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Why I don’t ‘Like’ this nipple campaign

Facebook’s ban on photos of women’s exposed breasts is silly, but lactivists’ campaign against it is even sillier.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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Facebook recently added to its extensive list of public-relations blunders by banning two photos of little girls pretending to breastfeed their dolls. When the friends of the Express Yourself Mums’ page complained, Facebook removed the entire page, only to reinstate it a short time later with a mumbling apology.

Facebook has removed photos of women breastfeeding their babies in the past. Back in 2008, ‘lactivists’ – breastfeeding activists – staged a nurse-in outside Facebook’s Palo Alto offices and thousands more women protested by posting their breastfeeding pictures online. Facebook eventually backed down. Sort of. It still doesn’t allow pictures of women’s exposed breasts and nipples but generally overlooks them, unless someone complains. Then Facebook will remove the ‘offending’ pictures, until someone complains, and then allow them back up again, until someone complains… It’s arbitrary. It’s opaque. It makes no sense.

Incidents like these, and any of the other mysterious bans that have become part and parcel of Facebook, might lead a reasonable person to question the wisdom of having a group of faceless dogsbodies enforce a sketchy standard of public decency on a user base of 845million people. On the other hand, you might start a campaign for Facebook to allow nipples instead. Enter the Guardian.

When news of the story about the Express Yourself Mums Facebook page broke, the fearless folk at the Guardian’s Comment is Free site decided to do a little Facebook-busting by inviting readers to submit pictures of their ‘nipple-accessorised’ breastfeeding, promising to post them to the Guardian’s Facebook page.

Facebook wasn’t actually stopping anyone from breastfeeding, but digital campaigns and communications consultant Rowan Davies explained that, as ‘one of the most influential cultural mediators in the world’ their ban on nipples ‘gives succour to every shopping-centre security guard who’s ever told a nursing mother to put it away or leave the premises’. She continued: ‘A mother who is told by Facebook that her breastfeeding photos have been removed because her nipples were showing is quite likely to be humiliated, upset and one step closer to giving up on breastfeeding.’

Alternatively, this theoretical mother might simply conclude that Facebook has a stupid policy of banning anything anyone might find offensive instead of leaving it to users not to view material they don’t like. In any case, the hundreds of mothers who sent in photos proudly displaying their nipples did not seem terribly humiliated. But if they’d hoped to provoke Facebook into changing its policy, they must have been disappointed. The campaign quickly degenerated into amateurish farce.

Not only were the women’s photos not posted on the Guardian’s Facebook page as promised, they were not even posted on the Comment is Free Facebook page. The site moderators said they could not possibly post the hundreds of photographs, that they didn’t want to overwhelm Facebook’s moderation team or ‘behave like trolls’. Rather, they chose to post a gallery of 10 ‘beautiful breastfeeding images’ to their Tumblr blog, earnestly declaring that they hoped ‘someone at Facebook’ would look at the gallery and agree that ‘Facebook is the real loser here’.

In the face of such polite indifference, National Childbirth Trust chief Belinda Phipps launched a fresh appeal last week using a series of new and creative arguments. She claimed, for instance, that nipples, like hands and lips, aren’t just for sex, and so Facebook doesn’t have the right to ban nipples any more than hands or lips. She claimed there is evidence that seeing mothers breastfeed may enable future parents to consider it themselves. Further, she said, by refusing to show nursing nipples, Facebook is contradicting public-health messages and UK equality legislation which grants women the right to breastfeed anywhere. Facebook is also going against the grain of public opinion, Phipps said, as 84 per cent of people in England apparently are not offended by breastfeeding, which is even broadly acceptable in conservative societies like the Philippines and Taiwan. By not showing nipples, Phipps argued, Facebook is undermining mothers’ ability to see what breastfeeding really looks like.

These lactivists are labouring under many misapprehensions about what Facebook is or should be. It is not a benevolent educator interested in promoting breastfeeding. Nor is it likely to ‘make a big difference to mothers and their babies across the globe’, as the campaigners claim. Davies writes that ‘a society that is not prepared to accept the odd flash of nipple is a society that is not prepared to accept breastfeeding’. But, while Facebook is a sizeable forum for social communication, it is not society itself. Indeed, this very episode reveals that Facebook’s policies are often out of step with the sentiments of many of its users.

The idea that women will get help with breastfeeding by looking at other women doing it is also flawed. Breastfeeding assistance involves a fairly technical discussion of cracking, bleeding, itching, latching, weight change, fore milk, hind milk, weaning and breast pumps. None of this really requires images and most breastfeeding forums don’t include them. Of course, breastfeeding can take some getting used to. For people learning to do it, finally getting the hang of it does create a sense of camaraderie with other breastfeeding mothers – even to the point of swapping triumphant photos. But let’s not confuse looking at breastfeeding photos with the real moral support that comes from a shared experience.

As the lactivists’ campaign shows, breastfeeding has become more than simply a way to feed babies. It is a potent form of personal identity for many people. It makes a statement about who they are and what they value – and what better way to display your identity than posting pictures on Facebook? Such photos are not simply about the babies in them. All babies are beautiful to the people who love them. They are as lovely when they fall asleep nuzzling against our necks as when sleeping at a breast. They would be arguably as sweet when feeding from a bottle. And yet, because formula-feeding is looked down upon, there are no equivalent ‘beautiful formula-feeding images’ being posted online. Instead, anything that seeks to normalise or even celebrate bottle-feeding, like Old Navy’s infamous ‘Formula Powered’ onesie, is greeted with hostility.

So let’s stop pretending that breastfeeding mothers are a persecuted minority. If anything, the gushing official approval for breastfeeding turns mothers who do breastfeed into an admired elite. Yes, there are the proverbial hostile security guards who don’t like the sight of breastfeeding mums, but they are invariably acting off their own backs. As the Guardian itself points out, the vast majority of people in the UK and elsewhere have no problem with women breastfeeding in public. Perhaps this is why very few people, let alone Facebook, are taking the lactivists’ campaign very seriously. Isn’t it time now to knock this one on the head?

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Politics

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