Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Truth in censorship of women's bodies on social media

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Today’s era is profoundly marked by the growth of social media. Given their wide impact, it is important that powerful networking platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, represent the populations in their realities. However, numerous debates have emerged regarding the norms and values that social media conveys. Indeed, the rise of censorship of women’s bodies has caused indignation around the world. This chapter will be discussing how different disciplines conduct various approaches to the truth of this phenomenon.

Truth in Law[edit | edit source]

Censorship, which can be defined as the "official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order“[1], is used by social media in their rules to regulate the display of nudity. However, they restrain women’s bodies’ expression and their interpretation is often subjective to their phrasing. Thus they aren't applied equally to every woman. “Squeezing female breasts, defined as a grabbing motion with curved fingers that shows both marks and clear shape change of the breasts“[2] is supposed to be forbidden on Facebook, but in reality, prominent breasts being touched can be censored whereas small breasts aren't. Moreover, celebrities and women who match the beauty ideals - thin, white etc.- are restricted less severely than others[3][4][5]. The vagueness of those policies allows social media to remove anything they want. Pinterest's policy is a great demonstration of the freedom that the platform has to delete anything without justification : ”We reserve the right to remove or modify User Content, or change the way it’s used in Pinterest, for any reason”.[6]

As for menstruation blood, contents have been removed on the basis of the policy even though it was respected. In March 2015, a photo depicting a fully clothed woman with bloodstains on her trousers and sheets was removed without explanation, except that it didn't respect the policy even though menstrual blood is not mentioned in it.[7]

However, some policies are actually very specific and thus restrictive. For example, “female nipples“ are censored on TikTok[8], Facebook and Instagram[9] but male ones are not[10]. Even though some improvements have been made allowing nipples to be shown “in the context of breastfeeding, birth-giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations“[11] for Facebook and Instagram, it is not generally allowed yet.

In conclusion, because of the law expressed in the policies which induce censorship on social media, the online image of women’s bodies is not a mirror of reality. The ambiguity of the policies and their vagueness makes the truth that is shown subjective and unfair.

Truth in Sociology[edit | edit source]

Social interaction has an impact on humans and their mental state and since it is largely carried out through social media nowadays, the censorship of certain content also plays a part in shaping our society’s mentality.[12]

Social media can affect the human psyche in various ways, including how people view their own bodies and feel about themselves. Especially young women seem to be affected by this and experience for example eating disorders and distorted perception of their bodies due to profuse exposure to certain beauty ideals (in this case, thinness) on social media.[13] Evidently, what is seen on the platforms, and in turn what is not, can severely affect the norms and ideals that are deducted within society.[14]

Content such as the graphic demonstration of women’s body hair, mothers breastfeeding, women's nipples or discussion about natural phenomena like their menstrual cycle has been subject to censorship on social media. What one is left with are social media platforms that provide viewers with an altered picture of women’s bodies, with also not all kinds of bodies being equally represented.[15] An example is the censorship of pictures of overweight women. This promotes unrealistic body images for most girls and women and further invigorates the striving towards bodily “perfection”, which is seemingly defined by the content that does end up being viewed.[16] The issues of "female nipples" and "female body" hair being censored are also especially controversial in society, since for men it is considered socially acceptable to show their nipples as well as body hair.[17]

“Taboo-ing” such topics and pictures in the first place constructs a perception of parts of women’s bodies as something shameful and sexual, and the display of such as suggestive and provocative.[18] Thus, sociologically, the censorship of women’s bodies on social media does not only mirror issues in society like their sexualization and stigmatization but also further consolidates them by constructing an incomplete and consequently non-authentic portrayal of reality.

Truth in Economics[edit | edit source]

Nowadays social media is one of the most effective ways for businesses to reach new audiences on a global scale, and like every firm, social media companies’ first concern is to make a profit.[19] Their primary and most successful way to make money is through selling advertising, meaning that an advertising sales representative sells « space » on their platforms to companies that want to advertise their products.[20][21]

Advertising companies try using societal “supposed ideals” in ads on social networks to maximize the audience they are reaching, in an endeavor to sell a maximum amount of products. An example is the adage: “what is beautiful is good”, in other words: what is attractive makes more money.[22] Facebook's and therefore Instagram’s guidelines consider content where “nudity or implied nudity (even if artistic or educational in nature), excessive visible skin or cleavage (even if not explicitly sexual in nature) images focused on individual body parts, such as abs, buttocks or chest, (even if not explicitly sexual in nature)” against their Advertising Policies.[23]Also, black or “plus-size” women have been largely underrepresented in advertisements in general for a long time, and still are in part. [24] During the ad review process, the advertising sales representatives of the platform decide whether the ad will be made available to the consumers or not.

Companies decide what they show on their platforms and what they do not. An economist would say that all economic agents make rational choices and as firms, social media platforms' primary concern is, as said before, making money. That means that in truth, censorship is a rational choice to pursue their goal of making a profit. This theory is manifested by the fact that women's nipples, hairy legs, or menstrual blood in advertisements can be considered "shocking" and consequently have a negative impact on business.[25]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Examining the fact that women’s bodies are being censored on social media through the lens of different disciplines, various explanations of the truth that this phenomenon displays can be deducted. While sociologists would not only argue that the censorship reflects issues within society itself, but also that this censorship constructs an image and expectations of the woman’s body in society that are not entirely truthful, an economist would use a more quantitative approach, explaining the situation to be a result of a business model aimed at increasing the profit of companies. Law provides us with necessary guidelines but also leaves real grey areas with respect to which kind of content is approved for display on social media. As the truth might be situated somewhere in the middle of these explanations, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary to illustrate it accurately.

References[edit | edit source]

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