Why Is Facebook So Scared of Nipples?

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Sometime in the past two weeks, Facebook quietly lifted its ban on photographs of female nipples where feeding infants are present, Huffington Post’s Soraya Chemaly reported, making “many people who have been pushing the company to address a nudity double standard at least partially happy.” When lactivist blogger Paala’s breast-feeding photos were allowed to stay up — despite being flagged for nudity — she wrote, “What a wonderful step for breast-feeding mothers and all women!” (Her coverage of the trolling that ensued might explain why Facebook made this change quietly.)

I’d argue, though, that anyone who cares about the way all women’s bodies are depicted online, like #FreeTheNipple advocates, ought to be anything but happy with this development. Because instead of correcting the double standard that means men can go topless and women can’t, Facebook’s new policy just reinforces another sexist double standard: the Madonna-whore dichotomy, and its implication that our bodies are either obscene sexual objects or sacred but desexualized baby-nurturing machines.

“We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook,” says the new Facebook policy. Speaking of double standards: Talking about men’s bodies in such a precious and patronizing way is unimaginable. Life begins in the testicles, but men don't celebrate Father’s Day by sharing pictures of their ball sacks. (And even if they did, we probably wouldn't praise them as "beautiful" and "natural.")

More important, the subtext of Facebook’s decision is that boobs are necessarily obscene even when women deploy them for art or activism or because they are Rihanna. In fact, one need look no further than Rihanna’s (Facebook-owned) Instagram to see how the world feels about the women who embrace their bodies. Rihanna’s account — an important component of her fashion-world influence — has been inactive in protest ever since the site removed her picture of a topless magazine cover last month. Meanwhile, the site deemed artist Petra Collins’s bikini line more obscene than the millions of other #bikini photos because she didn’t wax. And after being banned for posting a photo of a photo of a topless woman, Scout Willis protested by posting pictures of herself shopping for flowers topless on Twitter. “Legal in NYC but not on @Instagram,” she wrote. These gestures all showcased a playful confidence and sense of comfort that’s conspicuously absent from most of the female bodies that we’re used to seeing in various states of undress. They’re not straightforwardly seductive in the manner of typical commercial nudity (want me, want this car), nor are they comfortably maternal — and they’re perfectly suited to the register of blithe self-exposure we’ve come to expect on social media.

That’s what’s insidious about micro-moderating female nudity on sites like Facebook and Instagram, deeming breast-feeding nipples acceptable and others pornographic: It keeps us locked into the same old toxic relationships to the female body. “As a reflection of the world's culture, Facebook continues to be a place in which depictions of women as sexually objectified or debased is broadly allowable,” Chemaly writes, “but others, in which women represent their own bodies for non male-gaze sexual pleasure, is largely not.” Facebook and Instagram, meanwhile, continue to harbor sexual objectification (albeit nipple-free), whether for profit, like on the Hooters promotional page, or for sport, such as the truly obscene comments left on clothed women’s photographs.

Besides, we talk about the scourge of sexually explicit nipple as if it were much harder to disentangle from artistic nipple (or political nipple, nutritional nipple, and European-blasé nipple) than it is. To me, obscenity would require nipple-owners, male and female, to be doing sex stuff. Breast-feeding probably falls into the category of “not-sex stuff” (although, sorry, some people are definitely enjoying those photos in a sex way) — but so does sunbathing or shopping for flowers, or any of the other banal things men do topless but unnoticed.