Fighting negative body image, narrow beauty standards, and cultural stereotypes of gender has often focused on the media and what is portrayed and reflected through the images we see daily. This fight has now spread to social media and encompasses not only what is seen but also what is censored.
In several cases social media sites have taken down photos of women that did not fit what is considered stereotypically beautiful or sexy, while leaving pages and pictures up that cater to the view of beauty and the female body fed to us daily by mainstream media. Most recently, an Instagram photo by artist Petra Collins depicting her wearing a bikini that showed pubic hair resulted in the removal of her entire Instagram account – while nearly 6 million other images tagged bikini are left up (although, unsurprisingly, with little natural pubic hair in sight). This isn’t the first, last, or only example of such selective censorship: when a Facebook page dedicated to supporting and educating mothers about things such as breastfeeding and birthing options posted a textbook-like drawing of a vagina with the different anatomical parts labeled, it was banned almost immediately – while pages with sexualized and explicit pictures of women remain easily available.
This inconsistent censorship screams loud and clear the same sexist values that we are inundated with every time we turn on a television, listen to the radio, or open a magazine – that vaginas are dirty and wrong unless maybe they exist for someone else’s pleasure, and if you don’t match all of society’s beauty standards you don’t deserve to be seen or heard. As a feminist, I do not believe that consensual pictures of nude sexy women are inherently a bad thing, nor that people who fit the beauty standard of today’s society are wrong, bad, or any less beautiful than anyone else. But I definitely do believe that when only one narrow standard of beauty and value of a female’s body is allowed to be expressed, we’re crossing into extremely dangerous, sexist, and harmful territory for society-at-large.
I’m used to seeing cover after cover featuring stories about a popular celebrity being fat-shamed during pregnancy. I’m used to seeing reviews of an award show performance that critiques a female singer for being “slutty” but then fails to even mention the older male behind her. I’m used to reading articles about whole towns harassing a rape victim until she’s forced to leave. I don’t want to be used to this. I don’t want to have to see the same thing constantly. I don’t want to be desensitized to what’s happening around me all.the.time. I consider myself endlessly lucky to have access to the Internet and technology. Through it I’ve found myself and have been able to join a new discourse of females young and old who strive to change the way we look and treat ourselves. I know having a social media profile removed is a 21st century privileged problem – but it is the way a lot of us live. These profiles mimic our physical selves and a lot of the time are even more important. They are ways to connect with an audience, to start discussion, and to create change. Through this removal I really felt how strong of a distrust and hate we have towards female bodies. The deletion of my account felt like a physical act, like the public coming at me with a razor, sticking their finger down my throat, forcing me to cover up, forcing me to succumb to societies image of beauty. That these very real pressures we face everyday can turn into literal censorship.
Luckily, not all hope is lost! Strides have been made in combating the sexist content found in social media, and women like Petra are not sitting pretty in the face of such discrimination and dehumanization. When Facebook did little to take down pages that encouraged or made light of rape and domestic abuse, activists specializing in media took action.
In an open letter to Facebook protesting this content, Women Action and the Media (WAM) describe page titles that include:
- Fly Kicking Sluts in the Uterus
- Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny because she won’t make you a Sandwich
- Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs
- Raping your Girlfriend
…and many, many more. Images on these pages included photographs of women who were beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged, and bleeding – all with the cherry on top of captions like “This bitch didn’t know when to shut up” and “Next time don’t get pregnant.” These pages go beyond sexism – they incite violence. And, like the removal of images of women with natural body hair or scientific diagrams of female anatomy, social media websites who encourage their policies to enforce this sexist double-standard are limiting our freedom of expression and our survival on the web.
After pressure from groups like WAM and several companies pulling advertising from these pages, Facebook backed down from its earlier statement that “that much of the content referenced by WAM did not technically violate its current policies” and promised to crack down on these sites, stating: “We need to do better – and we will.” Although it is disturbing that at first these abusive photos did not violate Facebook’s policy, while an anatomical drawing of a vagina did, it is encouraging that through organizing and advocacy progress is being made.
As cases like these pop up, it’s important to put our selfies aside (even if only for a few minutes) and take action – and eventually, we’ll create a world wide web where every woman is welcome.