Is the nipple finally free? Not if censorship of Sara is any guide

A cute family photo of a little girl holding a soft toy is hardly the kind of image you’d expect to cause such offence that it needs censorship.

Nor a picture of the same five-year-old sitting under the Christmas tree – shirtless on a hot summer day – looking happy with her gifts of Lego and a tea set.

Tess Farry, with baby Olive and daughter Frankie, says it is important for mothers to be able to show themselves breastfeeding, so it is not viewed as something that must be hidden.Credit:Joe Armao

But, as prize-winning photographic artist and design lecturer Dr Sara Oscar discovered, according to Meta – the world’s biggest social media platform and parent company of Facebook and Instagram – such posts are “against community guidelines on nudity or sexual activity”.

The notice advising Oscar that her two pictures, in a post about unpacking and memories, had been taken down advised: “Our guidelines encourage people to express themselves in a way that’s respectful to everyone.”

“I didn’t realise one of my nipples was showing in the photograph [with the Ernie toy] because, of course, I was five years old at the time and I didn’t have breasts,” Oscar says.

“I was talking in my post about the importance of photographs to memory and what came up for me when I looked at that photo, and when I went back to my account I was quite shocked to find Instagram had removed it.”

Sara Oscar was informed by Instagram this photo of her as a child did not meet the social network company’s community standards. Credit:Sara Oscar, Instagram

Oscar contested the decision, and meanwhile “redacted my own nipples” by blacking them out. “Seeing a black line across my chest actually made the photograph feel more obscene,” she says.

“The emphasis on the nipple as a sexualised body part doesn’t make any sense. I mean, we’re mammals!”

Oscar’s childhood memories fell victim to what breastfeeding mothers and women’s rights campaigners have fought against for a decade: censorship that implies innocent posts, including about birth and women’s health, are somehow obscene while pictures of topless men are fine.

Protests in 2013 about double-standards applied to nudity, under the banner #FreetheNipple, and “nurse-ins” at Facebook’s headquarters produced a technical loosening of guidelines in 2015 to allow the “natural and beautiful” act of breastfeeding.

Artist and design lecturer Dr Sara Oscar posted that Instagram’s “ethics are questionable” after she had her childhood photos removed by the platform.Credit:Jeremy Weihrauch

Tess Farry, a new mother to baby Olive, says this is important because if breastfeeding cannot be shown in full, “little girls grow up thinking breastfeeding is weird and should be secretive, and little boys as well”.

“If you don’t see it, how do you know it’s natural?” she says.

In practice, pictures of women’s physiology are frequently still viewed by moderation algorithms as so inappropriate that anyone, from maternity educators to fitness instructors, has a story about harmless photos being banned.

Melbourne pilates instructor Cloe Bunter says she found it extraordinary when a stock photo of a pregnant woman wearing a crop top and leggings in a standard “four-point kneeling” pose was rejected by Instagram for use in a paid advertisement. Bunter says she was told “perhaps the AI [moderation] thought the belly was a breast”.

Sara Oscar “redacted my own nipples” on her childhood Christmas photo after Instagram took it down for failing to meet community standards.Credit:Sara Oscar

Meanwhile, a full frontal penis shot posted by rocker Tommy Lee last August graced his Instagram page, with 1.5 million followers, for hours without apparent consequences.

But this gender inconsistency may be about to change.

Last month, Meta’s independent oversight board of academics, journalists and politicians recommended an overhaul of rules outlawing women’s bare chests, after two transgender and non-binary people posted posing topless (nipples covered) discussing healthcare and money for surgery.

The post was removed, but reinstated after the couple appealed.

The oversight board recommended Meta “define clear, objective, rights-respecting criteria” for moderating nudity, so all people are treated in a manner “consistent with international human rights standards”.

Meta welcomed the board’s decision and has until late March to respond.

Given technically-permitted breastfeeding and birth-related content is regularly taken down, many people remain unconvinced what they view as sanctioned sexism will improve.

Sophie Walker is co-founder of the hit podcast Australian Birth Stories (11 million downloads and counting), co-author of a new book, The Complete Australian Guide to Pregnancy and Birth, and a regular victim of Meta’s moderators.

Author and podcaster Sophie Walker has had innocent images linked with breastfeeding rejected on Instagram.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Even a line drawing of a breast on the cover of a breastfeeding guide ad was rejected for not meeting community standards.

“There is always pushback: I have tried to get a breastfeeding image through and I can never get it through,” says Walker.

“They say they’re banning sexually explicit images, when in reality they’re banning information about correct use of the breast to breastfeed,” she says. “They say they have a policy that allows breasts to be shown and naked bodies if it’s for breastfeeding or birthing, and yet I can never get if through.

“If it’s a porn star doing a swimsuit competition it’s fine, if it’s going to be pleasant for the male gaze it gets through. I’m not slut-shaming, but it is a double standard. People can do what they like – but I should be able to promote what women can do with their bodies.”

Instagram rejected this image on a guide designed to help new mothers learn how to breastfeed.Credit:Sophie Walker, Australian Birth Stories

Walker is sceptical that, should the Meta board’s recommendations be adopted, it will make a meaningful difference, “because the guidelines already specify I should be able to show all this imagery”.

Sexual health educators are also so heavily edited on Meta platforms that nine out of 12 of those interviewed by Joanna Williams, a media researcher and PhD candidate at Swinburne University, said bans on their content restricted distribution of important health information to young people.

Williams’ research was cited by Meta’s oversight board, and she says people from the LGBTIQ community are heavily hit by moderation that fails to comprehend nuances of gender.

“Nuance and understanding is really lost when you have automated content moderation … when I last looked at the Meta statistics, about 98 per cent of moderation is automated,” she says.

“They say they’re banning sexually explicit images when in reality they’re banning information about correct use of the breast to breastfeed.”

Meta’s Australian arm could not comment on individual actions. But the platform’s policy is to restrict some images of female breasts showing nipples, but allow those presented in protest, birth, breastfeeding and post-mastectomy scarring.

If Meta does use this moment to update real-world moderation, it could be a win for women’s right not to be automatically sexualised, and help remove remaining taboos around female bodies, says communications Professor Catherine Lumby, of the University of Sydney.

“The more that women do not feel that they’ve got to cover themselves up, the less we fetishise women’s bodies in an unhealthy way,” she says. “I prefer to see women more in control of when they sexualise themselves, and if they choose to.

“There’s an issue here too with trans and non-binary people, as we’ve moved away from binary notions of gender and sexuality, a ban on nipples can potentially suppress people’s ability to advocate for their identity, to raise money and intervene in discrimination.”

The challenge for Meta is to get the automated moderation right, she says. “They put a lot of effort into training algorithms to collect data [on users], surely they can put some effort into making content moderation function in this regard.”

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