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Deal Me Out

by Mark Durane

Another day, another Instagram nudity controversy. But users of the app—owned by our inevitable corporate overlords, Facebook—may be surprised to learn that the long-running controversy is now apparently both brand-new and racially motivated.

Plus-sized, Black influencer Nyome Nicholas-Williams had photos of herself removed from her unverified Instagram account (the account has since been verified) in early August. Despite a long history of the app removing photos or even banning accounts that it decides violate its rules of propriety and sportsmanship and good hygiene, Nicholas-Williams called Instagram out for censoring images of, specifically, plus-sized Black women.

The resulting controversy ended in Instagram both clarifying why Nicholas-Williams’ photos were taken down (in one, she was holding her bare breasts, and Instagram’s combination of automated and human-led moderating has previously flagged breast squeezing as pornographic) and a promise from Instagram to review its policies.

But what was very quickly lost in the conversation, as Nicholas-Williams demanded fairness and respect, is that Instagram’s policies have long overwhelmingly affected the LGBTQIA+ community and sex workers—most notably in November 2019, which saw a purge of porn stars’ accounts just a year after Tumblr banned all sex workers from its site.

Nor is this solely a BIPOC issue, though of course anytime you move one more degree away from cis, white, straight, Christian male, a person will be disproportionately affected. In 2017, Miles Kennelly had two photos removed from his Instagram account because he was wearing a bulge-revealing swimsuit (only one was eventually reinstated), prompting him to ask if a busty woman in a bikini would suffer the same censorship. Photographer Tom Bianchi had his account removed in 2019 after posting a Polaroid of a naked man sitting alone in bed. (The account was reinstated shortly thereafter.) And in 2018, the Greeks Come True had its IG account disabled for two months, MeatZine’s account dedicated to promoting body positivity among gay men was banned, and Warwick Rowers were permanently deactivated, eventually rebranding its entire company as Worldwide Roar to reclaim a presence on the app.

This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it aimed squarely at Black bodies, plus-sized bodies, female bodies, or a combination of those three. As always, Otherness is being punished and pushed under the rug, but rather than disparate groups banding together to effect real change, those affected keep their blinders on and assume that this is directed at them because… fill in the blank with whatever marks them as different.

Which is why Nicholas-Williams went, over the course of 24 hours, from requesting that users stop reporting her (entirely appropriate, not risqué) nudes to posting, “Why is my body always being censored!? It’s always Black women with bigger bodies and I am tired, I am out here sharing my art and trying to normalise ALL body types and I keep getting shut down at every turn but don’t worry I’ll keep doing my thing though.”

(Just pretend this May 21, 2020, BuzzFeed article headlined Influencers Say Instagram Is Biased Against Plus-Sized Bodies, And They May Be Right doesn’t exist, nor the studies that have shown AI moderators of social platforms focus on pixels and percentage of skin versus clothing, which will be higher for plus-sized models.)

And then, in an August 9 post celebrating the Instagram changes and the conversations started—as well as a Guardian profile on the movement, complete with ego-centric hashtag #IWantToSeeNyome—Nicholas-Williams wrote, “I have said this before and I will say it again black women are the most disrespected within society, and it just screams that the racial biases are very alive and well when it comes to black women in bigger bodies.”

This competition to the bottom to see who is most discriminated against has to stop if we want change to happen. For a Black woman to say that she is more disrespected than anyone else in society because professionally taken photos have been removed from a social media platform most often accessed via a phone that costs three figures is a shockingly out-of-touch statement in 2020. Why is this movement focused on one person? Where was this outrage when shadow bans and disabling accounts was affecting men and women who make their living from their bodies, either via sex work or via porn, where their follower counts affect their employability? Or could it be that no one really thinks about Instagram censorship until it directly affects them, other than an occasional, fleeting thought given to why men’s nipples are acceptable to see but not women’s. (Because seriously, what is that?)

Instead of finding ways to center the narrative on whatever group has been discriminated against today—whether that’s Black women or white gay men or a trans sex worker—we must work together and demand change not on a case-by-case basis, but by ordering Instagram to release clearcut guidelines, ones that don’t leave any room for doubt or misinterpretation. 

But if those affected started centering the story on a corporation’s murky bylaws, they might not get profiled in newspapers. Or finally earn that elusive blue checkmark on their profiles.

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