What happens if Meta says Free the Nipple?

Last week Meta was formally advised by its oversight board to update its censorship of nipples on the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.[1] For the first time ever there’s a possibility of a social media universe that doesn’t have one rule for bodies recognised as male and another rule for bodies recognised as female, and we can feel a sense of relief that a strict binary view of gender is finally being somewhat relaxed. While the jury is still out on precisely what action will be taken by Meta, the international news has been flooded with headlines about freeing the nipple. This development is of course exciting, but how much tangible change will we see as a result?

The first thing that needs to be said is that censorship of this sort is (obviously) bad and contributes massively to problematic ideas about bodies. There’s no two ways about it – nipple censorship is nonsensical and does nothing to make the internet safer for anyone. It’s important to clarify that in essence a nipple is not always sexual; it’s not a sex organ. The reason why people tend to get weird at the sight of a nipple on a breast is because they are most frequently experienced in sexual contexts – for example sex scenes in films, porn, art, or indeed in-real-life sex. Without many other frames of reference in day-to-day life, it’s easy to see why the association with sex is so strong.

The trouble is that censoring all images of “female” nipples,[2] even non-sexual images, means that the sexual association of nipples is never challenged, so they retain their status as body parts that shouldn’t be seen in public. Put simply: censoring nipples intensifies their sexualisation and so actually contributes to the reasons why they need to be censored in the first place. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. Loosening the censorship rules presents a possibility of seeing breasts in non-sexual contexts, thus breaking down the conditioning around their sexualisation. We also potentially take a step towards a less binary approach to bodies by shedding the idea that they must be either male or female in order to be censored or not censored. In theory it sounds great, but there’s a few things we need to query before we crack the prosecco and celebrate the downfall of the patriarchy.

Already the narrative surrounding this news is deeply rooted in the prevailing power structures that we are all too familiar with. Despite this cultural moment being the product of a transgender and non-binary couple flagging that their content was getting removed from Facebook, cis-gendered women seem to be the central focus of the story. Not only that, but the women who are getting referenced in the press are the likes of Florence Pugh, who dared to wear a sheer dress on the red carpet earlier last year. Beautiful, white, cis, young, straight-presenting, able-bodied and wealthy. These characteristics not only grant an enormous amount of privilege, but they also add up to a version of womanhood that is highly validated by patriarchy. The male gaze is happy to see women like this, and more than happy to see their nipples, and that must be acknowledged. That’s not to say that the sexual politics of these women’s bodies / lives / careers are not important, and that it’s not brave to show your nipples if you belong to that cohort, but to centre these women does very little to actually dismantle the power structures that are responsible for the problem.

If freeing the nipple on social media is to be genuinely radical, we must prioritise making and sharing images that challenge perceptions of what constitutes an acceptable body. If we get this right, we could see bodies expressing themselves in ways that we could not imagine before. The Free the Nipple movement should be giving visibility to queerness, fatness, the ageing process, non-western beauty standards, scarred skin, nipple hair, bodily autonomy for those living with a disability – otherwise it functions as little more than titillation for straight men and a bit of daring fun for privileged women. There is nothing wrong with being a sexy feminist, truly – and there’s plenty to say about reclamation of sexual agency for everyone, which is of course important and related to this topic – but if the (so-called) unsexy body is continually marginalised, we resign ourselves to a modification of the existing problem: Meta will lift its censorship of women’s nipples and be replaced by a self-censorship, allowing through only the kinds of nipple images that are deemed socially acceptable within the hetero-patriarchal ideal.

What’s more – is it safe to free the nipple on social media? Meta will need to think carefully about how users of the platforms will be protected from online abuse and harassment. In the UK it is not illegal for anyone to be topless in a public space,[3] however it is still very rare to see a topless person with their breasts out in the park. Not unheard of, but certainly not as commonplace as a topless cis, able-bodied man. When someone does decide to show their breasts in public – perhaps to feed a child or to sunbathe – they run the risk of receiving unwanted attention, ranging from inappropriate comments to really dangerous behaviour. The point is that just because being topless is technically legal, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with a lot of problems for women, trans and non-binary people. Facebook and Instagram are unlikely to become safe spaces to free the nip overnight, and Meta must consider what that means when many of its user base will take the surge of nipple pics as licence to harass, ridicule and shame people online.[4]

Culturally, female nipples are still deemed indecent, and people will broadly speaking continue to act like it when / if Meta lifts their ban, at least for now. But those who decide to step up to the digital parapet bare chested have a massive opportunity to dilute the slew of generically sexualised images and begin paving the way towards true bodily autonomy for all. There’s no promising that your parents won’t cringe, or that your colleagues won’t show each other, or that trolls won’t open fire without consequence – but dear God please let it be more than fit celebs in designer gowns. A few months ago we got a story reply to one of our pictures saying it was a “challenging wank” – we genuinely laughed at this remark – but pick it apart and it’s interesting; many people will continue to try and sexualise images of bare breasts because their conditioning leads them to do so. What we can do as makers and subjects of those images is make that process challenging!

If Facebook and Instagram become spaces that are available to exercise true agency with the body, let’s take that opportunity and run with it. Bodies are not sexual all the time, and their inherent value does not depend on how well they satisfy the male gaze. We all deserve the freedom to be sexual or neutral on our own terms, and decide for ourselves what that looks like. This moment grants us permission to redefine what’s acceptable in public forums and refuse the marginalisation we’ve lived with for so long; but the tide will only turn if we make it so.

Footnotes:

  1. Meta advised to free the nipple, source: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/jan/17/free-the-nipple-meta-facebook-instagram
  2. Although Meta has attempted to let through images of breastfeeding and acts of protest in recent years, users of Facebook and Instagram still get this content removed and their accounts suspended when posting images of nipples that supposedly meet the community guidelines.
  3. Public nudity and the law, source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-33092812
  4. Some stats on gendered online harassment, source: https://victimscommissioner.org.uk/news/impact-of-online-abuse-and-harassment-revealed-in-new-research-from-the-victims-commissioner/

Written by Bee. Edited by Roisin & Shab.

Free the Nipple is seeking volunteers, committee members, activists and contributors – particularly marginalised voices, please get in touch! freethenipplebrighton@gmail.com