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Inside Instagram’s nudity ban

Artists want Instagram’s Community Guidelines to change. Will Facebook finally “free the nipple”?

Apps For Mobile Devices Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week, photographer Joanne Leah joined nearly 20 other people from the art community, mostly artists and museum curators, for a closed-door meeting at Instagram’s headquarters in New York City to discuss Instagram’s Community Guidelines.

You might be familiar with these if you use Instagram. The policies dictate which images stay up on the social media platform and which get taken down. The platform, which is owned by Facebook, is pretty strict about enforcement when it comes to things like nudity.

On this episode of Reset, Leah — who is “basically an Instagram censorship whisperer” — reveals what happened inside the Instagram meeting, how she started her Change.org petition to stop Instagram from censoring art back in 2016, and how she thinks Instagram’s nudity policy (in place since it launched in 2010) might evolve in the future.

According to Leah, Instagram’s definition of nudity includes: No close-up images of the human buttocks. No female nipples. And no sexual acts in photography. “They do allow nudity in painting and sculpture,” she said.

That means photographs get removed and photographers can get banned. It’s also why the hashtag “free the nipple” has become something of a rallying cry on the platform in recent years.

“Censorship affects everybody. You know, if Instagram is telling you what kind of art you can look at or what kind of books you can read or what kind of podcasts you can listen to. Why should they be telling you that? Why? Think about that for a second. Like, there’s no reason a company, a corporation should be telling anyone what they should and shouldn’t look at, listen to and read,” Leah said.

“That’s the power that Instagram wields over artists. The platform, which has more than 1 billion users, has a chilling effect. And Joanne makes decisions about her art based on what’s acceptable on social media,” host Arielle Duhaime-Ross points out.

Later in the episode, The Verge’s Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton explains exactly how the moderation works, why it’s necessary, and how Facebook is weighing the philosophical question of artistic freedom against the reality of constantly working to keep porn off the platform.

There’s also an interview with non-binary model and activist Rain Dove, about their experience having photos banned from their social media accounts:

“In many ways, what Instagram is doing by playing it safe, [they’re] being complicit to a society that says that we should be ashamed of the fact that we are born into a body that we did not choose, that we should be ashamed of our flesh. They have the power to save lives, to bring us into a world which accepts us on an equal footing. And they have the power to be complicit. ... They’re saying, ‘We don’t actually care about you.’ And sometimes, a large entity that just says ‘I don’t care’ tells the rest of the world that it’s okay not to care either.”

Listen to their entire discussion here or below. We’ve also shared a lightly edited transcript of Leah’s conversation with Duhaime-Ross.

Just a heads-up: there is talk of nudity and some swearing in this episode.

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Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Today’s episode starts in New York City, one week ago, at Instagram’s headquarters.

Joanne Leah

The lobby was pretty generic and all the people at the security desk were really friendly, like almost overly friendly, like saying, hello, good morning, hello, good morning, to every single person that walked in.

Everybody had Facebook T-shirts on. You walk into kind of a big, open space. There’s a juice bar, there’s a little library. We were in a large conference room and there were art books staged on the shelves.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Do you think they were there for your benefit?

Joanne Leah

Oh, yeah. They had one of the more established artists books on the shelf that was at the meeting, which was really funny.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

How many people attended this meeting?

Joanne Leah

It was 20 people from the art community. And then I would say like seven people from Facebook. And the head of Instagram also stopped by briefly.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So that’s direct contact with Instagram decision-making.

Joanne Leah

Yeah. It was direct contact. But I guess the meetings sort of started with them kind of like going over what their policies are, why they had these policies in place, and how they enforce them.

Those policies are Instagram’s Community Guidelines. They dictate which images stay up on the social media platform and which get taken down. Instagram is pretty strict about things like nudity, which means art gets removed and artists get banned — on the regular.

I make photo-based art of nude bodies, [and my] photography and account have been removed and censored a lot.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Today, we’re diving into the controversial world of Instagram censorship. And yes, we’re gonna talk about female nipples. Because the impact of Instagram’s nipple policy is much larger than you might think, affecting freedom of expression, art, and identity.

Joanne Leah

Censorship affects everybody. You know, if Instagram is telling you what kind of art you can look at or what kind of books you can read or what kind of podcasts you can listen to. Why should they be telling you that? Why? Think about that for a second. Like, there’s no reason a company, a corporation should be telling anyone what they should and shouldn’t look at, listen to, and read.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Joanne Leah, you’re an artist. What kind of art do you make?

