Free the nipple: How social media holds back women’s self-determination

The fight against censorship of female bodies still has a long road ahead

The model Kate Moss, in 1993.
The model Kate Moss, in 1993.

When the model Kate Moss rose to fame in the 90s as Calvin Klein’s muse, she sparked a controversial fashion trend: going braless. At the time, showing off bare breasts seemed a daring break with beauty standards. But time shows that nothing has really changed: when it comes to the nipples of older, racialized and trans women, not to mention new mothers, non-feminine women and bodies that depart from cultural norms, the absence of a bra is suspicious. Even when the wearer is an actress or model, it’s best for the nipple to be subtle. The canons of good taste still prefer women to hide that part of their bodies in public and on social media. Proof lies in the frequent polemics about the issue. Last year, for example, the actress Florence Pugh posted a manifesto on Instagram responding to detractors after she dared to show her breasts at a Valentino fashion show.

The controversy is ancient and repetitive. The real question should be why this remains a subject of debate. Since antiquity, female breasts have been charged with powerful and contradictory meanings. The academic Marilyn Yalom wrote in her 1997 book A History of the Breast that throughout history, there has existed a “good breast,” like those of Renaissance Madonnas and the French Revolution, and a “bad breast,” which symbolizes seduction and trickery, like the prostitutes from the biblical book of Ezequiel or Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. “What meanings we give our breasts will always be bound up with societal values and cultural norms. Few women and few men are unaffected by the mass media,” Yalom wrote. And in the digital world, female breasts and nipples continue to be censored according to controversial and arbitrary criteria.

Since their inception, social networks have attempted to erase, or at least pixelate, any images that include female breasts in order to avoid pornographic content. Following that logic, why shouldn’t images of pistols be censored in order to prevent firearm deaths? The bodily censorship that women face on the internet reflects what they experience in the real world.

Currently, Facebook censors images of women with nude torsos, but not men. In an email that the New York Times quoted in 2019, Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, said that the network doesn’t want to “impose its own value judgment on how nipples should be viewed in society.” They’re just trying to “reflect the sensitivities of the broad and diverse array of cultures and countries across the world in our policies.” And in many cultures, female breasts remain taboo.

Instagram’s community guidelines say that the publication restrictions apply to “some photos of female nipples, but photos in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or an act of protest are allowed.” It isn’t completely true: to date, photos are tolerated or censored based on whether users report them as “nudes or pornography.” They are then verified and eliminated by an artificial intelligence system.

Mark Zuckerberg’s company was evaluated last January on its content moderation policy. The group of academics, journalists and politicians who did the assessment recommended that the company modify their community norms to criteria that follow international human rights norms. The council proposed that Meta define clear, objective and respectful criteria for content moderation, to avoid cases like Instagram’s 2021 apology to director Pedro Almodóvar, after the platform censored the poster for his film Parallel Mothers, which showed a lactating nipple. The implementation of those measures could mean an advance.

But why are images of women’s breasts still scandalous in 2023? No one ever mentions whether men’s nipples are perceptible under their clothing.

Perhaps it’s because men do not use bras. The history of bras is firmly linked to the male gaze, capitalist fashion trends and extreme body standards. They emerged as a garment to support the breasts. As the years went on, it evolved, from pin-ups to the Wonderbra campaign in the 90s. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that bras began to try to hide the nipple. Female breasts were considered obscene, something that should only be visible in sexual contexts.

Women are forced to censor their own bodies in order to avoid offending or “wounding sensibilities.” Since a man, Frederick Mellinger, invented the push-up bra in 1947, imagining what he and his war-veteran friends would like to see women wear, the bra became a way to please the male gaze.

The female breast is considered inherently sexual and therefore obscene. If women’s bodies are not desirable, consumable or exploitable, then the male gaze is not interested in them. They become repulsive, the object of mockery.

The Free the Nipple movement protested against that phenomenon. Created in 2013, after Facebook removed clips of Lina Esco’s documentary by that name, the movement aims to end the objectification of women’s breasts on the internet. And it may have achieved something if, finally, Meta fulfills its agreements and implements new community guidelines, ones more appropriate to these times.

Now that consent is in the center of the debate, it’s unfortunate that hypervigilance of the female body remains a form of oppression. Advances had been made. May they continue.

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