In the photograph, Samm Newman is smiling. She’s got that Lorde look with her wet, curly hair tossed all the way to one side. Her eyes are as blue as the cover of her cell phone, and she poses for the selfie hand at her side, stomach bare. Her white bra and pink polka dot underwear don’t match, not that they even need to, because that’s not the point. She’s happy and she’s proud. She’s also 19 years old. And a size 24.
The Ohio teen posted the picture to Instagram on Saturday. This was only the second post of Newman’s that revealed her stomach. (The first time, she’d been wearing a bikini.) But she wanted to join the ranks of plus-sized woman on Instagram using the hashtags #pizzasisters4lyfe and #bodylove to share messages of body positivity and create a space of inclusion on the social network.
On Sunday at 2 a.m., Newman got a notification that her picture was removed. Instagram told her it was because it violated their community guidelines under its “what not to do” section:
“Don’t share photos or videos that show nudity or mature content. If you wouldn’t show the photo or video you are thinking about uploading to a child, or your boss, or your parents, you probably shouldn’t share it on Instagram. The same rule applies to your profile photo. Accounts found sharing nudity or mature content will be disabled and your access to Instagram may be discontinued.”
Angry and confused, Newman began scouring the #bodylove thread to see how her picture differed from any other, how somehow it was inappropriate enough to be removed so quickly. What she found: thousands of pictures of thin, conventionally attractive women, in the same amount of clothing that Newman wore (and in many cases, even less) and some in far more revealing positions. One account in particular she found, @shapeofawoman posts dozens of borderline-pornographic images of skinny women all of which used the #bodylove.
With the help of a friend, Newman began reporting these pictures as clear violations of Instagram’s nudity guidelines. If her picture was removed, so should these. Two hours in, she was forcibly logged out of her Instagram account. “I was using it one second, and the next I was kicked out,” she said. When she tried to log back in, she was told her account had been deactivated. After posting only one semi-revealing photo, Newman was exiled from the social network, the next day when she checked the accounts she had reported, none had received the same censorship. In fact, @shapeofawoman had 25 new posts.
“I was crying, I was so devastated,” Newman said. “I contacted Instagram relentlessly for help, and I basically felt like message I got was to shut up and go away, so that’s when I decided to go to the media.”
The rejection from Instagram was all the more hurtful because the network had recently become a place where, for the first time, Newman was embracing her body and bonding with other plus-size women. “All my life, I was told to suck it in, and I would see these commercials on TV every day of these Victoria Secret models who weighed just nothing,” Newman said. “As comfortable as I was with myself, I wasn’t comfortable with my body, and that was a really huge drawback.”
She’d started off small, connecting with the women on Instagram she followed who use the #pizzasisters4lyfe thread “so we can stick together.” Then she bought a few dresses. Then a pair of shorts, which she says she never used to wear. She posted pictures of herself using the hashtags, and she began to feel a sense of comfort among these women who encouraged her, telling her to be proud of her body. When she was kicked off Instagram, that support system was gone. “We have to face bullying our whole lives, and we finally get to a place where we have a voice,” Newman said. “And they are shutting us down again.”
Newman decided to get in contact with a local NBC4 reporter and spoke candidly about what had happened to her, calling out Instagram’s double standard and accusing the social network of size discrimination. Her story spread quickly; everyone from Fox News to Buzzfeed to Cosmo to E! picked it up.
Newman received messages from journalists the world over, some as far away as Australia, where she was asked to be on a morning talk show. “It’s insane,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
In the wake of all this negative press, Instagram issued a statement:
“We are truly sorry for our mistake here. When reviewing reported content from the Instagram community, we don’t always get it right. As soon as we were made aware, we restored the content.”
Instagram has a history of unevenly enforcing its nudity policy, singling out plus-size women or women who aren’t “sexy” for reprimand while letting everyone else slide. Not even two months ago, Instagram had to issue an apology just like this one after removing a butt selfie posted by Meghan Tonjes, a plus-size woman. Instagram’s response to her — “Our guidelines put limitations on nudity and mature content, but we recognize that we don’t always get it right. In this case, we made a mistake and have since restored the content” — only came after Tonjes posted a YouTube video, “Dear Instagram,” which got over 750,000 views:
Other photos Instagram flagged as “inappropriate”: Petra Collins’s photo of herself, unshaved, in a bikini bottom (you may also remember Collins as the designer of American Apparel’s “vagina tee”); images of mothers breastfeeding their children; and a 19-month-old girl lifting her up her shirt, showing off her belly button.
If all of these pictures are “inappropriate,” why is one like this image below — one of dozens of screenshots Newman was able to take before Instagram shut her out of her account — totally fine?
How can an account like @Shapeofawoman not be considered a violation of a nudity policy — especially when there are, in fact, many, many pictures of completely naked women on the account?
Instagram’s CEO and co-founder, 26-year-old Kevin Systrom, and his 28-year-old co-founder, Mike Krieger, aren’t really in the business of policing nudity. What Instagram does police, it appears, is what is and is not conventionally hot. Abide by the beauty standards our culture dictates — flat stomach, waxed bikini line, seductive pose — and you can Instagram away. Step out of line and be deemed “inappropriate.” Instagram, like just about every other public space, is a place where men get to tell women what to wear, how to look, and how to behave.
Newman has no plans to quit Instagram, though. “I’m going to continue on with my posts,” she said. “I want people to love who they are.”