Instagram’s misplaced moralism

Social network Instagram has a nudity policy that is growing in infamy weekly. It all started with a little bit of celebrity: Young stars like Miley Cyrus and Scout Willis (daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore) have been protesting the rules on what you can and cannot post on Instagram after the social network removed images and/or temporarily banned accounts of those crossing said boundaries. And it all, um, centres on a single, forgive me, point — the female nipple — prompting the tragically catchy #freethenipple slogan.

Point one and two of the Instagram terms state:

  1. You must be at least 13 years old to use the Service.
  2. You may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content via the Service.

Now, most social media have very similar terms. Facebook certainly does. So what’s the problem? Well, critics feel Instagram is heavy-handed in their administration of said rule (like when they have deleted images of breastfeeding babies or shirtless toddlers) and — according to the it girls — its hypocritical to ban the lascivious girl-nipple but not the chaste and acceptable boy-nipple.

While there have been any number of instances to cite, possibly the one that got the most buzz was Rihanna’s brief banning for tweeting a pic of a magazine cover featuring her uncovered breasts and nipples. Scout Willis also strolled topless down a New York street in protest. And most recently British model Cara Delevingne posted a series of pics protesting this, including one of (presumably) her own boob and a male friend’s side by side.

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Instagram’s chief executive Kevin Systrom has defended the policy, saying “Our goal is really to make sure that Instagram, whether you’re a celebrity or not, is a safe place and that the content that gets posted is something that’s appropriate for teens and also for adults,” he explained. “We need to make certain rules to make sure that everyone can use it.” All 200 million of them …

But here’s the rub, and it has nothing to do with nipples: Content that isn’t actively banned and managed on Instagram includes the extremely disturbing and worrying pro-anorexia movement. Although searching the terms #thinspiration or #thinspo (both of which originate in the pro-anorexia online community) return no results, #ana returns over 5 million images, #anorexia almost 3 million images and #thin almost 1.2 million.

When you search these terms Instagram offers the following warning: “Content Advisory. Please be advised: these images may contain graphic content. For information and support with eating disorders please tap on learn more.” It then gives options to see posts, learn more or cancel.

A quick tap later and you can gorge yourself on the horror-porn of images and millions of comments from (mostly) teenage girls encouraging each other to get skinny or die trying. Typical images include explicit references to bingeing and purging, and many include images of self-harming.

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Searches for “nude”, “nudity”, “naked”, “breast” return no results. You could argue that one is much harder to police than the other. Where do you draw the line on someone posting a fully-clothed image with #thin to showcase their healthy, slow, necessary 15kg weight loss? Or someone using #ana to talk about the new 50 Shades of Grey trailer (one of the characters is called Ana)? Or for that matter, some woman posting a topless pic of herself on — say — a legal topless beach, or an image of a breast cancer survivor who has undergone mastectomy?

If the younguns are genuinely the concern, why not slap the content advisory warning on all instances equally, instead of picking and choosing what gets to stay or go? Or if you choose to choose (a human-run process, aided by tech, of distinguishing between acceptable or not) — then apply that universally too.

If Instagram is trying to protect those young and impressionable souls on their social network, they have to face the fact that their current message boils down to “cutting and starving = acceptable, female breasts = unacceptable”. I am not a mom, but this misplaced moralism is much much scarier to me than a little (or big) boob.

Images – Instagram