Instagram's mysterious censorship policies and anti-nudity guidelines have long been a point of contention, from the ongoing #freethenipple battle to users challenging the platform's removal of menstrual blood and pubic hair images. This week, the debate was brought to my own digital doorstep when one of my photos was taken down, sending me down a rabbit hole to find out what and for whom the social media platform is trying to censor.
I spent this Sunday in a gay-friendly enclave of Rockaway Beach in New York City, enjoying a kind of unrestricted summer utopia where people of all genders can comfortably wander around topless, as is technically legal (though not always socially acceptable) everywhere in New York City.
Towards the end of the day I snapped a photo of my friend drinking a beachy beverage and making a goofy face and uploaded it to Instagram, adding the hashtag #tropical and tagging the location.
I am well aware of Instagram's strict nudity policy, which bans "photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks" as well as "some photos of female nipples." I've witnessed the failed attempts of various celebrities to challenge the rules by posting topless images of themselves only to have them promptly removed. But I figured posting a non-pornographic, barely nude image to the 412 followers on my private account would fly under the social media app's radar much more easily than it did for someone like Rihanna. I was wrong.
How did Instagram find the image of my friend, whose single nipple was apparently threatening the ability to "keep Instagram users safe"? I tried posting the image again, this time with no location tag or hashtag, in an attempt to better conceal it from whatever mysterious Instagram algorithm finds and removes prohibited photos. The second post was also deleted after a few hours.
According to an Instagram spokesperson, because my account is private, users searching the #tropical hashtag or the location tag I used would not have been able to see the image. This means one of my own followers must have reported my image both times. The vast majority of content takedowns on the site come from user-generated flags, the spokesperson said.
I had been betrayed by a prude follower. I posted a message in hopes the rogue user would come clean, and combed through my follower list to delete anyone I don't know personally. My "followers" count went from 412 to 382.
Beyond the follower purge it inspired, the incident underscored for me just how ludicrous Instagram's nudity policy is. The Community Guidelines, which Instagram referred me to when it deleted my photo, allow for "some photos of female nipples," but do not specify which female nipples are allowed and when.
"We don't allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples."
-Instagram's Community Guidelines
Instagram declined to elaborate, but its policy page says users can post photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding. This is presumably because those images are not sexual in nature, which leads me to wonder, how is an image of my friend sitting on a beach sexual in nature? Why, in 2015, is one of the largest social media apps suggesting that the mere existence of women's bodies is inappropriate?
The site also declined to comment on how it determines if the nipples in question are "female nipples." As noted earlier this year by the Daily Dot, the exception to the censorship rule for post-mastectomy scarring apparently has not been extended to transgender users who post images of top surgery, a policy writer S.E. Smith previously said puts trans users in danger.
"For transgender Instagrammers, the body is a particularly political and sensitive subject, and among those brave enough to personally document their transition journeys on Instagram, vague community guidelines are both frustrating and devastating," the writer said. "Instagram's policies suggest that it views trans bodies as irrelevant—or obscene."
Instagram declined to comment on the top surgery issue or whether its policy regarding "female nipples" risks misgendering users, but issued the following statement.
"Just like other media, we have to put limitations on nudity," a spokesperson for Instagram said. "It is not always easy to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves creatively while maintaining a comfortable experience for our global and culturally diverse community of many different ages, but we try our best."
After shaving down my followers to only people I know, I uploaded a nude image from a feminist art sourcebook I had lying around to test if I had successfully gotten rid of the user in question. The piece, called Breast Forms Permutated, has been described as a form of ridiculing "Western fixation on the female body as object of a masculine 'gaze'," and seemed like a fitting test subject given the situation.
As of the time of publishing, a full day later, it still hasn't been removed. The two pictures that were removed before were taken down within 12 hours, so I seem to be in the clear—for now.
Meanwhile, I uploaded a picture of my two male coworkers flashing the camera, hashtagged it #freethenipple, and had several friends report the image to Instagram.
It is still there, 14 hours later, despite multiple flags. We may never know exactly how Instagram's Community Guidelines work, but what this final test made clear is that enforcing outdated gender norms is more important to the company than complying with user takedown requests.