Facebook’s War on Nipples

Facebooks War on Nipples

The breast-feeding wars have long followed a familiar pattern. A woman gets
thrown off a plane for nursing her toddler; she sues Delta. Barbara Walters
says sitting next to a breast-feeding woman made her “uncomfortable”; ABC’s
headquarters get surrounded by 200 women staging a “nurse-in.” Maggie
Gyllenhaal is photographed nursing her daughter in public; tabloids rush to
either praise her as a role model or tell her to throw a blanket over her

The sides have been distinct: breast-feeding advocates insist that women should be
able to nurse anytime, anyplace, while opponents use words like discretion and
discomfort. But the latest battle apparently has nothing to do with the best
way to nourish a baby or the boundaries between private and public.
It’s about the nipples, stupid.

Facebook has drawn a line in the sand by removing any photos it deems obscene, including those containing a fully exposed breast, which the site defines as “showing the nipple or areola.” In other words, plunging necklines or string bikinis are fine — just no nips. The purging of
bare-boob pics began last summer and has swept up, alongside any girls gone
wild, a growing number of proud — and very ticked-off — breast feeders.

On Dec. 27, some 11,000 protesters held a virtual nurse-in by uploading
breast-feeding photos onto their Facebook profiles, and 20 or so women showed
up at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to breast-feed there.
By Dec. 30, more than 85,000 members had joined a Facebook group called
“Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!”

The group, founded by San Diego mom Kelli Roman, urges Facebook to change its obscenity policy. “We expect you to realize that
nursing moms everywhere have a right to show pictures of their babies
eating, just like bottle-fed babies have a right to be seen,” their petition
reads. “In an effort to appease the closed-minded, you are only serving to
be detrimental to babies, women, and society.”

Assisting their cause is the Topfree Equal Rights Association , a Canadian group that has
started posting on its website photos that breast feeders claim were removed from
Facebook. One or two are vaguely pornographic shots of naked women holding babies,
but most are straightforward and innocent.

“There are two problems,” says Paul Rapoport, coordinator for TERA, which
has been advocating that women should not be penalized for going
topless since 1997. “First, Facebook removes photos arbitrarily. Second, its policy
clearly implies that visible nipples or areolas always make photos of women
obscene. Facebook stigmatizes breast-feeding and demeans women.”

Facebook counters that it is far from the only organization steering clear
of Areola City. “Could I place an ad related to breast-feeding that showed a
woman breast-feeding a child but exposed her full breast in TIME or on your
website” asks spokesman Barry Schnitt. “During the course of this protest,
I’ve called many media organizations and asked them this question. Not a
single one has said yes.”

The Facebook furor has brought up a bizarre cultural issue. We’re
all for breasts — the more cleavage the better. But the second a nipple
is visible or we are reminded of nipples by the sight of a baby attached to
one, all hell breaks loose.

When a tabloid website catches a star like Britney Spears, Keira Knightley or
Tara Reid in a red-carpet “nip slip,” traffic goes through the roof, as Web
surfers click to catch a glimpse of the forbidden bit of skin.

It is perhaps understandable that we’d be so enflamed by the sight of
women’s nipples because we see them so rarely. Barbie dolls don’t have
nipples. Magazines routinely airbrush out nipples on fully clothed models.

In the past decade, some 40 states have passed pro-breast-feeding legislation.
Rapoport, however, says he considers such laws a “two-edged deal because it
exempts nursing women from prosecution but reaffirms the sense that a
topless woman is obscene without a baby.”

Meanwhile, men’s nipples aren’t a problem. Recent photos of President-elect
Barack Obama walking shirtless on a beach were greeted with puns about how he is “fit to be President,” “buff-bodied” and “chiseled.”

And perhaps the surest sign that “pregnant man” Thomas Beatie has been
accepted as a man — even though he still has female sex organs and the
ability to deliver a baby — is the fact that his nipples, the same ones
he had when he was a woman, are suddenly O.K. to look at. They are
acceptable features for the cover of a book, the pages of a magazine —and the profile photos for the Facebook groups supporting him.

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