Instagram is about to “Free the Nipple”. What took you so long?

"It's about much more than women being allowed to show themselves topless. It's about the idea that a topless woman can only ever be two things: sexy or not sexy enough - and therefore in bad taste."

If I were to post a topless photo on Instagram right now, here's what would happen. Those in charge of the platform's artificial intelligence would first detect the presence of nipples. If those nipples belonged to a female breast, the photo would be quickly removed because it violated community guidelines. How would they decide what is a female breast? Well, quite simply: it depends on how much fatty tissue is behind the nipples (yes, really). And if the breast belongs to a trans man or a non-binary person who hasn't had top surgery? The AI censors will probably think the breast is female, unless the user tirelessly points out otherwise (as gender non-conforming model Rain Dove found out in 2018). 

"Free the Nipple": policy change on Instagram. 

It all sounds weird and nonsensical, but it is. It's something Meta - the company that owns Instagram and Facebook - finally seems to realise. Earlier this month, Meta's board of directors - a group of academics, journalists and politicians who advise the company on its content - recommended that Meta change its adult nudity guidelines "so that they are subject to clear criteria that respect international human rights standards".

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"This policy is based on a binary view of gender and a distinction between male and female bodies," they write, referring to the platform's ban on nudity. "Such an approach makes it unclear how the rules apply to intersex, non-binary and transgender people, and requires reviewers to make quick and subjective assessments of sex and gender, which is impractical when overseeing content on a large scale".

Even 10 years ago, Instagram was asked to show breasts of any gender

This is a positive sign from Meta, which seems to recognise - or at least be leaning in that direction - the murky ethics behind monitoring a person's body based on gender characteristics. But it also seems almost ridiculously overdue. Today's teens probably won't remember what a controversial and widespread topic of conversation this once was, as everyone from Willow Smith to Rihanna to Cara Delevingne shared Free the Nipple hashtags and expressed their outrage at misogynistic double standards online. The global movement, started by artists and activists, is now more than a decade old. That's 10 years of pointing things out over and over again and always falling on deaf ears. 

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The original "Free the Nipple" movement, which first went viral in 2015, was not without its downsides, of course. Although the idea was a good one (why should a female breast be perceived as sexual when men can go topless?), the movement quickly became synonymous with white, same-sex, able-bodied, skinny girls with breasts and not much else. The whole thing began to feel vaguely annoying - a bit of Tumblr feminism. To what extent, critics:in asked, will a conventionally attractive woman baring her breasts really shift the paradigm? Gina Tonic summed it up best for Bustle in 2015: "Feminism without intersectionality is pointless; only showing nipples that conform to patriarchal beauty standards is pointless."

When thinking about the censorship of nipples on social media today, it's worth getting to the heart of the matter: There is simply no way to determine a person's gender based on the appearance of their body - full stop. And even if this were possible or even remotely ethical (which it isn't), there is no reason why a woman's breast should be inherently offensive while a man's is not. When we consider these two things together, Instagram's adult nudity policy seems not only misogynistic and transphobic, but also truly absurd. Take, for example, a trans woman who has not had a breast augmentation. Is she expected to unidentify her nipples once she is legally recognised as a woman? Or does the censorship only apply after the operation, when she is considered woman enough by the AI censors? 

Tumblr also came under criticism and reacted: Nudity was allowed again

Meta is not the only company to reverse outdated censorship rules. In November last year, Tumblr announced it would allow nudity again, including the release of the nipple. Although the platform had a thriving NSFW community in its heyday in the mid-2010s, the ban on adult content led to a mass exodus from the platform in 2018, resulting in a 30 per cent drop in monthly page views. To make matters worse, many users reported that Tumblr's "Safe Mode" filter not only censored adult content, but also flagged non-explicit and LGBTQIA+ artwork that didn't contain anything sexual (because guess what: AI censorship doesn't work). Of course, they've since backed down, but for many it was too little, too late. And while Tumblr may be on the verge of a comeback, it's hardly the LGBTQIA+ mecca it once was or had the potential to be. 

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It is worth pointing out here that many of these bans on adult nudity do not exist in a vacuum. They reflect real norms in the Western world. If I went outside topless, I would most likely be arrested. If a man went out without a top, no one would bat an eyelid. These are centuries-old social conventions that position men as the observers and women as the observed, leaving no room for gender differences. It is about much more than women being 'allowed' to be topless. It's about the idea that a topless woman can only ever be two things: sexy or not sexy enough, and therefore tasteless. A topless man, on the other hand, can simply exist. And it will take more than the lifting of a nipple ban to change this view and the entire binary gendered system that perpetuates it.

But that doesn't mean it's not a start. And while Meta doesn't actually have to implement these changes yet - they have 60 days to publicly respond to the panel's recommendations - it's encouraging to see conversations about body autonomy and the negative impact automated systems can have on marginalised bodies being brought into the public eye. 

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Meta has a chance to rethink a construct that was misconceived from the start

It remains to be seen, however, how Meta will be able to maintain a porn ban without maintaining a ban on nudity in a fair and innocuous way. We have already seen how artificial intelligence can make mistakes or maintain biases, often to the detriment of marginalised groups. These mistakes are unlikely to be fixed simply by fixing the technology or tweaking the criteria. Meta now has the chance to properly dismantle a system that was flawed from the start. It remains to be seen whether they will actually take this chance.