The Damaging Implications of Instagram's Continued Misogynistic Censorship of the Female Body

Writing by Ruth Stainer. Artwork by Berenika Murray.


Launched in October 2010, Instagram was initially perceived to be an innovative app

designed to generate individual digital power and accessibility. This reflected Mark

Zuckerberg’s, the founder of Facebook and now owner of Instagram, belief that technology

could be a ‘democratising force for putting power in people’s hands.’


Whilst, for a short while, this hope felt tangible, the reality of the digital experience in 2022

is quite different, with offline vulnerabilities now seemingly following women online.


Misogynist anonymous comments, cyberflashing – the act of sharing nude pictures via

Bluetooth in public spaces and, similarly, online harassment and unsolicited ‘dick pics’ are

just a handful of examples of how social media presents what Alison Harvey calls an

‘aggressive architecture’ for women and fems, subsequently generating severe

emotional, psychological and even economic costs for these victims.


Indeed, a 2021 report published by the Pew Research Centre found that found 33% of

women under 35 had been sexually harassed online. For women of colour, or members of

the LGBT community, the level of harassment is significantly amplified.


As a result of such harmful social media effects, an increasing number of women have felt

forced to drawback or even stop altogether from contributing to online spaces. Evidently,

the same platforms that were initially designed to give them a voice, are now

simultaneously giving users new opportunities to harass, insult, and silence them.


Could Instagram ever censor these forms of harassment carefully framed and defended

under the demise of ‘free speech’ that women worldwide are being subjected to? Well,

Instagram’s parent company, Meta has recently suggested so, confirming that Instagram is

currently working on a feature designed to protect users from receiving unsolicited nude

photos in their DMs. The tech giant likened the feature to its ‘Hidden Words’ feature, which

allows users to automatically filter direct message requests containing offensive content.


Whilst a seemingly positive step in the right direction, the overall picture for Instagram’s

censorship decisions is, however, rather bleak. Unfortunately, when examined closer, they

often to seek to serve and aid, rather than diminish or protect against, the patriarchy and

circulation of harmful misogynist values.


After launching its new Terms and Conditions in December 2020, Instagram made it

abundantly clear where they stood on the issue of censoring the female body, declaring that

if a post is unintentionally sexual but still arousing, it could be banned. Even ‘excessive

cleavage’ could be deemed as inappropriate, easily allowing for fat-phobia, alongside a

single female nipple (even when pictured breastfeeding), pubic hair, periods and excessive

female skin.


When Canadian poet Rupi Kaur posted a picture on her Instagram in 2018 fully covered and

menstruating, it was taken down for ‘going against community guidelines.’ In response, she

reposted the photo, accusing the app of ‘feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society

that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak.’ Unfortunately,

four years later, little progress appears to have been made.


What are the impacts of such blatant sexist digital censorship of the female body? Well, for

starters, they set a dangerous precedent: women’s natural bodies are to be seen as

shameful, a vice, and should merely exist as objects of the male gaze, menstruation is

something to be covered and fat women’s bodies and BIPOC bodies are less acceptable than

thin, white bodies. The list is endless. Needless to say, it is highly dangerous for women and

fems, as well as for the progress of the #MeToo Movement, whilst simultaneously

helping to amplify racism, rape culture, and fat-phobia on an unprecedented scale.


In the age of social media entrepreneurship post-pandemic, the censorship of women and

fem bodies also continues to generate unfortunate financial implications. Many

burlesque performers, pinup models and sex workers, small businesses and artists

who are already struggling to stay afloat in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic are

frequently silenced and prevented from growing their network and following, directly

impacting their income opportunities.


Speaking to Vintage Woman Magazine, Gigi, who runs lingerie company Gigi’s House of

Frills, shared how their ads are often rejected on both Instagram and Facebook because

they feature lingerie (shown on a flat surface), whilst their posts featuring plus sized models

of colour are also more likely to be removed than posts featuring slim white models.


The larger businesses such as Victoria Secret and Playboy, in contrast, don’t seem to face

any of these censorship policies, indicating that it might not truly be about protecting users

at all. Who do these policies seek to protect if not the gaze of the white male figures running

these digital organisations behind the scenes?


Slut-shaming and the objectification of women as a form of control is a story as old as time,

with the platform at play being the only real shift. Gendered policing is both a cause and

consequence of the continuation of patriarchal and misogynistic values our society holds,

strategically designed to discourage women from taking back their power and sexuality as a

means for independence, profit, or enjoyment.


As Instagram, amongst many other social media platforms, continues to intentionally

provide a space for the circulation of misogynistic values - fighting against the progress of

the #MeToo movement, women’s body autonomy, taboo issues and sexual freedoms, all

while promoting fat-phobia, racism and rape culture – it’s hard to feel overly optimistic

about the future.


These patriarchal and sexist digital policies, guidelines and regulations curated and

protected by the white men in decision-making power do not seek to benefit nor protect

their female and fem users from content deemed as ‘vice’ but, ultimately, to silence

them, and requires urgent redressing.


Sources:

1. ‘How Instagram’s algorithm is censoring women and vulnerable users but helping

online abuse’. Carolina Are, City, University of London, 25th June 2020.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14680777.2020.1783805?journalCo

de=rfms20

2. ‘One in four women say cyberflashing has increased during pandemic, as Bumble

launches campaign’. Olivia Petter, The Independent, 22nd November 2021.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/women/cyberflashing-bumble-illegal-

unsolicited-b1949158.html

3. ‘The Unsafety Net: How Social Media Turned Against Women’. Catherine Buni and

Soraya Chemaly, The Atlantic, October 9 th 2014.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/the-unsafety-net-how-

social-media-turned-against-women/381261/

4. ‘Social Media Censorship: The Modern Weapon of Patriarchy’. Miss Paige, The

Vintage Woman, 3 rd January 2022. https://thevintagewomanmagazine.com/social-

media-censorship/

5. ‘The State of Online Harassment’. Emily A. Vogels, Pew Research Centre, Pew

Research Center, January 13th 2021.

https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/01/13/the-state-of-online-

harassment/

6. ‘Instagram’s finally working on protecting users from unsolicited nudes’. Sheena

Vasani, The Verge, September 21st 2022.

https://www.theverge.com/2022/9/21/23365079/instagram-meta-cyberflashing


15 views0 comments