Selcer: Regarding the moral panic of women’s nipples on Instagram

Nipples: we’ve all got ’em. Why is it, then, that some nipples are classified as ‘inappropriate’ for public spaces when others are not? This is the question trans activist Courtney Demone asked in 2015 when she began a social experiment to see how undergoing HRT (hormone replacement therapy) would affect …

Nipples: we’ve all got ’em. Why is it, then, that some nipples are classified as ‘inappropriate’ for public spaces when others are not?

This is the question trans activist Courtney Demone asked in 2015 when she began a social experiment to see how undergoing HRT (hormone replacement therapy) would affect the treatment of her image online: “It’s my femininity, not my being transgender, that has brought about much of this privilege loss, and it’s misogyny that robs women of these privileges… [so] In the coming months, I’ll be posting topless photos of myself on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms using the hashtag #DoIHaveBoobsNow until those networks decide that my breasts have developed enough to be sexualized and worthy of censorship.”

Demone’s hashtag #DoIHaveBoobsNow has since been taken up by many other gender-nonconforming and trans Instagrammers as a part of the larger #FreeTheNipple campaign, which seeks to protest the arbitrary nature of “no nipple” policies. Such zero-tolerance policies stand in stark contrast to definitions of public decency, given that it is perfectly legal for women to go topless in many cities throughout the US.

Instagram and Facebook insist that the “no nipple” policies are the result of the Apple store assigning a 17+ rating to any apps depicting nudity; however, the nudity label only applies to women’s bare chests and not men’s. In their own words, Instagram’s community guidelines include the following: “…we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”

The wording of the policy is laughably irrational: female nipples aren’t allowed because they are inappropriate… except when they aren’t.

Social media users have been remarkably creative in pointing out the obvious lack of logic to the guidelines. In 2015, Huffington Post ran an article on Micol Hebron, an artist who created a digital sticker of a male nipple for women to photoshop over their own nipples—a censorship tactic that bewildered content moderators. Many of the photos from the original HuffPost article which depict female breasts “censored” by male nipples have now been taken down by Instagram. The badly photoshopped photos are still up, while the well-photoshopped photos (those in which a male nipple easily passes for a female nipple) have been taken down.

After noticing loopholes like this in the policy,  Vice’s Motherboard site ran a guide entitled “11 Ways to Post Nipples on Instagram Without Getting Censored.” They found that taking close-up photos of nipples (so that you can’t tell how large the breast tissue is) gives most users the ability to get away without censorship; they also suggest using photo-editing apps to make topless photos look like paintings, blurring or photoshopping the nipple out altogether, and posting photos featuring nipples beneath a see-through shirt.

Presumably, female nipples are inappropriate for children to see because they are considered a secondary sex organ. But the reality is that female nipples and male nipples have no biological difference in terms of function: men have the same mammary tissue, milk ducts, and even lactation hormones as women. There are plenty of examples of men producing breast milk, and one man’s breast milk has been scientifically evaluated as “within the range of colostrum and milk obtained from normal lactating women.” While women tend to have about a third more of the hormone prolactin in their bodies than men on an average day, the production of prolactin increases tenfold during pregnancy to trigger lactation. Like women, men just need a hormonal spike in prolactin to begin producing breast milk.

With that scientific evidence in mind, it is hard to argue against the idea that if women’s nipples are sex organs, then so are anyone else’s regardless of gender and sex labels.

Breastfeeding itself offers another interesting set of contradictions. The “no nipple” policy is meant to keep content which isn’t appropriate for children off of social media, and yet we are all aware that it is perfectly appropriate for young children and babies to see—and, yes, even suck—female nipples. Where is the logic in believing that female nipples are okay for babies, not okay for kids between the ages of 6 and 17, and okay for adults?

This question is, of course, rhetorical. Courtney Demone has already identified the answer for us: women’s nipples are censored online because they are oversexualized. Despite the fact that there is no biological difference between male and female nipples, women’s nipples are treated as sex objects and men’s are treated like fingers or toes.

Ironically (and paradoxically), women’s nipples would probably be less sexualized if they were publicly acceptable because the censorship of women’s nipples is exactly what guards their status as sex symbols.  Some might say that the lure of women’s nipples comes from the fact that they are always covered, and therefore able to be “discovered.” The fact that an Instagrammer could post an objectifying photo of a woman with whipped cream covering her nipples, but could not post a less sexual photo of the same woman without the whipped cream is evidence enough of this—and yes, this example comes from real life.

As a result of social expectations around modesty, women’s nipples are only ever visible in sexual contexts. Is it really surprising, then, that they seem inherently sexual?

History has shown us time and time again that desexualization comes with more liberal social etiquette. The flappers of the 1920s were scandalous for having low necklines and hemlines above the knee; several countries banned the bikini outright when it was introduced in 1946; and many of us have a grandmother or older relative who can recall a time when it was inappropriate for a woman to leave the house without pantyhose.

Yet nobody thinks bare calves are particularly sexual today. Though some public schools maintain conservative dress codes, most parents don’t even blink if their child sees a woman with a short hemline or a low neckline—not even a woman in a bikini. What would be the point? No one can prevent children from seeing these things because we are constantly bombarded by commercial media featuring objectified women selling everything from burgers to lingerie. And, regardless of that, we shouldn’t treat women’s bodies as if they are something we need to “protect” children from anyways.

Our culture punishes women for appearing too sexual even though we are constantly surrounded by sexualized images of women. The result is that women aren’t allowed to control the presentation of their own bodies.

The censorship of women’s nipples supports the sexist objectification of women, while also upholding the commercial exploitation of our bodies. Let me put it this way: if nobody is shaming companies like Carl’s Junior for running TV spots featuring half-naked woman writhing on cars, nobody should be shaming a woman for posting a photo of her own nipples online if she chooses to do so.

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.