Photo: via @badgalriri.
Like its parent company, Instagram has also loosened its restrictions on images of nursing mothers, but it still considers almost any other kind of nude photo to be in violation of its terms of service.
As Scout Willis recently learned by posting topless photos to her Instagram account in protest of its policy, the company is quick to shut down accounts that flagrantly break the rules. When Rihanna republished her nude Lui cover a couple months back, supporters of the singer posted their own nipple pics, only to have them taken down.
In its community guidelines, Instagram tries to clarify: "If you wouldn’t show the photo or video you are thinking about uploading to a child, or your boss, or your parents, you probably shouldn’t share it on Instagram."
Much like Apple's notoriously vague standards for "objectionable content" on the App Store — they previously censored everything from cartoons of two men kissing to “ex-gay” therapy apps, citing offended customers — Instagram's policy on the naked human body is somewhat open to its moderators' interpretation. "Nudity" and "mature content" are specifically not allowed on the site, but the body isn't so easily defined. Today, a topless man isn't considered naked, but a topless woman is. Go back 150 years, and a bare knee was nearly as scandalous as an exposed breast.
And yet breastfeeding is considered different. Somehow, a tiny human feeding from its mother transform the breast from a non-genital sexual organ — which, in fact, neuroscientists have concluded it is — with the ability to cause offense into one that does not.
You could argue, as some advocates of the #FreeTheNipple campaign have, that breastfeeding photos have special status because they aren't intended to arouse. (Not for the majority of viewers, at least.) If photos are allowed to contain nudity only if they are absent any sexual connotations, should Instagram allow photos of, say, a rectal disease, posted purely for educational purposes? What about photos from a colonoscopy or a hysteroscopy? Or is the whole interior of the genitourinary system off the table, too?
The company would counter that it is only following the same guidelines as broadcast TV networks — where sex is taboo but violence is par for the course. As Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan wrote in 2012, "For every accidentally exposed breast during a Super Bowl Half Time Show, there are at least 10 disgusting, decaying bodies that met unspeakable ends on CSI."
The difference is that broadcast television is a closed system in which the content is decided by the networks and the FCC. Social networks like Instagram are built by communities of users on the unfettered wilderness of the Internet, where the space between nursing mothers and triple penetration is a matter of a few hyperlinks.
A more measured policy might follow that of Twitter or Vine, which allow explicit photos and videos with the option of marking them as "sensitive content" and putting them behind screens so that users who don't want to see nudity can't, unless they click through.
By putting users in control, the network becomes more flexible, and arbitrary definitions of nudity, sexuality, and obscenity become more of a moot point.