Why users are waging war against Instagram’s confusing policies on nude selfies

Instagram is continuing to wage war on the naked body, with more and more celebrities joining the fight—including Miley Cyrus, Chelsea Handler, and Scout Willis. This week, it’s Sports Illustrated model Chrissy Teigen speaking out in defense of nude selfies, after Instagram deleted a photograph in which her nipples were visible. As the fight over nudity on Instagram drags out, it’s time to reevaluate the platform and its purpose. 
For an app that facilitates the sharing of images, including users’ creative work, Instagram sure does hate art—or at least, it thinks that it can define what is and isn’t art through its moderation guidelines.

The boundary between art, casual photos, and porn can sometimes feel difficult to determine, and sometimes images span multiple or all three of these categories. Found object art can turn the vacation photos that litter Instagram into artistic expression, while some porn is explicitly shot with aesthetics in mind, creating works of art that are both beautiful and sensual.

Instagram user Hazel (@ropehaze), for example, produces images that are visually stunning, but also reflective of her role in the BDSM community. Art? Porn? Commemorations of BDSM events? All of the above?

🌈🍎🍊🍌🍀??💜🌈 #?? #?? #shibari #rainbow

A photo posted by Hazel (@ropehaze) on

According to its Community Guidelines, Instagram is “a place for inspiration and expression,” which certainly sounds like art. And a lot of art happens to feature naked people, who make fascinating subjects.
Photography is complex, varied, and stunning, and one of the benefits of the digital age is that photography as an art form has become readily accessible to a wider audience. Anyone with a smartphone can take and share images on Instagram. However, the site is used with very deliberate intent by documentarians, fashion photographers, and artists, who use Instagram as a platform for distributing their work and connect with fans.

Documentary photographer Leah Millis (@leahmillis) covers topics like culture and the drought for the San Francisco Chronicle, but on her Instagram account, she gives her followers a more personal view of life.

When nature calls. #tothelostcoast #youreouttacontrol #lonetoilet #cali photo cred: @marissa_jae

A photo posted by Leah Millis (@leahmillis) on

Tom Anderson (@myspacetom)—yes, that Tom—takes followers on his around the world adventures.

Northern Lights in Iceland last December. Thinking of going back for summer 🙂

A photo posted by Tom Anderson (@myspacetom) on

Many of the accounts profiled in Instagram’s user features are artists, illustrators, and photographers, but at the same time it advocates for art, Instagram continues to curtail creativity with a zero tolerance policy not just for nipples, but for nudes, according to the user guidelines.

“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram,” the site guidelines state. Many users get around this restriction by posting images suggestive of nudity in which models are at least partially clothed, as in the case of these images from Kim Kardashian, photographer Jess Ewald, Victoria’s Secret model Candice Swanepoel, and Nicki Minaj.


A photo posted by Kim Kardashian West (@kimkardashian) on


A photo posted by Candice Swanepoel (@angelcandices) on

Such images aren’t just about the nudity of the model, but the form and composition of the image; the models themselves are beautiful, but the photographs are carefully and thoughtfully constructed. They are, in other words, works of art. They also technically pass Instagram standards, given costuming and composition.

Other photographs, though, clearly break the rules, like this pregnancy announcement from model Doutzen Kroes:

This is not a #throwbackthursday this is now! So happy to share with you that we are expecting 💕

A photo posted by Doutzen Kroes (@doutzen) on

Similarly, photographer David Alan Harvey skirts the guidelines with this image suggestive of nudity, although the framing makes it difficult to ascertain precisely what the subjects are(n’t?) wearing.

When it comes to the selective enforcement of Instagram’s ban on nude and suggestive images, a number of issues become readily apparent. Despite the site’s claim that even artistic nudes aren’t allowed, it often gives certain photos a pass, even though they’re on high-profile accounts that administrators are no doubt aware of and have sometimes even featured. It’s clear that administrators consider such pictures to be art photography, and they have little interest in taking them down.

The site also tends to view nudes or partial nudes more favorably when they involve conventionally attractive female subjects. Fat women like Samm Newman, for example, report that their accounts have been deleted after uploading photos in their underwear—which don’t violate the guidelines—suggesting a fatphobic streak among moderators. Transgender users are also more prone to photo deletion and account suspension.

Similarly, there’s a gendered divide in moderation of nude photos, with the dreaded female nipple being the frequent subject of aggressive attacks, while men tend to be given more leeway when it comes to exposing their bodies, as Eggplant Fridays testify. Sexually suggestive images of male bodies are less subject to swift and merciless deletion than those of women.
On the other hand, defiant nudes, whether from celebrities or others, tend to be taken down. When nudity is used as a tool of reclamation or declaration—in other words, a tool of expression, as supported in the site guidelines—it triggers Instagram’s wrath, as in the case of Miley Cyrus and Rihanna.

The divides in terms of what Instagram finds acceptable for user expression are troubling, as the site can’t seem to make up its mind when it comes to evaluating images and accounts.

It’s a private service and photographers have access to other venues for distributing their work. If artistic nudes aren’t allowed, as stated under the policy, then they should be removed, allowing photographers to take their work elsewhere, to a platform that doesn’t threaten them with the risk of losing their content. If they are permitted, the policy needs to be revised to reflect this. 

As the operator of a service in an era concerned with issues like revenge porn and nude photographs of underage people, along with the accompanying liability, Instagram is within its rights to set out a user policy regarding nudes and near-nudes. The issue is the inconsistent application of that policy, which constantly leaves users guessing when it comes to uploading photographs as they attempt to gauge whether those images are likely to face deletion.

Curiously, nudity in photographs of paintings, statues, and other works of art is acceptable. The fact that this is specifically discussed in the user policy is a subtle acknowledgement of the fact that the naked body has been a part of art and culture for thousands of years. Sadly, a service allegedly dedicated to artistic expression doesn’t support the same free expression for its members.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via SeanJCPhoto/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.