Instagram recently banned the single, evocative word “curvy” in hashtag form because it violated its policies. The issue with “curvy,” Instagram said, isn’t what it represents — often body-positive images of voluptuous figures in various states of dress and undress — but how it was being used. An Instagram spokesperson told ThinkProgress the tag was being used to share pornography, which is strictly forbidden on the site.
Ralph Rosen, PhD, a classics humanities professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has experienced social media companies’ compulsion to ban words firsthand. He started a Facebook page in 2009 for his Scandalous Arts class, which evaluates why certain visual, literal and musical works are considered offensive and could unduly influence society.
“What was so amusing but annoying was when I set it up they did not let me use the name of the class because it had the word ‘scandalous’ in it. It was a banned word at the time.” To get around it, Rosen had to spell the word with a “k,” playing on its Greek origins.
“It’s always words or images that drive people crazy,” Rosen said. “With words there are sometimes ways to get around it more than with images, because images are more direct.”
Instagram’s decision to ban the hashtag whole cloth is the latest in a string of attempts from social media sites to minimize offensive content but still allow users to be expressive.
Model and social media maven Chrissy Teigen, known for testing the boundaries of restrictive policies, slammed Instagram in June for taking down a topless photo she posted from a W Magazine photo shoot. She repeatedly re-posted the image in protest each time it was removed. Rihanna’s account was suspended — and then deleted in protest — after she posted a nipple-baring photo from magazine shoot in 2014, Nicki Minaj caught flack for posting her album cover artwork with her squatting back first in a G-string and Jordans.
But celebrities posing in risque photo shoots aren’t the only posts Instagram targets. Instagram removed artist Rupi Kaur’s photo of herself laying in bed, fully clothed but with menstrual blood seeping through her sweat pants and onto her sheets. Instagram soon restored the photo, apologizing for its accidental removal.
But Kaur didn’t buy it, saying “Thank you Instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique. You deleted my photo twice stating that it goes against community guidelines. I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak. When your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified. Pornified. And treated less than human. Thank you.”
Cartoonists have even been caught in Instagram’s anti-nudity web. Brooklyn artist Tara McPherson’s cartoon “An Interruption of Blood” was removed because it depicted a woman’s animated bare breasts. Instagram restored the image with apologies.
Last year, a plus-size teen was kicked off the site for posting a selfie in a bikini. Critics accused the site for praising a thin, toned beauty standard and condemning curvy bodies as explicit or “mature content.”
Instagram’s efforts, while admirable, often come across tone deaf and demonize innocuous images of female bodies. It’s a problem humans have struggled with throughout history, particularly in the arts, but more pressing now because everyone is essentially an artist and selfies are works of art.
“It’s an interesting problem of our age,” Rosen said. “You want to uphold freedom of expression as much as possible. But you have limits…[and] determining what’s a good idea has always been a sticking point. It’s not a new problem, it’s a more acute or urgent problem because of the amount of people involved.”
With social media, he continued, “it’s difficult to judge the nuance of things. In literature, you understand genre, context, occasion…You’re supposed to think it’s art it’s in a museum! When you get a Hustler magazine and you open it up, you know what you’re in for. The intentionality behind the production of the image is understood. There are all of these things that are cluing you in to the expectations,” on how the image should be received, he said. “With ig it’s just out in the world — without any cultural cues.”
Social platforms such as Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are all working to solve the same problem — defining decency without censoring too much. Determining whether something is offensive becomes tricky in a global community with varying tastes, but the issue almost always reduced to two things, according to Rosen: “The main things throughout history of humankind which are demonized and made to be taboo are sex and shit (sexuality and scatology). It comes down to the fear of sexuality.”
“What is wrong with a nipple? What are we afraid of?” The answer: Titillation, animalistic feelings, strong emotions that take practice to control, Rosen said. “If one is honest with one’s self in the world, these things (arousal and artistic appreciation) have always existed together. You could have [Gustave] Courbet’s ‘The Origin of the World’ painting in your home and find it arousing.”
“There’s no single yardstick to measure what’s acceptable and what’s not,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try, but you can’t get inside the mind of every person who sees an image.”
Policies from Instagram and the like that attempt to rein in content to ensure mass palatability are welcome, but the quest to find the right balance is years in the making and won’t come easily.
“I’m impressed with the attempts of Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter to try to come to grips with the problem rather than ignoring it altogether. But some of these policies are inconsistent and certainly lame, resulting in silly deletions,” said Linda Steiner, PhD, a University of Maryland, College Park media studies professor who specializes in gender issues.
“Instagram’s policy is not only weirdly enforced, I think they’re trying to have a simple policy that makes it easy for them,” Steiner said. “Women are really bothered by the predatory invasion of their bodies,” Steiner said. That includes posts of their body parts without their permission and the banning their own images because they don’t conform to an ideal physique.
The key, she said, is to allow for push back and to accommodate what the community wants. “I’d much rather have [social media companies] say, here’s the policy, and someone tests it, gets taken off, and Instagram makes an exception” after he or she argues the image as being artistic or political. The banned account or image would then be reinstated as long as its “not making someone else vulnerable,” she said. “A policy that says you could only post something of yourself — your own nude body or your own nude body parts,” or contains expressed consent from the subject to stem proliferation of revenge porn.
Empowering the photographer, the subject, the proclaimed or un-proclaimed artist or social media activist demonstration is the only way community platforms can evolve to keep users in the long run.
“They’re going to have to devote more resources to this, more people who listen,” Steiner said. “[Instagram] should be slow to take things down…but I’m glad we’re not making it easy for every pervert to exploit women’s bodies for their own power or pleasure.”
Regarding the #curvy tag, Steiner said people using and searching it were likely getting what they were looking for — curvaceous figures — “not recipes for lemon cake.” And that’s fine.