Facebook's guide to being a lady
by Sarah Myers West | Nov 18 2015
Learning how to act like a lady online is hard. Revealing swimsuits and underwear are okay, unless you happen to be plus-sized. Breastfeeding wasn’t okay to show, but now it is. Body hair is acceptable for men, but not so much for women. Even if you’re fully clothed, you could still be censored if it’s that time of the month and your tampon leaks. If you’re Kim Kardashian, you can show off pretty much anything.
So what’s a girl to do?
A growing number of women (and men, and people all along the gender spectrum) are pushing back on double standards in the community guidelines and terms of service for many online platforms. In some cases, their clamor is working—but inequities still proliferate.
Here are a few stories we thought were worth highlighting:
Canadian poet and artist Rupi Kaur created a stunning photo series on what it’s like to be a woman and societal discomfort with menstruation. Instagram proved her point by deleting a photo—twice—in which Kaur lies (fully clothed) in bed with visibly leaking blood in her pants. In response Kaur wrote “Thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique…Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking. We will not be censored”. After her posts on Facebook and Tumblr were shared over 11,000 times, Instagram reinstated her photos, explaining in an email the images were “accidentally removed”.
Instagram’s moderators have also proven to be trigger-happy with removing images of plus-sized women. In May of 2014 it apologized for removing a plus-sized blogger’s belfie, an inconsistent application of its terms of service when it allows similar photos to be posted by countless other, thinner users. The blogger, Meghan Tonjes, responded in a YouTube video that compared her modest photo with images from fitness models showing even less skin. “You have the opportunity to be a platform where people can engage in a very body positive community, can openly share their lives including their bodies in a very appropriate and positive way. I would hope that it’s a goal of yours as a platform to make sure that close-minded, ignorant and hateful people don’t abuse your report feature,” she said. But just a few months later, Instagram again deleted a photo from college student Samm Newman wearing a bra and boy shorts—again, less revealing than many other photos of thin women that remain on the site. After NBC drew attention to Newman’s story Instagram apologized, saying it “wrongly removed content”.
Transgender person Luna Winters fought back against Facebook after her image, which displayed her nipples, was reported for violating the site’s terms of service. In a message to Facebook moderators she said: “Though you may think it, I haven’t broken your rules on showing female nipples. I’m transitioning and for all official legal and medical paperwork…I am male. Your rules specifically state ‘female’ and as I’m male I ask you, where do you differentiate between one gender and the next?” Instagram has also reportedly been taking down post-transition photos from trans users.
Aimee Davison, host and producer of the YouTube channel LOLPervs performed a “sexperiment” to figure out Instagram’s confusing guidelines on what images of a woman’s breasts can be shown on the platform (men’s are totally okay to show in any context, of course). She found Instagram only allows breasts to be shown when they have mastectomy scarring, are breastfeeding, are on a nude sculpture or in a photo of a nude sculpture. “I think the reason why a woman’s breasts can be shown in sculptures or paintings, or if a woman’s breasts have been scarred by cancer, or if she is in service of a baby, is because North American society has an issue with women asserting their sexual power in any way. And they are okay with them being seen as objects, and having no sexual agency. But the moment a woman has sexual agency it’s seen as a threat.”
These women have highlighted notable discrepancies in the ways in which community guidelines are applied to and among women. In some cases, this comes down to splitting hairs—New Yorker cartoonist Bob Mankoff illustrated how Facebook’s censorship of a cartoon image of Adam and Eve boiled down to the difference between two pairs of dots—but the result is an unclear policy that unfairly discriminates against users of the female persuasion.
This may be because clarity alone isn’t enough: Facebook, which owns Instagram, recently issued much more detailed community guidelines specifying what types of nudity are acceptable to post and in which contexts. But despite the greater level of specificity, the fact remains that any set of guidelines is likely to be interpreted by content moderators in different ways, as these platforms extend their reach around the globe. They’re bound to get it wrong from time to time, but Instagram doesn’t offer any clear means for users to appeal when their content is wrongly removed.
The guidelines are also indicative of a normative perspective on women that is simultaneously both sanitized and sexualized. As Jessica Valenti recently put it in a Guardian column, “The broader message to women couldn’t be clearer: SeXXXy images are appropriate, but images of women’s bodies doing normal women body things are not. Or, to put a more crass point on it: Only pictures of women who men want to fuck, please.”
Women like Kaur, Tonjes, Newman, Winters and Davison are rightly troubled by that message—as should be the rest of us.