Life

How Three Women Forced Instagram to Change Its Nudity Policy

After images of Nyome Nicholas-Williams were repeatedly removed, a movement emerged to fight for the liberation of Black, plus-size bodies online.
October 29, 2020, 3:24pm
A transmasculine person with a furry blue coat checking his phone on the sidewalk

At the end of July, 2020, photographer Alex Cameron contacted model and influencer Nyome Nicholas-Williams to collaborate on a photo series. Not a nude photo shoot, not a provocative photo shoot, nor a photo shoot that was meant to make a particular point.

Cameron tells me that, through her work, she loves to uplift those who use their platforms to uplift others – that she wants to work with women who “present themselves so boldly online it can inspire people, make them feel less alone, empower them and encourage self love”. Nicholas-Williams was the perfect example of this.

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“It’s something I’ve battled with for a long time, so when I saw Nyome I knew I wanted to take her portrait,” she says.

Happy with the shoot, Cameron immediately edited the images and had a full set over to Nicholas-Williams within a couple of days. The photos, featuring the model semi-nude, cupping her breasts and posing in front of a floral background, are beautiful in their simplicity. But Nicholas-Williams was worried about posting a number of them on her Instagram feed.

“Instagram had recently removed one of her images that had shown more skin,” Cameron explains. “I encouraged her to post, but she was right – they got removed.”

After trying to repost the images – which are nowhere near as explicit as the imagery on the Playboy Instagram feed, or any number of the photos posted on various Kardashians’ accounts – both Nicholas-Williams and Cameron were threatened with account deletion. Noting that similar imagery of thin white bodies weren’t suffering the same censorship, Cameron contacted her friend Gina Martin, the activist who recently campaigned to make upskirting illegal in the UK.

“People always talk about uplifting each other and supporting each other, but when it comes to standing behind women who aren't being listened to, we don't want to be the ones to speak out,” Martin tells me via email. “Especially white women. We are so good at staying quiet when it comes to racial bias we're seeing, and after hearing about what was happening to Nyome, I thought, ‘What do I have this platform for if not to raise awareness?’”

Out of that conversation came the #IWantToSeeNyome campaign. Martin asked her followers to follow Nicholas-Williams and to flood Instagram with the images, alongside the hashtag #IWantToSeeNyome. The aim was to capture the platform’s attention and demand a change in their nudity policy regarding their double standard of censorship for semi-nude bodies. The hashtag currently has over 1,000 posts and, as intended, caught the attention of Instagram’s team, as well as the global press and the general public. Suddenly, a campaign about Nicholas-Williams’ images became a movement fighting for the liberation of Black, plus-size bodies online.

The #IWantToSeeNyome campaign continued for three months, with Martin, Cameron and Nicholas-Williams pushing for more, so that “Instagram is pressured to actually make that change quicker, to not dwindle or let it fade into nothing,” as Nicholas-Williams puts it. “I didn't want this to be a lip service thing or just words with no action.”

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In that time, one of Nicholas-Williams’ followers, Lizzie Ryder, reached out about starting a Change.org petition to back the campaign and ask Instagram to “stop censoring fat Black women”. Currently, the petition has over 22,000 signatures. Martin also asked for public submissions of screenshots where Nicholas-Williams’ pictures had been removed from their accounts under Instagram’s nudity policy, and had over 500 images added to their case. “All removals are of the same three images from Alex's shoot,” Martin confirms.

Combining this information with a collaborative open letter from Nicholas-Williams and Cameron – which has been signed by Munroe Bergdorf, Aja Barber, Sofie Hagen and Grace F Victory, to name a few – the campaign called on Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri to change the policy on nudity to distinguish between sexual and non-sexual breast holding in imagery. From this, a dialogue was opened between Instagram and the trio at the centre of the campaign to get Instagram’s policies on nudity changed. As of the 28th of October, those changes have now come into effect.

“It blew up into something that was more than just about me and my body, it was about the censorship of Black people's bodies,” Nicholas-Williams says. “I was contacted by two people from Instagram, and they apologised that my images were taken down incorrectly, but when I questioned as to why, they couldn’t provide an answer.”

As well as discussing issues about their image reporting and removal with Nicholas-Williams, Instagram spoke to activist and author Stephanie Yeboah about the platform’s problem with images of Black, fat women. Yeboah already had a meeting with Instagram to discuss creating content for the company, but refused to do so before discussing the #IWantToSeeNyome campaign.

Yeboah tells me she was informed on a Zoom call with Instagram’s support team that the reason for the original removals was that imagery of hands cupping breasts is flagged as “pornographic” by the platform’s AI reporting systems. Both Yeboah and Nicholas-Williams were promised that Instagram would be assessing its AI and Manual Teams Policy on plus-size semi-nude / artistically nude photography.

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“Society and Instagram have a huge issue with bigger bodies and hyper-sexuality,” says Yeboah. “Our bodies are held to a different standard than everybody else's, and there needs to be help for larger women and Black plus-size women. We should be able to create really lovely pieces of visual art without having to be silenced or censored. We should be able to create the same kinds of artistic, natural, beautiful pictures that our thin counterparts are able to post.”

When VICE UK reached out to Instagram for comment in early October, a spokesperson confirmed that Instagram had “apologised directly to Nyome for repeatedly removing her image”. They added that: “This shouldn’t have happened and we are committed to addressing any inequity on our platforms.”

The policy change is one that – as requested by Nicholas-Williams, Cameron and Martin – accepts breast holding in images as a non-sexual act. A follow-up press release from Instagram and Facebook clarifies: “From October 28th, we will allow content where someone is simply hugging, cupping or holding their breasts. And, if there’s any doubt, we’ll ask that reviewers allow the content to stay up. We do have to draw the line somewhere, so when people squeeze their breasts in a grabbing motion with bent fingers, or if there is a clear change in the shape of the breasts, that content will still break our rules. This policy will apply across Instagram and Facebook.”

While the press release promises the platforms will do better and continue working to ensure this policy is perfected, it’s discouraging that there was no clarification around why thin women seen cupping their breasts in the same way as Nicholas-Williams weren’t hit with removals. By not acknowledging issues of discrimination with their policy before these changes, Instagram insinuates that they were down to technical problems alone.

Nicholas-Williams stresses the importance of seeing this not just as one battle to be won against a particular online platform, but a war to be waged in a fatphobic, racist and sexist society more broadly.

“People need to keep speaking up for fat Black women, and fat women in general, and to keep this conversation going,” she says. “Because it's not just a today issue – we have to live in our bodies every day, and we encounter struggles due to it every day. Bigger changes need to be made to stop fatphobia from happening at all.”

@GINATONIC