Facebook: where no breast goes uncovered

I’m not entirely averse to taking the odd topless shot of myself (sometimes to sate my boredom, if for no other reason – they’re just boobs, after all), but I would never upload photos of myself, breasts out (flashing nipples and everything), on Facebook. That’s not to say I think that women who choose to do so are foolish or are acting inappropriately; it’s just my personal choice. I was interested to learn today, however, that Facebook’s photograph policies have been causing quite a stir across the pond. The latest criticism levied against Mark Zukerberg’s moneymaking machine has emanated from the executive decision to remove daguerreotypes of women breastfeeding from personal profiles and albums. Nursing mothers and breastfeeding sympathisers have interpreted this as an act of discrimination and sexism, but is this a fair and accurate assessment? I’m not too sure.

The furore was sparked a year ago when one mother received a message from Facebook administrators asking her to remove a picture. She was informed that should she attempt to repost the image she would be banned from the site. This led to the creation of a Facebook group titled “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” which currently boasts an impressive membership of over 72,000 people. Furthermore, this anger and displeasure culminated in a protest organised by the Mothers International Lactation Campaign (MILC) on Saturday 27 December 2008, with legions of supporters denigrating Facebook’s ‘no-bare-breasts’ protocol outside their Palo Alto offices. Those who couldn’t be physically present showed solidarity with fellow complainants by simultaneously changing their Facebook profile pictures to display images of breastfeeding. To articulate their collective discontentment Helen Farley, organiser of this “nurse in,” submitted an open letter to Facebook, berating the higher echelons of the social networking site for its “discrimination against breastfeeding mothers” since:

When pictures are removed of breastfeeding and not of artificial feeding, breastfeeding mothers are being discriminated against and a wrongful double standard is set.

Facebook’s defence has always been that the site does not promote the publication of images that could be considered offensive, including those in which the nipple or the areole is fully displayed. There is no explicit reference made to breastfeeding. Any nipple or areole shot has been subject to a cull. Barry Schnitt, Facebook spokesperson, commented:

These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children [over the age of 13] who use the site.

To me, this seems reasonable enough. This isn’t about breastfeeding. This isn’t about seeing breasts as abhorrent or breastfeeding as an obscene function; as something that should be prohibited and hidden.I can appreciate that breastfeeding mothers feel that once they have made the decision to nurse their babies they are in some respects isolated from society, largely because of prevailing social attitudes. This, of course, is unacceptable, but Facebook is not to blame. Facebook didn’t purposely intended to censor breastfeeding, and this hostility seems to be sadly misdirected. It just so happens that female physiology is such that in order to breastfeed one has to expose her breasts, especially her nipples and areoles. Facebook’s actions are about nothing more than determining if the publication of images of partial nudity on a site whose usership ranges from children to pensioners is appropriate. It wouldn’t be. What should Facebook do?

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