There’s a predictable social media formula for what women’s pictures online should look like. Breasts in barely-there bikinis are good (thumbs-up emoji, even), but breasts with babies attached them are questionable. Women wearing next to nothing is commonplace, but if you’re over a size 10 youraccount may be banned. Close-up shots of women’s asses and hardly-covered vaginas are fine, so long as said body parts are hairless.
And now, in a controversy that once again brings together technology, art, feminism and sex, Instagram is under fire for removing a self-portrait from artist Rupi Kaur that showed a small amount of her menstrual blood. Apparently having a period violates the site’s Terms of Service.
The broader message to women couldn’t be clearer: SeXXXy images are appropriate, but images of women’s bodies doing normal women body things are not. Or, to put a more crass point on it: Only pictures of women who men want to fuck, please.
“I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” she wrote.
Because, truly, it’s difficult to imagine women being offended by pictures of breastfeeding, unkempt bikini lines or period blood - that’s a standard Monday for a lot of us. It’s men that social media giants are “protecting” - men who have grown up on sanitized and sexualized images of female bodies. Men who have been taught to believe by pop culture, advertising and beyond that women’s bodies are there for them. And if they have to see a woman that is anything other than thin, hairless and ready for sex - well, bring out the smelling salts.
The upside, of course, is that the very nature of social media has made it easier for women to present a more diverse set of images on what the female form can look like and mean. Selfies, for example - thought by some to be the epitome of frivolity and self-conceit - are now being touted by feminist academics and artists as a way for women to “seize the gaze” and offera new sense of control to women as subjects rather than objects.
When we have the power to create our own images en masse, we have the power to create a new narrative - one that flies in the face of what the mainstream would like us to look and act like.
To Instagram’s credit, the company restored Kaur’s picture after complaints - much as Facebook changed their standards to allow pictures of “women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring.” Technology companies are starting to understand that if they want to put the power of pictures in their users’ hands, they’re going to have to be okay with women being fully human - not just mirror images of what pop culture wants us to be.
As for the people who are scandalized by women’s bodies and their natural functions: You don’t have to “like” it, but you will have to live with it.