Instagram's Nipple Policy Isn't Really About Nipples

July 19th 2015

Celebrities have made a splash in recent weeks as they join the push for loosened female nudity restrictions on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook. Miley Cyrus, Chelsea Handler, Scout Willis and, most recently, Chrissy Teigen have all posted photos bearing their (apparently) innately obscene female nipples as a part of the online #freethenipple campaign. 

Chrissy Teigen's oil painting attempt to post a photo to Instagram with her nipple showing. Gawker - gawker.com

At this time, all images that include the banned body part have been taken down by Instagram or the offending poster has been banned from the service, except for one: OITNB star Matt McGorry's recent contribution of his shirt-less chest featuring Cyrus and Teigen's nipples photoshopped over his own. 

What's so different about McGorry's chest from Teigen or Cyrus?  

McGorry asks the same question in the text accompanying his photo: 

"This is a photo of me from my bodybuilding years, circa 2010. And these are the nipples of @mileycyrus and @chrissyteigen (I hope you don't mind me borrowing them!) from their Instagram posts that were removed due to the dangerousness of their visible female nips. Can’t you tell by how perverse my photo has become without my asexual male nippies? Sarcasm."

He goes on to state his case to #freethenipple, writing that it's "one piece of the puzzle of creating deep change in the way our society objectifies women," concluding that "it's simply about gender equality and equal rights."

Well said, Matt. 

Instagram doesn't agree. 

Although Instagram has not issued comment on McGorry's photo specifically, the social media giant clarified their no-nipple policy in April. While they still ban female nipples in most circumstances -- exceptions include active breastfeeding and post-mastectomy scarring -- they overtly no longer ban "nudity in photos of paintings or sculptures." 

Does this mean that US Vogue creative director Grace Coddington would no longer receive a temporary ban for posting the topless line drawn cartoon of herself relaxing in a chair? She received a temporary block from Instagram in May 2014 for precisely this reason. 

The image that got Grace Coddington temporarily banned from Instagram.Jezebel.com - jezebel.com

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told BBC Newsbeat last year that the rules are designed to make the service "a safe place [where] content that gets posted is something that's appropriate for both teens and adults." 

"We need to make certain rules to make sure that everyone can use it," Systrom explained.

What are those rules exactly? 

Instagram's rules seem to breakdown like this: Male nipples equal welcoming and safe space. Female nipples equal unwelcoming and obscene space. 

Which is why users are increasingly posting photos that skirt that line. 

McGorry's post, along with many others, is a part of the newest effort to upload photos to Instagram that push the envelope on the service's community standards. In his case, the image includes the banned nipples in place of his own. In other instances, like Teigen's June 30 post, the image just barely excludes her nipple - via a can of well-placed hairspray.  

Despite being heavily publicized, both images remain up, raising the question of what precisely the rules do and do not include. 


So I'm trying to test the rules. 

I've written before at ATTN: about my confusion at how my nipples are legally viewed as a transgender male. In the eyes of the law, it appears that most of the time my chest is considered blissfully non-sexual in the way of cisgender male chests; I can bare my previously illicit nipples in public and on Instagram, despite the fact that they are the same nipples I had before my top surgery. Their acceptability hinges on their new status as male nipples, since they've been removed, resized and relocated. 

But is it about the nipples, or is it actually about the lack of breasts?

Given that McGorry's photo is still up in all of its photoshopped glory, my money is on the lack of breasts -- because his contribution to the #freethenipple campaign does technically include female nipples, albeit not his own. 

I've uploaded my own addition to the conversation: A photo on my top surgery specific Instagram account that explicitly points out that my nipples were formerly of the 'illicit' kind.

Although I did not view my nipples as female prior to my top surgery, most of the public, Instagram and many anti-nudity laws would have classified them as such and so they would have been forbidden. Now that they've been reconfigured? Not so much.

So I ask again, is it about the nipples or the breasts? In a world where McGorry can show off his bodybuilding success with female nipples pasted over his own and where celebrities like Jack Nicholson could likely post topless photos, so-called man boobs and all, maybe it isn't about either. 

Perhaps it's just the sexuality of a specific body part and about controlling the ways that women show their bodies in public. That doesn't sound like providing a safe space for adults and teens to me. It sounds like teaching half of global teens that their bodies are different, innately more sexual and less equal than their male peers. 

That's nothing to be proud of. 

Check out #freethenipple and #ftn on Instagram to join the conversation and see other ways that users are challenging the site's nipple policy. 

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