Instagram’s take on nudity is not only too rigorous, but it also influences art

Various groups, including artists, activists, and content creators who make a living out of different types or degrees of sexual content are outraged – sometimes even influenced in their work by the enforcement of Instagram’s nudity policies.

The emphasis is on enforcement, as Instagram (part of Meta) has clear principles on the appearance of nudity on their site. Meta’s adult nudity and sexual activity policy prohibits the following (non-exhaustively):

  • images of real nude adults, for example genitalia (except birth giving or health context), or female nipples (except during breastfeeding or for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery or an act of protest, or photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures);
  • images of sexual activity;
  • extended audio of sex.

In theory, Instagram grants content creators a platform for voicing their opinion on important social matters, displaying their art, also gives space for self-expression, or provides a platform to pursue their career relating to sexual topics or activity (sex educators, pole dancers etc.). An important aspect of their work is to represent marginalised groups and bodies, but critics of Instagram claim that the implementation of these rules is not always transparent, consequent or fair, especially toward “smaller” creators.

A common concern is that the enforcement of community guidelines – despite explicitly allowing nudity for artistic purposes – often lacks the nuance to differentiate between art and obscenity, erring on the safe side. This is partly a consequence of SESTA/FOSTA, laws that now make platforms liable for sexual materials posted by users. Now Instagram goes after anything that can be remotely considered sexual, which can result in deleting the post, suspending or deleting the page or shadow-banning, which reduces the reach of a channel to almost zero.

Despite some occasional ban on some bigger or more famous projects causing a verbal backtracking and special “treatment”, Instagram hasn’t done much now for years to address the concerns of censored artists. When the poster of Pedro Almodovar’s Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) got censored by Instagram for displaying an exposed nipple August 2021, many hoped that this case would spotlight the social site’s fault in over-censoring nipples. Instead, Instagram cited “clear artistic context” for the posters, let Almodovar off the hook, but haven’t reconsidered their stance on numerous artists, who get banned for the same content.

These artists and activists seek solutions to still be able to post on the site: they self-censor and alter art practices, but this self-censorship brings the assumption, that now the platform(‘s guidelines) are shaping art in a very invasive way: artists alter their images to better comply, or simply divide their art into “approved” or “declined” categories, not sharing the latter, because banning or shadow-banning might cause them to lose their (sometimes) only source of income. This also changes the communication around their art: “We also have to be careful to censor our work when taking a photo of our exhibitions or publications” – say Ana Hell and Nathalie Dreier, artists of  self-portrait collaborative project Red Rubber Road.

Advertising also suffers from the excessive erasure of nudity; a recent example is the nude breast-photo series published by Adidas in February 2022 to promote their new sport bra line. Adidas intended to spark a conversation around the topic, and they definitely managed to get attention, as they received both praise but bash too, for exploiting women for clout on social media, or objectifying women, reducing them to only a body part. The ad was eventually banned in the UK, as the Advertising Standards Authority received some complaints, and ruled that “We considered that the depiction of naked breasts was likely to be seen as explicit nudity. We noted the breasts were the main focus in the ads, and there was less emphasis on the bras themselves, which were only referred to in the accompanying text.”

European societies might have a different stance on the topic, than in the US: what might be passable here, most probably gets a ban overseas. Mariann Forgács, Managing Director of Hungarian social media agency Be Social highlights a recent story from Central Europe: after having one of their artworks banned by almost all social platforms, Vienna’s tourism board has started an OnlyFans account – a subscription site which is famous for a more than lenient approach towards nudity.

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