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
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.
1. ‘How Instagram’s algorithm is censoring women and vulnerable users but helping
online abuse’. Carolina Are, City, University of London, 25th June 2020.
2. ‘One in four women say cyberflashing has increased during pandemic, as Bumble
launches campaign’. Olivia Petter, The Independent, 22nd November 2021.
3. ‘The Unsafety Net: How Social Media Turned Against Women’. Catherine Buni and
Soraya Chemaly, The Atlantic, October 9 th 2014.
4. ‘Social Media Censorship: The Modern Weapon of Patriarchy’. Miss Paige, The
Vintage Woman, 3 rd January 2022. https://thevintagewomanmagazine.com/social-
5. ‘The State of Online Harassment’. Emily A. Vogels, Pew Research Centre, Pew
Research Center, January 13th 2021.
6. ‘Instagram’s finally working on protecting users from unsolicited nudes’. Sheena
Vasani, The Verge, September 21st 2022.