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#FreeTheNipple Is Trending To Fight Instagram, But It's Not Exactly A Good Thing

Censorship doesn't mean shame or sexism is involved.

There’s this campaign called “#FreeTheNipple” that’s going around in the US, and it’s targeting Instagram.

How #FreeTheNipple works is you take a photo of a male nipple, and you put it on another photo where nipples of topless women are showing:

The witty template above was actually created last year by an artist named Micol Hebron to “sardonically comment on how women’s nipples were unnecessarily sexualized.” A number of Instagrammers have used this, as you can see below.

Why is this happening? It’s because Instagram’s user guidelines state that nudity isn’t allowed, and that includes “some photos of female nipples.” It only allows female nipples when they are part of photos showing post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding. (Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is okay, too.)

What happens if someone posts a topless photo of herself? Instagram takes it down (not without reviewing the abuse report). It has been removing photos of topless women, like those of model Chrissy Teigen. Chrissy keeps reuploading her photos (which keep being removed by Instagram) and tweeted “The nipple has been temporarily silenced but she will be back, oh yes, she will be back.”

This is also happening because it seems that some women, especially those who are following #FreeTheNipple want to be topless too, because men can be photographed topless with no problem. The campaign is essentially about men and women having “the same social privileges…specifically for women’s right to go topless in public.”

But Instagram has remained firm on its terms no matter how much criticism it’s been getting from some of its users. It’s been called immature and sexist. It’s been blamed for continuing gender inequality. It’s been called out for being ashamed of the female body.

The Association of Libertarian Feminists believes that terms that don’t allow female nudity exercise a double standard by censoring “artful or political expressions of female bodies.” To them, these terms or standards are “misogynistic” because the female body is assumed to be perverted or pornographic.

Theresa Avila, a contributor and style fellow to Mic, wrote that “Instagram could learn from fashion’s long-time shame-free approach to nudity.” She was pertaining to the fashion editorial shoot in W where models like Chrissy and Rosie Huntington-Whitley were in “various states of sexy undress.” (The topless photos Chrissy kept posting on Instagram were from that W photo shoot.) Theresa says that Chrissy isn’t afraid of nudity. Where Chrissy comes from, “nudity doesn’t cause a stir at all,” which was why she was posting her topless photos. But Instagram has a “limited” notion of nudity—unlike the fashion industry. For Theresa, we need a “non-censorious, accepting approach” to the female body.

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Let’s all be critical here.

Fashion photo shoots in fashion magazines have a context. They feature clothes or other objects with the goal of making its readers desire them. Fashion editors and the photographers try to create a scene or a story to make the entire thing artful, or at the very least entertaining. So of course nudity would be present in the pages if it achieves the said goal. But Instagram? Its goal is to just get as many people to take photos and use the app all the time. How can it make use of nudity?

When it comes to Instagram’s censorship: Censorship doesn’t mean nudity isn’t being embraced as a natural way of showcasing the beauty of the female body. Censorship is a question of appropriateness. Think of it this way: Censorship happens in movies. Do people call out Disney for putting some sort of clam bra on Ariel when she was actually topless in the original The Little Mermaid by Brothers Grimm? Of course not. Do we say that the critics who didn’t like the Walk of Shame scene in Game of Thrones are unappreciative of a woman’s body? No. Nudity has its place. Just like wearing a gown or carrying anything that shows lavishness has a place—you don’t wear it when you’re doing community service. Or like cursing—we do our best not to curse in front of kids even if we believe cursing is okay.

The censorship doesn’t apply to art or anything artful. But what is art? People have so many definitions and qualifications for that—even curators themselves have their own criteria. But there is an agreement that art involves play, some sort of artifice that lets us know or feel something about our humanity or questions it. I doubt that a selfie showing breasts is considered art in today’s world; it could just be considered pornographic. Maybe it will be art in a hundred years when that selfie becomes an artifact or part of an artwork. But surely not now.

There is no doubt that sexualization happens. But what is being sexualized? Is it the nipple, as Micol believes so? If you Photoshop a male nipple onto the breasts of a topless female to really be like her nipples, the photo would be taken down by Instagram as well. It’s not the nipple that’s being sexualized, as much as his project’s lesson is “a nipple is a nipple.” It’s the female body—the breasts—that’s being sexualized. Breasts have been sexualized for the longest time, which can be why we women can’t just go around being topless.

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So who’s doing all this sexualization? It’s still people in our society, some number of Instagram users, too. People who are advocating #FreeTheNipple are asking too much from Instagram, especially when they want women walking around the streets topless to be legal. Because what does Instagram have to do with actual laws? They should raise their concerns to their government, not to a company. 

And that’s the thing. Instagram, in the end, is a company. Meaning it has a brand to uphold and a market to keep satisfied. It’s very aware of both, and would always put its market’s rights and interests first (since it benefits from doing this). And Instagram has so many users: 200 million in 2014. What if majority of Instagrammers don’t want to see topless women since they think it’s indecent? Instagram would prioritize and heed their right to be protected from what it thinks they consider indecent over the minority’s right to show their bodies. It wouldn’t risk looking anything like a porn site.

Instagram is clearly on the conservative side for some people, but let’s not use that to insult the company. (Quickly insulting someone for being conservative makes the “liberal” person not very liberal.) Let’s direct our concerns toward the right places. Let’s try to understand the bigger picture before judging. Let’s talk things out before we complain and whine.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter.