a passing resemblance to the eyes of the TripAdvisor owl). The current terms state that they “impose limitations on the display of nudity” but “aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.”

In recent weeks Facebook has hit the headlines for changing its restriction guidelines regarding breastfeeding photographs, by removing any reference to a fully exposed breast. The following sentence was removed from its official policy: “…photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate the Facebook Terms.” This is a considerable leap forward from the original clause from a few years ago, which called for a ban on breastfeeding images “containing a fully exposed breast (as defined by showing the nipple or areola)”.

Facebook now allows photos of mothers breastfeeding. The site states: “We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies.” Facebook went on to point out that most of the photos that had fallen under review had been brought to their attention by complaints from other users. A similar post regarding the site’s policy on mastectomy photos states again that the vast majority of pictures are compliant with their policies and acknowledges that sharing photos can help raise awareness about cancer, as well as support those living with the disease.


This is by far the most liberal of the sites, providing any topless photos are only shown in the main feed as opposed to the header/profile photos, or the user background. Officially, “You may not use obscene or pornographic images in either your profile photo, header photo, or user background”. However, Twitter appears to recognize the difference between artistic/medical/educational nudity versus pornographic nudity, and Free The Nipple‘s cartoon logo and real life topless lady can be freely viewed in both.


The official guidelines from this site state: “Artistic, scientific or educational nude photographs are okay here, but we don’t allow those (like photographs of sexual activity) that could be a bad experience for people who accidentally find them. We also allow images of paintings or statues featuring nude subjects, but may remove things like pornographic cartoons.” The site disallows pornography or any advertising of adult sexual services, but will allow breastfeeding photographs and artistic nudity. That said, a search for “topless” or “boobs” on this site brings up the message: “We do not allow things that are inappropriate for the general public, such as sexually explicit Pins, anywhere on Pinterest”, so perhaps this is another grey area.


Google+’s policy states: “Do not distribute content that contains nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material … Your Profile Picture cannot include mature or offensive content. For example, do not use a photo that is a close-up of a person’s buttocks or cleavage.” Clearly no nipples here then.


The microblogging site appears to at least respect the right of individual taste on its policy, conceding, “Tumblr is home to millions of readers and creators from a variety of locations, cultures, and backgrounds who hold different points of view concerning adult-oriented content. If you regularly post sexual or adult-oriented content, respect the choices of people in our community who would rather not see such content by flagging your blog … This action doesn’t prevent you or your readers from using any of Tumblr’s social features, but rather screens your blog’s content from Tumblr users who would prefer not to see NSFW material.” Despite this statement, in 2013 it was revealed that many posts deemed ‘adult’ content are no longer indexed.

by Bryony Sutherland

Photo credit: iStockphoto/akinbostanci

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