If you had told me 14 years ago that I would spend my days posting makeup-free selfies on the internet and talking about my feelings, I would have laughed in your face. Fourteen years ago I had just been diagnosed with rosacea: a chronic skin condition which turns my face bright purple, makes it burn, itch and pulse with heat, and has completely changed my life.
I started talking publicly about my skin around six years ago. I already had a beauty blog where I did nail art tutorials, talked about my love of lipstick and life in London, but it was only when I opened up about my biggest insecurity – my skin – that I really started to see the power of the internet. The community I found there could give me back the strength I thought rosacea had taken from me.
In the past six years I have used my blog and social media channels to support, educate and encourage others to open up about their skin. It isn’t easy. I still feel incredibly nervous every time I post a photo showing my 'real' skin. I’m taking my biggest insecurity and plastering it all over the internet. I may as well have a flashing neon sign saying, "Hey trolls! Here, I'm making it really easy for you," but I continue to do it because I’ve seen the impact it has. I get messages from people every single week who tell me that seeing someone else who looks like them is empowering, that it makes them feel less alone and that it helps them to see their own faces as normal, accepted – and beautiful.
The guidelines that meant my image was blocked took into consideration 'eating live animals'. Was my image really on par with this?
In the past I have spoken about the wonderful skin positivity communities that come together on Instagram especially, and how useful the platform has been to unite and support us. But something happened recently that left me incredibly disappointed: the emergence of their internal guidelines that class faces like mine as 'undesirable'.
As I have done countless times before, I posted a photo showing my face with my rosacea glowing in all its glory. It was a photo taken by Sophie Harris-Taylor for her Epidermis series, which aimed to raise awareness and show that skin doesn’t have to be perfect to be celebrated. I was proud to feature in such an empowering and emotional project, so I tried to turn my post into an advert on Instagram. In simple terms, I paid money so that Instagram would show my photo to people who I thought might be interested. This is something that happens every day on social media.
However, my image was automatically rejected. Why? Because it allegedly featured "images that excessively focus on body parts or depict unlikely before-and-after results. This can make people feel bad about their state of health." Frustrated and confused, I appealed, as I felt as though my image was rejected incorrectly. I pointed out that my photo was designed to do the opposite. It was there to encourage people, to show them that their skin was normal.
I've personally witnessed photos of eczema, acne, vitiligo, birthmarks and scars being hidden from the timeline or severely limited in reach.
Two weeks later I received a response to my appeal from Facebook (which owns Instagram). It said: "Here’s what’s preventing your ad from running: We don’t allow ads that focus on aspects of a person’s body to highlight an undesirable or idealised body state." The message then went on to list the things that are considered 'undesirable' which, outrageously, include acne, eczema and dermatitis. Rather shockingly, the guidelines that meant my image was blocked took into consideration things like 'eating live animals'. I had to read that quite a few times for it to sink in. Was my image really on par with this?
Upsettingly, social media does have previous form for censoring the skin positivity community. Last year, the psoriasis community became a target. According to members, their hashtags were blocked, images were allegedly removed and whole accounts reportedly hidden from followers because the content was deemed inappropriate. A petition was set up to stop censorship and is amassing new signatures every day. I've personally witnessed photos of eczema, acne, vitiligo, birthmarks and scars being hidden from the timeline or severely limited in reach. In other words, you could follow someone expecting to see their content but it may be kept hidden due to its 'inappropriate' nature.
Of course, this is absolutely necessary in some cases. Self-harm scars are often hidden as they can be triggering for some individuals. But you don't have to be an expert to know that you can't trigger acne or rosacea by looking at a picture. It doesn't happen. Put simply, these images – and more importantly, these people – are being concealed because their faces don’t fit a very narrow beauty ideal. They are not 'desirable'.
To play devil’s advocate, I can see what these social media guidelines were trying to achieve. As someone who is immersed in the skin positivity community, I regularly see charlatans pushing 'cures' and 'easy ways to heal' and they are often promoted under ridiculous (and usually Photoshopped) images. To try to combat this, certain social media channels seem to have put a blanket ban on anyone wanting to promote a photo showing a visible skin condition. This seems like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Either the algorithm needs to be tweaked or Instagram's internal staff training needs a shake-up, because it should be made clear that my image was not harmful, selling a potentially dangerous product or designed to cause offence.
I recently wrote a blogpost to try to process how I felt and to see how the rest of the skin positivity community felt about this word being used to describe us. Very quickly, the hashtag #undesirablesofinstagram was used all over the world alongside photos of 'undesirable' faces. It makes me so emotional to look through the hashtag and to see people who look and feel like me. To some people, this may seem like a storm in a teacup, but I think it’s a sign of a wider issue in our society. We are surrounded by perfection (often Facetuned, Photoshopped, filtered or otherwise tweaked) and whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, it does impact us. I’ve read countless think pieces, studies and papers on the effects of social media and retouching in particular, and on an anecdotal level, I know that it affects me – even though I realise that a large number of images I see online are altered.
I contacted Instagram for a comment for this article and I am so thrilled to be able to say that, as of this week, the wording of the official guidelines has been changed. As a direct result of the #UndesirablesOfInstagram campaign, and the incredible support of the skin positivity community, the word 'undesirable' no longer features at any point in their guidelines. The wording is now much clearer: "We don't allow ads that contain unexpected or unlikely results. Ad content must not imply or attempt to generate negative self-perception in order to promote diet, weight loss, or other health related products."
I am so pleased that Instagram did the right thing. I never wanted Instagram to be 'cancelled' or for people to boycott the channel. I just wanted the outdated and hurtful guidelines to be changed. Social media can be an incredible tool for positivity, support and inclusivity, so I hope this is a sign that the platform is evolving to embrace those of us who look a little bit different.