A story on how one misattributed digital nipple made 125 people undress at Facebook headquarters.
In Facebook, they like censorship. Zuckerberg likes it too, as you could read in my previous post on art censorship, so artists on Facebook and Instagram have been annoyed for a while. However, stories like Facebook censoring Rubens’ paintings or world-famous sculptures make more headlines than the struggle that photographers have to face. Especially photographers whose work contains the evil female nipple.
The problem starts with Facebook guidelines regarding nudity. Facebook says
We restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, (…).
We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures.
Instagram guidelines sound slightly more companionable, yet the consequences remain the same, that is, censorship.
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 (…). It also includes some photos of female nipples.
Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK.
The nipple issue on Facebook and Instagram has a long history. Already in 2014, after some charity event photos were taken down of her Instagram, Micol Hebron, an artist and associate professor of art, realized that female nipple is strictly prohibited on social media, while there is no ban for male one. What did she do?
Male Nipple Template: the digital pasty, as she called it, so that the users can cover the female nipples with the male ones.
As Hebron recalled in the interview in 2015,
I thought a lot about the absurdity of Instagram’s policies regarding nipples (…) I decided to adopt their own logic and try to use it against them to make a point about how sexist these policies are. That was when I created the “acceptable male nipple template.
As tracked down by The Daily Dot, Hebron’s template gained popularity on Tumblr and was later used and posted many times on Facebook. It also became a symbol of #FreeTheNipple action.
As Hebron wrote in her note published on Facebook this month,
“Free the Nipple has a different focus, and advocates for women to be able to go topless in public without retribution. For my digital nipple pasty, I am interested in pointing out the sexist hypocrisies of the social media content guidelines – which police women’s bodies more than men’s.”
What does Hebron’s nipple pasty have in common with the nude protest in NYC this month? The nipple, of course, that was used without attribution to Hebron.
Now, let’s have a look at some nudity and nipples in front of Facebook HQ.
June 2, 2019. Before the sunrise, a group of over 100 people undresses to pose nude for Spencer Tunick in New York City, in front of Facebook and Instagram headquarters. Tunick, a professional photographer famous for his staged nude events, took part in the protest under the slogans #FreeTheNipple and #WeTheNipple organized by The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). The nude protesting group, according to artnet News, mostly consisted of women with a few men. They were holding prints of male nipples in different colors and sizes, in order to pose with them and to use them as a cover for their genitalia. Women had the smaller prints attached to their naked breasts. After half an hour filled with photo-taking, the party was over.
#WeTheNipple is an NCAC’s campaign, calling for openness for artistic freedom on social media and equality in perceiving female and male bodies. The censorship focused on the restriction of female nipples, as they say, “stifles artistic expression, and enforces gender discrimination by permitting images of male nipples while prohibiting female nipples,” argued Christopher Finan, NCAC’s executive director in the NCAC’s official letter sent to Facebook. Hebron’s actions since 2014 were not mentioned at all.
So, what’s the point? One one hand, we are dealing with a social media corporation that happened to be crucial for the private and professional lives of millions of people worldwide. Consequently, this corporation dictates the rules not only of using their platform but also of what is and is not acceptable for artists and viewers and which part of the human body is or isn’t sexualized by the hegemony. Surprisingly, many people do not seem to see it as a problem. At least, according to some posts on the Reddit discussion thread on the nude protest (accessed June 21, 2019),
What do people who are taking part in the nipple battle say?
The nude protest at Facebook HQ ended up being about way more issues than just censorship of nipples on Instagram. The message that got obliterated is the sexualization and objectification of the female body, both by society and by Facebook. Art plays a crucial part in here, as it is art that shifts the borders of what is and isn’t acceptable. It is art that often requires viewers to leave their comfort zone by seeing a different point of view. Censoring art limits the possibilities in which artists and viewers commune, which is exactly what social media was for – to make connection easier, not harder – but gradually cease to be.
It’s about reclaiming our bodies. Facebook and Instagram have missed this message entirely as they cling to negligent and blatantly misogynist policies that overlook the context of the artistic nudity being posted.
People want a sense of freedom when it comes to their bodies and public space — that governments … and corporations don’t own your body.
After the protest, Facebook agreed to meet with NCAC to discuss the artistic nudity policies.
NCAC published an online update, where they describe a special team “of stakeholders including artists, art educators, museum curators, activists, as well as Facebook employees.” NCAC also said that this team will “examine how to better serve artists, including considering a new approach to nudity guidelines.”
So now what?
The National Coalition Against Censorship and Tunick proudly claim that their nude photoshoot made Facebook consider meeting with actual human beings, which indeed sounds impressive.
In an interview with artnetNews, an NCAC representative said, “We hope that by bringing stakeholders in the arts to the table with Facebook’s policy team and tech experts we’ll be able to work together to ensure that artists’ needs are valued in the decision-making process.”
However, we shouldn’t expect a total liberation of nipples. As pointed out in The Drum, “this meeting is not a commitment to update its policy, but to learn more about the group’s concerns surrounding censorship.”
The lack of collaboration between the protest organizers and Hebron adds another layer to this discussion because, again, the female (artist) is the one misattributed, forgotten, harmed. “Will this be another case of under-acknowledged, in-the-trenches labor of a woman subsumed into the myth of the Great (male) Artist?” writes Oriane Stender in her article A Woman’s Work is Never Done (Or, Too Often, Is Done and Attributed to a Man).
With the LGBTQ Pride month on our calendar, the struggle with the nipple seems accurately on time: the issue is still not solved, at least not for everybody.
Supporting the freedom of an individual is something (almost)everybody agrees on, but the relationship between tolerance and power is still not the mutual relation of equality and understanding. And the nipple is part of the case. No matter whether you are male or female, and what your orientation is, your sexuality should not be imposed on you by any corporation, neither should be judged or denied to you. Similarly, the sexualization of different body parts shouldn’t be automatic, because that’s how things always used to be.
Having equality means having freedom of choice. Freedom of preserving what used to be, while giving others the freedom of becoming, exploring, and creating new. The freedom to be who we are.
Hebron asserts in the interview back in 2015,
I think that addressing issues of sexuality can be a sensitive and tricky endeavor. When people see or hear content that can be sexual, they have a hard time getting past it, which is part of the point of my initiative — to encourage people to think about women’s bodies in ways other than as sexual objects to be consumed.
The nipple battle continues. On which side are you?
Featured image: Micol Hebron’s original digital nipple pasty.
you can get a physical copy of Micol Hebron’s nipple sticker here.