Over the past few days, I've been sharing some photos from my nude shoot with my friend and fellow photographer Jaymye (@wandering.whileblack) and slowly but surely they've been reported and taken down by Instagram ... blurred nipples and all. I've never had an image reported so it was a little jarring opening up the app last Friday and being welcomed by "Your Post Has Been Removed. We removed your post because it doesn't follow our Community Guidelines" followed by an extremely blurred out version of the original image, which ironically was already out of focus.
It felt like a scene right out of Black Mirror, I was almost expecting to hear the hum of a police drone hovering outside my second floor apartment window dispatched to escort me to the local hall of justice and face a tribunal for my actions. My reaction was two-fold, yes I was annoyed that my work was taken down but I think what bothered me, even more, was the implications behind it ... the policing and censorship of the female form. Controlling how images of the human body are disseminated is nothing new, it's something that at the macro level we, as a society, have had to contend with for millennia. Norwegian writer Mette Newth once wrote that: “censorship has followed the free expressions of men and women like a shadow throughout history.” Many works which today are regarded as exemplary or outstanding, were originally subject to censorship by political or religious figures who deemed their content inappropriate or offensive.
Perhaps most famously, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco "The Last Judgement" (1565) was deemed unholy and immoral by many proponents of the Catholic faith, including Pope Daniele de Volterra. The scene depicts (unclothed) human souls who rise or fall to their otherworldly fates; some critics could hardly concentrate on the religious message through all the nudity. Poet Pietro Aretino wrote of the work: “Is it possible that you, so divine that you do not deign to consort with men, have done such a thing in the highest temple of God? Above the first altar of Jesus? Not even in the brothel are there such scenes as yours…” A pupil of Michelangelo’s later added loincloths to the once nude figures to make the piece more palatable to viewers. (1)
I think most of us have at the very least an academic understanding of censorship; we've all undoubtedly sat through lectures of the burning of The Library of Alexandria, Nazi Germany's well-oiled propaganda machine, or more recently China's state-sanctioned censorship of the media. But what impact does censorship have on a micro level? What message does it send to those who experience being muzzled through censorship? For most thinkers and artists the journey of expression is born out of their drive to better understand themselves ...Who am I? How do I perceive myself? How do I want to be seen? Before the locus extends outward ... How does the world see me? How does my art represent me? What messages do I want to convey? Our most intimate feelings, thoughts, and emotions left unrealized and unexpressed are a burden, when we express ourselves we invite those around us to lighten our load and help bear the weight of our existence. Art is a form of catharsis. Painting, music, dance, literature, fashion, architecture, photography and all of the other countless ways we've devised to express ourselves are equal parts this is me and look at me.
The dictionary defines censorship as the suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable or a threat to security. Consequently, the act of censorship succeeds at silencing both the message and the messenger. Somewhere along the way we (see, misogyny and patriarchy) decided that the female form is more than a vessel, we turned it into an idea and branded it as obscene ... something worth suppression and erasure. In doing so, we exposed it to the same constructs and controls we apply to everyday commodities. The commoditization and subsequent hypersexualization of the female body have resulted in it being constantly measured, weighed, and critiqued for our consumption which in turn has created a completely unhealthy, unsustainable, and often unattainable ideal of beauty for women. It's only until recently that we began to seriously question and challenge the fashion industry's grip on our perception of beauty; seeing a "plus size" model gracing the cover of a major publication would have been considered taboo as recently as five years ago.
