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the nipple controversy

Since 1992, women have been allowed to walk the streets of New York with their bare breasts blazing. Flash a nipple on Facebook, however, and your whole account will be removed. Likewise, get your chest out on Instagram and you won’t be logging in again for a while. But what is it about women’s nipples that social media finds so offending? After all, you don’t see photos of man-boobs or hairy chests getting the chop - do you?

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Last week Scout Willis made headlines for walking down a New York street topless, while posting pictures of herself on Twitter (one of the only boob-friendly social media sites around). Accompanied by the captions ’’legal in NYC but not on @Instagram’’ and ‘’what @Instagram won’t let you see’’ Willis’s public act of nudity wasn’t about taking the ultimate selfie, some publicity stunt for her band, or even about letting the puppies out for some air; it was a means of using her body to bring awareness to the latest trend in female censorship or, in other words, social media’s fear of the big bad breast.

More precisely, it was a reaction to having her Instagram account deleted after what the app’s officials have referred to as ‘’instances of abuse’’. In reality, it was just a photograph of Willis in a sheer top and another one of a jacket she had made, featuring a picture of some naked breasts - not even real breasts, but a photograph within a photograph... And she’s not the first celebrity to have had this happened to her; Rihanna and Grace Coddington have both been censored too.

Proving what a bad gal Riri really is, the Bajan beauty recently uploaded a photo of herself from French magazine Lui, in which she’s reclining on a deck chair and chilling with her boobs out. Her account was later removed, leading to a pissed off Rihanna, a pissed off Navy, and a pissed off #bringbackbadgalriri hashtag. Because, nobody puts Riri’s nipples in the corner – least of all Instagram.

Going one step further in the Great Battle of the Breasts, Instagram temporarily deleted Grace Coddington’s account last month, after fashion's favourite redhead posted a cartoon of herself, also reclining on a deck chair and chilling with her breasts out (Rihanna, watch yo’ back). Indeed, it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white, young or old, real or hand drawn, when it comes to social media, breasts are definitely not what’s best. Unless, of course, they are nipple free. Shove a baby’s head on the end of them; cover your nipples with an emoji (flowers, peace signs, Mark Zuckerberg’s face); or remove them altogether, and you should be good to go.

According to Facebook’s rules and regulations, images of babies being breastfed are totally fine. However, if the baby’s mouth isn’t directly suckling from its mother’s breast, if there’s no lip to nip contact or if, god forbid, there’s even the slightest hint of sexual empowerment where the woman is concerned, the offending photograph will be deleted, and the user’s account suspended until further notice. Which is weird considering all those sexy photographs of girls with cleavages clogging up your homefeed - photographs that would look more at home on the floor of a telephone box than on Facebook.

Then there are photos of women who have undergone mastectomies, posted to raise awareness of breast cancer and to show support for all its survivors. While I totally agree with this sentiment, it seems odd that these pictures of women’s breasts are given visibility while those that are without ‘’the scars of cancer’’, and which are ‘’unaffected by surgery’’ (to use Instagram's own words) aren’t? A couple of weeks ago someone very close to me was diagnosed with breast cancer which means something potentially deadly is living inside one of my oldest friends – the fact that she would have to wait until a part of her body had been essentially butchered before she can go topless on Instagram or Facebook seems crazy. Despite years of championing women’s rights, women’s bodies continue to be controlled, contained, and ultimately, made to conform to what society thinks is acceptable. And it’s time to do something about it. 

Topless Pulp is a group of women in New York who meet regularly at the park for a spot of topless reading. It’s like book club, but with breasts. If you’re ever in the Big Apple look them up. Alternately, start your own equivalent. There’s also a Free The Nipple campaign (on Sunday over 20 topless men and women took to Washington Square Park to protest against the nipple being banned in 37 US states), a Free The Nipple hashtag (Scout Willis, Rihanna, Caitlin Stacey, and Miley Cyrus are all fans) and, soon to be finished, (as long as Facebook stops shutting their profile down) a Free The Nipple film.  Directed by Lisa Esco, and based on a true story, Free The Nipple follows an army of topless women who take to the streets of New York, fighting for the decriminalisation of the female nipple. Check out their website, sign a petition, spread the cause, and, if not for yourselves then for your mothers, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters, start freeing the female nipple. Censorship just got old.