For the record, I’ve always really loved Instagram.
Earlier last week I decided to do something kind of crazy. Instagram had recently deleted my account over what they called “instances of abuse.” Which in reality amounted to a photo of myself in a sheer top and a post of a jacket I made featuring a picture of two close friends topless. For these instances of abuse, I was politely informed that I would no longer be welcome in the Instagram community.
My situation was in no way unique; women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple -- degrading as they might be -- remain unchallenged. So I walked around New York topless and documented it on Twitter, pointing out that what is legal by New York state law is not allowed on Instagram.
What began as a challenge to Instagram and its prejudiced community guidelines became an opportunity for dialogue. Matters like the taboo of the nipple in the 21st century, public breastfeeding, slut shaming, fat shaming, breast cancer awareness, body positivity, gender inequality, and censorship have found their way into mainstream discussion. But unfortunately the emphasis in the press has been on sensationalizing my breasts, chiefly in terms of my family.
I understand that people don’t want to take me seriously. Or would rather just write me off as an attention-seeking, over-privileged, ignorant, white girl. I am white and I was born to a high profile and financially privileged family. I didn’t choose my public life, but it did give me this platform. A platform that helps make body politics newsworthy.
I am certainly not doing anything novel. A group here in New York called Topless Pulp gathers in parks to read topless regularly, and the Free The Nipple campaign has been protesting for the same rights for the last four years. If my coming from a high-profile family could help spread their message, so be it. I am not ashamed of who I am. And for every nasty comment I received there were ten more of support, appreciation, and empowerment.
There are also some people who would criticize my choice to relate nipples with equality at all. To me, nipples seem to be at the very heart of the issue. In the 1930s, men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way. In 1930, four men went topless to Coney Island and were arrested. In 1935, a flash mob of topless men descended upon Atlantic City, 42 of whom were arrested. Men fought and they were heard, changing not only laws but social consciousness. And by 1936, men’s bare chests were accepted as the norm.
So why is it that 80 years later women can’t seem to achieve the same for their chests? Why can’t a mother proudly breastfeed her child in public without feeling sexualized? Why is a 17-year-old girl being asked to leave her own prom because a group of fathers find her too provocative? Why should I feel overly exposed because I choose not to wear a bra? Why would it be okay with Instagram and Facebook to allow photos of a cancer survivor who has had a double mastectomy and is without areolas but “photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery, don’t follow Instagram’s Community Guidelines.” Until this weekend women were afraid to post photos of their mastectomy tattoos -- realistic or creative -- for fear that Instagram would delete their accounts.
I am not trying to argue for mandatory toplessness, or even bralessness. What I am arguing for is a woman’s right to choose how she represents her body -- and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.
I never claimed to believe that my actions of the past 48 hours would solve anything -- far from it. But what they did achieve was to provoke conversations about gender equality and body positivity that are both necessary and sorely lacking. I am humbled to be part of any action that’s helped push the discussion of women’s rights into the spotlight. Which is where I believe it should remain, focused on what’s really important and most certainly not on me as an individual.
So, while I still think that those who don’t support the movement should simply unfollow me, I call out to every person moved by this to take physical -- as well as digital -- action, and help transform what started out as a casual topless stroll into something resembling true change. While in the meantime, my breasts and I return to a more casual form of a protest beneath my favorite sheer tank top.