Instagram’s nudity policy reveals racism and fatphobia is rife on the platform

By Zazie Atkinson

Instagram and Facebook recently announced a change in their nudity policy, allowing them to differentiate between art and expression and pornographic content. What brought this on, however, is what many assert is a racial bias that continues to thrive on the platform.

Instagram’s nudity policy has faced much controversy in the past, particularly with pornographic content still plaguing the platform. After a semi-nude image posted by Nyome Nicholas-Williams, a plus-size model known by her handle @CurvyNyome, was removed due to Instagram’s claims of nudity guideline violation, a wave of outrage emerged on the platform, with the hashtag #IWantToSeeNyome receiving traction. Nicholas-Williams and her supporters claimed that images taken of equivalently naked (or even more so) thin, white women were being left untouched on the platform.

A change.org petition was created that demanded Instagram to end the censorship of fat, Black women, amassing over 20,000 signatures. The petition pointed towards Instagram users such as Playboy, where dozens of half-naked, mostly slim and white women are posted without any repercussions.

Instagram responded with an updated nudity policy whose rules were explicitly changed to allow images of people “hugging, cupping or holding their breasts” – which they claimed was the reason Nicholas-Williams’ image was removed. Whilst this was a step forward for Instagram and a success for Nicholas-Williams’ campaign, it still begs the question of why Instagram was, and still is, disproportionately targeting Black, plus-size women in their censorship of content and whether this move is a success.

Is Instagram racist and fatphobic?

It may be easy to label Instagram as misogynistic, racist, fatphobic and sexist, but there is a bigger picture. These labels do not solely apply to Instagram’s platform or even to the Internet as a whole. In an open letter to Instagram, Nicholas-Williams states that it is “abundantly clear that Instagram reproduces the racial biases that society does”, meaning Instagram does not do enough to fight the discrimination People of Colour face. She also alluded to the fact that an image of a naked, slim, white women is known to be much more socially acceptable.

A simplified reason for this is that, in the mass media we consume, the skinny, white body is most commonly portrayed. From the first print models of Vogue to catwalk models at the Victoria Secret Fashion shows, the skinny, white model has become ingrained in our society and beauty standards. With the advent of photoshopping and editing, it is easier than ever to replicate this ideal on the platform.

By blaming the removal of Nicholas-Williams’ image on a technicality – the act of ‘cupping breasts’ being one of a sexual nature – Instagram essentially denied any form of internal discrimination and therefore their own culpability. This comes after claims earlier this year that Facebook had ignored racial bias research conducted by employees.

During a time when the anti-racism movement is growing and more members of society are becoming aware of the biases surrounding them, it is important to consider the role that these huge tech companies have by continuing to use racially discriminatory AI and algorithms. With fake news and hate speech continuing to plague online platforms, it is crucial that Instagram responds to allegations in order to sustain their younger, more politically-engaged audience.

The Instagram nudity policy is no stranger to criticism

Many activists have also criticised Instagram’s alleged sexism that prevails in their policy, with the account @Genderless_Nipples specifically created to challenge Instagram’s nudity guidelines by posting close up images of male and female nipples, investigating which of these images would be taken down. Instagram’s nudity policy clearly states that whilst images of male nipples are allowed, those of female nipples would be removed; perpetuating the sexualisation of the female nipple.

Complaints have also arisen regarding Instagram’s ‘shadow banning’, which essentially blocks content from users without their knowledge. This has often been implemented unfairly, with an inherent prejudice towards Women of Colour. It hinders these creators from growing their business on the platform, making it even harder to hold the company responsible, as determining a shadow ban can be difficult to prove.

Megs, a photographer from Lethbridge, Alberta, who showcases her art on her Instagram page and has often had her plus-size content removed, explained:

It’s really less about the actual content and more about the numbers. While we all know that Instagram favours the thin, white and able-bodied – Instagram also favours accounts with high numbers. As a small photography business that specialises in inclusive intimate photography, I’m near constantly being shadow banned or threatened to have my account disabled due to the content I post – it puts me at a direct disadvantage when trying to earn income and exposure. Is [Instagram’s nudity policy change] enough? That remains to be seen but I don’t have very much faith.

Nicholas-Williams was given a warning that her account could be suspended if she attempted to repost the image which had sparked #IWantToSeeNyome. With many influencers relying on the platform to earn money, the threat of account termination is crucial to their livelihoods, in addition to having to face discrimination on their platforms. Yet Instagram and Facebook hiring new ‘equity teams’ to evaluate algorithms and enforce harassment policies, and claiming to build upon fairness and inclusivity should be considered a step in the right direction.

The future of the platform

Whilst the change of Instagram’s nudity policy is a huge step forward for both the Black community and the plus-size community, it does not diminish any of the biases or prejudices that continue online and in real life. Instagram has already been faced with huge backlash regarding the effects it has on mental health, especially of underage users. By deliberately censoring images of those that do not fit into the idealized body standard, or suppress the presence of Black creators, Instagram continues to ignore the mental health of its users.

In times when Black voices are still absent from places of everyday life (school curriculums, Members of Parliament, to name just a few) it is more important than ever to allow space for them in online platforms such as Instagram.

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