Last week, after the world collapsed at the sight of Kim Kardashian's ass on the cover of Paper Magazine, actress Alyssa Milano posed a question to her Twitter feed. "Wait! I don't get it. No disrespect to Kim but... people are offended by my breastfeeding selfies & are fine with her (amazing) booty cover?"
This isn't entirely true - lots of people were, um, worked up over Kim's cover. But Milano raises a point about existing as a partially covered woman on social media: either you're held up or torn down, and most often it's the photos not curated by the male gaze that are not just bashed, but removed from various social media sites.
Facebook has been notorious for pulling photos of moms like Milano (but without the celebrity) breastfeeding their babies. In October they yanked down a picture of British mom Emma Bond breastfeeding her premature baby, after a user reported it as offensive. Again just last week the site banned Milli Hill, founder of Birth Positive, for seven days, for posting a photo of the backside of a woman, pushing out a baby in a birth pool. Later, she reposted the photo next to Kardashian's cover and asked: "How come some bums are ok and some bums are not. I'm confused Facebook?"
Hill has been banned from Facebook twice previously, for posting photos of childbirth that "violated community standards." In an op-ed in The Guardian, Hill said this about the decision and its broader implications: "You could argue that this is simply about nudity, but I think there’s more to it. Social media reflects our wider culture’s issue, not with naked women, but with naked women who look real and active as opposed to air-brushed and passive. It also reflects millennia of attempts to suppress women’s power, of which childbirth is perhaps the ultimate expression."
Meanwhile Chelsea Handler is currently locked in a battle with Instagram over nude photos, after the site took down a pic she posted riding a horse topless, a la Vladamir Putin. The photo was quickly removed because it didn't "follow community guidelines."
"If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it's ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?" asked Handler on Instagram. She reposted the image on Twitter, stating: "Taking this down is sexist. I have every right to show I have a better body than Putin."
Handler too, reacted to the photoshopped Kardashian cover, this time by posting it next to her own ass photo. "Can you believe more than 2 ass can fit on the same screen?" She wrote in the caption. "Guess which one's real. Your move, instagram."
Earlier this year, Scout Willis began walking around NYC topless after Instagram took down her photo of a bomber jacket with topless women pictured on it. She tweeted: "This is about helping women feel empowered to make personal choices about their bodies not dictated by what society says is decent."
With so much of our sharing and communication being done on social media these days, these platforms have the upper hand in determining how women's bodies can be shown - and shared. What is it about childbirth and bare breasts that these sites find so terrifying, while Dan Bilzerian's uber-popular, hyper-masculine Instagram feed chock full of guns, and half-naked women is just fine? The women's nipples on his page are covered, yes, but that alone doesn't change what's being perpetuated in an image. (Bilzerian too has had photos removed for nipples showing, only to repost them covered, satisfying Instagram's absurd policy guidelines.)
We live in a country where we still panic over "wardrobe malfunctions." Let us not forget the morality mob that came for Janet Jackson after her nipple appeared on the Super Bowl half-time show in 2004. The nipple hysteria still exists - just last week, blogs and tabloids rejoiced over and also vilified Kristen Stewart for having a nonexistent "nip slip."
You can barely see her nipple through her dress, and yet it's framed as something she "suffered from," as if an accidental flash of nip can cause immense pain and humiliation. These are the stakes being placed on a part of a woman's body the size of a silver dollar. (Or quarter. Or nickel. We're all different.)
These women are making a strong and valid point: there is a double standard when it comes to nudity on social media, and it's created an unwelcoming environment for women. These guidelines do nothing to foster support for women whose photos do make it online. Is it any wonder Internet commenters overreact to and insult breastfeeding photos when over on Facebook continues to declare them appropriate? If the policing of women's bodies is not done by the social media platform itself, commenters happily step in to do the job.
The message the Internet sends to women is clear, and it's a harmful one: You may be naked, but only how we see fit. It's okay to be sexualized, but not sexual. Your body is not your own to share. We have the power. We decide. And if we don't like it, we get rid of it.