History is littered with examples of people trying to control ideas, it's so ingrained in the human experience that in many ways it has become our birthright. Each generation carrying on the baton from the last and finding new and more insidious ways to control free expression and free thought. Our attempts to wage wars on ideas have failed spectacularly; Bush's War on Terror only served to further radicalize entire groups of already marginalized peoples, inciting much of the unrest we see in the Middle East today; Reagan's War on Drugs weaponized the legislative and judicial arms of our government against black and brown bodies with such surgical precision that our nation's prison population exploded by 500% in the past 40 years, which has disproportionately affected the poor and minorities without making so much as a dent in the availability or use of illicit drugs; the Catholic church waged war for centuries against Judaism and Islam under the guise of rooting out heresy, so emboldened in their pursuit that they labeled it the Inqusition, fast forward to today and their political influence has been effectively neutered while Muslims and Jews continue to grow in numbers and power. We've enjoyed the occasional success against institutions, slavery in the Americas comes to mind, but their corpses continue to bear fruit; racism and its progeny have proven to be much more difficult to eradicate. You can't quell an idea and if we've decided to distort our understanding of the female body from the tangible to the obscure we will fail miserably at that too.
In the vacuum created by the lack of government legislation or oversight, the private sector has gladly stepped in to fill the gaps and push societal norms and boundaries. The rapid growth of the technology in the 21st century coupled with the impotence of our legislators in an increasingly polarized political climate has led to modern day tech giants such as Mark Zuckerburg, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos literally writing the rulebook as they go. One needs to look no further than our recent presidential election and the fallout of scandals such as Cambridge Analytica to see the potential consequences of the unbridled power and access we've all conceded to Silicon Valley. When we're not busy using social media to contribute to the installation of borderline fascist governments we allow the various platforms to wield an alarming amount of control over how we view ourselves. A recent study conducted by Dove as a part of their widely successful Self-Esteem Project found that 82% of women believe social media is influencing how we define beauty today. 63% of the female respondents went as far as stating that they believe social media has a greater impact on how we define beauty than print media, film and music.
What we see on social media is just as impactful as what we don't see. Facebook and by extension Instagram's stance on nudity and the inconsistent and often times arbitrary enforcement of their guidelines, particularly surrounding posts featuring women, creates a confusing and harmful environment for its users by proliferating the notion that the only lens by which we can view women and their bodies is through sex. Nudity in itself is not inherently sexual but by not exposing our society to non-sexual nudity on digital platforms and in the real world, we teach everyone that nudity equals sexuality. With movements like #FreeTheNipple (@freethenipple) aiming to normalize the female body, through both social media presence and topless walks to normalize nipples, decisions to block or remove images containing female nipples feel like a step in the wrong direction. Especially when pitted against the fact that none of the social media sites' community standards censor the male nipple. A double standard which, in the end, only contributes to the normality of women as sexualized beings. (2)
Esther Young put it best in her 2015 essay "Censorship of the Female Body" ...
To promote gender equality, censorship must normalize women’s bodies. No longer censoring female pubic hair is one step in showing acceptance of the female body, in any form, even her unaltered form. No longer censoring the female nipple when exposed in a non-sexualized manner is another step. Women should not be encouraged to be ashamed of their bodies just because they do not fit the hetero-normative standard of beauty, and the female body should not be held in such contrast to the male body, which receives little to no shaming for being uncovered or unshaved. A country that claims to value equal treatment and nondiscrimination will strive for gender equality by evaluating how its laws cast shame on women’s bodies unequally through censorship. A country of equality will enforce censorship in a way that normalizes women’s bodies, either by censoring male and female bodies equally or lifting the censorship of the female body.
For all the photography junkies out there all the images were taken on my Nikon D3300 with a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G prime lens and Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens.
References and Recommended Reading / Viewing
- The excerpt is taken from the HuffPost article, "A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014"
- Sections of this paragraph are taken from the Bustle article, "#FBNudityDay Takes A Stand Against Censorship On Social Media & Society's Views Of Nudity At Large"
- Read about how 15 Feminist Artists Respond To The Censorship Of Women’s Bodies Online here.
- Watch "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" a documentary about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei who uses social media and art to inspire protests and suffers government persecution for his actions.
- Parents, mentors, and teachers can find material and workshops to help young people overcome body image issues and fulfill their potential by building positive body confidence and self-esteem by utilizing resources Dove has made available as a part of their Self-Esteem Project.