Joanne Leah

I make images of nude, mostly female, sometimes trans, sometimes male bodies, using really bright colors inspired by fetishes and sexuality, sensuality. A photograph of mine may have a pink background. They may be lying on the floor, covered in body paint. No undergarments, but their genitals and sometimes nipples are covered in some way. The reason is because I have to post my images on social media because I’m an artist and social media is very important for artists to be visible.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

That’s the power that Instagram wields over artists. The platform, which has more than 1 billion users, has a chilling effect. And Joanne makes decisions about her art based on what’s acceptable on social media.

Joanne Leah

My first account was removed in 2015 and I basically had to start over. It wasn’t a huge account or anything but it was devastating. It felt horrible. So the body of work that I have now is a direct result from getting that account removed.

I started to wonder what I could get away with. So I was like, okay, I’m gonna use bright colors to cover different parts of the body. I’m going to make fake vaginas and put them in front of real vaginas and see what happens.

In my work, I try to cover up female nipples or any nipples, really. Or I see if the algorithm can tell the difference between a “male” and “female” nipple or anywhere in between. So it’s definitely made me self-censor my work quite a bit. But sometimes I go a little bit too far and things get removed all the time.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

What exactly are Instagram’s community guidelines when it comes to nudity?

Joanne Leah

No close-up images of the human buttocks. No female nipples. I don’t know how they can tell whose nipples are what gender, but ... And no sexual acts in photography. They do allow nudity in painting and sculpture.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So Instagram specifically calls out so-called or what they determine to be female nipples ...

Joanne Leah

Correct.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So you can put up a picture of what looks like the chest of a man and that will be just fine?

Joanne Leah

Correct.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

But if it’s what is perceived as being a woman’s chest, that is not okay.

Joanne Leah

Correct.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

So tell me about this meeting. Walk me through it.

Joanne Leah

I can’t tell you exactly who was there. We had to sign a nondisclosure agreement saying that we wouldn’t attribute any quotes to any specific person. So I’m telling you, I’m telling you that I was there, but I can’t tell you who else was there unless I have their permission.

They had a presentation that explained what their policies are, what their mission statement is, what their values are. So privacy, authenticity, safety, things like that.

So they went through all of the engineering and limitations. And then people started voicing their grievances pretty quickly and offering ideas. I know one of the ideas was to have people control the content that they see. So if they want to put a filter on their account that says “I don’t want to see nudity,” then they won’t see nudity. Another idea was to have an image kind of have like a black film over it and you click on it if you want to see graphic imagery.

I think it’s coming down to people want to self-censor and not have Instagram tell them what they can and can’t see.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

What was Instagram’s reaction to all of these suggestions?

Joanne Leah

Their brains were kind of going in circles a little bit, how they would achieve all of these things, if they’re even possible to achieve. But I think they were definitely open. It was a really good dialog.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

During the meeting, did the issue of the female nipple policy, did that come up?

Joanne Leah

Micol Hebron, an artist, activist, educator, she kept saying, “How can you tell the difference between a male nipple and a female nipple? Why is a female nipple different than a male nipple?”

And there was just no response at all. Instagram doesn’t really have a response as to why they’re determining who’s nipples are male and whose nipples are female. Their only response is that it doesn’t follow their guidelines.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

They basically blamed society.

Joanne Leah

Correct.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Society broadly does not agree with seeing nipples that we deem to be female and therefore that is unacceptable on our platform.

Joanne Leah

Correct.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Why was this meeting taking place now?

Joanne Leah

I don’t think that I’m the only reason. I strongly suggested that they hold a summit meeting, yes. So I don’t want to say that I was the only reason. I think I was a part of many reasons.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

[For context], back in 2016, Joanne started a Change.org petition to stop Instagram from censoring art. More than 1,000 signatures later, Facebook got in touch.

Today, Joanne is basically an Instagram censorship whisperer. When an artist gets their post taken down, they reach out to her for help and she contacts Facebook to get them to reconsider.

That unofficial system is less than ideal. Joanne doesn’t advertise this service, so you just have to be in the know.

But Instagram’s had this nudity policy in place since it launched in 2010 and that’s the best solution Joanne has been able to find so far. That’s why this meeting with Instagram feels so significant.

Joanne Leah

I think it is extremely significant. I also feel like they might start opening this up to their users more often. They couldn’t give us a deadline of when any of these things would be implemented, if at all. They did promise that the guidelines would evolve and would change, but they didn’t say when and how.


Listen to the full conversation and subscribe to Reset on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.