Today, roughly one billion monthly active users consume content via Instagram. One of the most popular platforms, the social media app has a diverse audience and thus, urges its community to post photos and videos appropriate for it. But what is appropriate anyway?
Meta, the former Facebook company that bought Instagram in 2012, is certainly clear on what is not appropriate. Their Community Guidelines emphasise their awareness of the many artistic and creative takes on nudity. Nevertheless, “sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks” and particularly “female nipples” will be censored unless 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.” To some degree, photos of paintings and sculptures are considered appropriate, too.
Where do public platforms and society generally draw the line between inappropriate nudity and non-sexual nakedness? And why is sexually suggestive content so bad?
Content that conflicts with the Community Guidelines is rigorously removed; content considered sensitive solely surfaces less frequently. Ultimately, that’s the catch: sensitivity is subjective; it’s a matter of opinion. Bulgarian fashion designer and stylist Maya Mateva responded to our Instagram poll saying, “I believe there needs to be a certain type of people behind that – acknowledged in art and philosophy, and their perception of morals goes beyond just a female nipple or same-sex couples.”
It raises the question: Where do public platforms and society generally draw the line between inappropriate nudity and non-sexual nakedness? And why is sexually suggestive content so bad?
Albeit the most natural form of being, the naked body signifies a personal and private part of identity, for many, something vulnerable when stripped off the protective adornments of everyday life. Kenneth Clark, in his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956), even defines, “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition.” In contrast, the author perceives nudity as not related to discomfort but instead “a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.”
Does this mean, the embarrassing nakedness is acceptable to society, and the confident nudity is not? Clark, in his definition, resonates with Judith Butler’s theory of the performative subject, which states that all of us perform our identities and bodies under an illusionary subjecthood. Or how Rob Cover, in his paper The Naked Subject: Nudity, Context and Sexualisation in Contemporary Culture, formulates, “if nakedness can no longer be determined and delineated clearly in particular sites and under particular gazes, then it risks destabilising the performativity of the subject by introducing an anxiety-causing encounter.”
It is funny to think that today, genitals are considered a discomfort-triggering tabu when museums survive on making money with sculptures of the male phallus.
In short, and to draw it back to social platforms, Instagram’s Sensitive Content Control reflects precisely the above. If there is no reason for nakedness as it is constituted in and by culture, it creates discomfort under the gaze. Jo Fetto is an Italian photographer based in London who explores human relationships with tabus, eroticism, and intimacy. They are under the impression that “often, I do not even think content is sexually suggestive. Most of the time, it is not about sex or being pornographic; it is simply about desires and people having genitals.”
It is funny to think that today, genitals are considered a discomfort-triggering tabu when museums survive on making money with sculptures of the male phallus. The truth is, modern society’s obsession with the sexual is a power play. Fetto believes it’s to police the masses. “By limiting people’s expressions and different sexualities, preferences and making problems out of body parts, you can control them in other spheres.”
“I personally think there’s a reason for censorship regarding violent, hateful, or fake content. Yet, it becomes a problem when it comes to censoring bodies, entire groups and voices.” – Anna Deller-Yee
The moderation tool is dangerous territory; it lumps all existing cultural forms into one bucket and conforms them to fit the majority. The former RCA fashion design graduate Anna Deller-Yee, emphasises, “I personally think there’s a reason for censorship regarding violent, hateful, or fake content. Yet, it becomes a problem when it comes to censoring bodies, entire groups and voices.”
Fetto adds, “We need to give so much credit to porn in advancing conversations. In a way, the visual materials were the first forms of modern queer art. For me, that is my culture. You can’t just take it away from us!” Controlling body representation implies that one’s comfort with expressing the own naked body is dictated by others. Hence, the body becomes somewhat public property, and the oppression can trigger a feeling of powerlessness and estrangement with the self. In psychology, the “inadequacies of self and social guidance mechanisms for social adaptation” are associated with the alienation syndrome – a potential cause of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health disorders.
“I only show about 70 per cent of my work online because it takes so much out of it if I have to censor content.” – Jo Fetto
But social media is not only a tool for self-expressing. It is important to recognize that social platforms are the most important promotional tool and a creative portfolio for many creatives. Although to our 1Granary polls, only 34% said they have got banned or reported on Instagram, many adapt their content to avoid the latter in the first place. Mateva admits, “I’ve never had issues with Sensitive Content Control or Community Guidelines. But I do make changes to my content to follow the guidelines of each platform.” Deller-Yee, too, declares, “I have changed content in the past. Censoring female nipples is probably the most frequent one.”
Because of the guidelines, however, the social media portfolios are not representative of a creative’s scope of work anymore. Fetto shares, “I only show about 70 per cent of my work online because it takes so much out of it if I have to censor content.”
“I would love to explore nude photography, but I know it would be wasted because of the restrictions, so I try to avoid such subjects.” – Anonymous
Responding to our survey, users emphasise the limiting impact censorship has on their work. One creative writes, “I would love to explore nude photography, but I know it would be wasted because of the restrictions, so I try to avoid such subjects.” Others, who have been banned before, tell of the shock when a network that has been built for years suddenly vanishes. “It is my whole network for life!” shares a user. Deller-Yee explains, “Social media has been and continues to play an important role. Personally, because I use these platforms and regularly feed them with my work, I have gotten in touch with people I never would have otherwise. It definitely has opened up doors for me in my career.”
There is no doubt that censorship of misinformation, discrimination or hate speeches is crucial on the internet. But the Sensitive Content Control is not about that. Jo Fetto believes, “It is scary that an algorithm is given so much freedom to define the rights or wrongs. In a few years, there will be a different platform, people are going to create something else, and people will stick together and recognise they need to have places for certain types of work.”
“If we removed porn from the internet there’d only be one website left, and it would be called ‘Bring back the porn!'”
Social platforms should not be able to dictate when the representation of the body in its most natural form, unadorned and uncovered, is appropriate. The so-called sensitive content is a matter of opinion and individual interpretation. It is never neutral. Nudity is nothing shameful or forbidden. Its creative interpretation should not be oppressed on social platforms. To end with a metaphor of the popular Scrubs meme: “If we removed porn from the internet there’d only be one website left, and it would be called ‚Bring back the porn!‘”