The week of May 3, 2015

Why Facebook still has a problem with breasts

By Selena Larson

Take a close look at the following illustration. Do you find it offensive or generally not safe for work?


It’s part of ThirdLove’s Breast Shape Dictionary, which features illustrations of women’s chests and torsos, focusing on the differences between sizes and shapes of breasts.

ThirdLove is a bra company and iPhone application that helps women figure out which bra size and style is the most comfortable and will give them the most support. After a woman sends in a photo of herself in a bra or tank top, ThirdLove analyzes her body type and provides her with the best piece to contour to her bosom.

“They’re truly gaining pseudo-governmental power to enforce societal norms on broad chunks of the population and their speech.”

Considering an estimated 64 percent of women wear the wrong size bra, this technology can make bra shopping easier for women everywhere. The Breast Shape Dictionary further helps women better understand the differences in curves and navigate the seemingly endless shapes and bra possibilities. It’s meant as an educational resource for women.

Facebook didn’t see it that way.

That illustration got ThirdLove banned from advertising on the social network. Oddly enough, the image actually attached to the ad showed nothing but a box full of bras.


ThirdLove’s ad was pulled from Facebook on April 1, just five days after campaign began. The company emailed ThirdLove describing the ad as “inappropriate,” writing, “The drawings of breasts on the landing page are being classified as nudity and can’t be directed to from Facebook.” Even after ThirdLove explained that the ad only targeted women 25 and older, Facebook declined to reinstate it.

ThirdLove’s advertising ordeal is among the latest in Facebook’s long history of censoring women’s breasts. The company has come under fire in the past for banning photos of breastfeeding women and mastectomy photos, and in April, Facebook pulled a video trailer for a television show that featured topless aboriginal Australian women. While Facebook has made significant steps forward, ThirdLove’s ordeal shows how easily it is for companies and individuals to still get caught in the social network’s gray areas.

“We’ve actually had so many customers and people I meet say, ‘This is so amazing, I’ve never seen it described this way,’” Heidi Zak, president and cofounder of ThirdLove, said in an interview with the Kernel. “To me, it’s kind of crazy. These ads are actually helping a woman understand her body and make a purchase for something that she needs to wear every single day of her life.

Facebook, for its part, realizes it gets things wrong sometimes but says that the platform must maintain some standards of decency. It declined to respond to specific criticisms but offered a statement about its general approach to nudity on the site.

The Breast Shape Dictionary got ThirdLove banned from advertising on Facebook.

“Just like other media, we have to put limitations on nudity,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Kernel via email. “It is not always easy to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves creatively while maintaining a respectful experience for our global and culturally diverse community of many different ages, but we try our best.”

According to the company’s community standards, no photos of genitals or a bare buttocks are allowed on the site. As far as women’s breasts go, it’s not so black and white.

We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow photos of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes. Explicit images of sexual intercourse are prohibited. Descriptions of sexual acts that go into vivid detail may also be removed.

The relaxed restrictions on breastfeeding and post-mastectomy scarring came after massive, sustained public outcry. Facebook repeatedly banned photos of breastfeeding mothers and women who shared photos of their post-mastectomy bodies, and in 2013, breast cancer survivors launched a petition to reverse the ban. In June 2014, Facebook updated its community standards to specifically allow photos of post-mastectomy scarring and breastfeeding.


The company revised its community standards again in March 2015 to provide more precise guidance about what’s allowable; previously, Facebook’s restrictions on nudity only used sculptures like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding as examples of allowable content.

But for many Facebook users, the line between allowed and prohibited nudity remains murky. Éloïse Bouton, a freelance journalist and former member of the feminist protest group Femen, which is known for topless protests across Europe, recently had her profile photo censored by Facebook. Her photo depicted the cover of her book Confessions of an Ex-Femen Member, on which she is posed, topless, with the title of her book splashed across her body, almost covering her breasts altogether.

“Why should women’s breasts be considered offensive while men’s are not?”

According to Bouton, Facebook deleted the image and made it impossible for her to post on her own account. Facebook alerted her that the image violated the company’s policies but didn’t provide further elaboration.

Bouton has faced this type of censorship before. As a member of Femen, she posted a number of photos that were removed from Facebook for violating the nudity policies. She and fellow protesters began to blur or hide the nipples in images—not just from their own images but from photos of topless women dating back to the 1970s. But the censorship of her own book’s photo was something she’d never experienced.

“Facebook claims to represent the future of online information and modernity but is just reactionary and spreading the message that all forms of nudity are disgusting and shameful and that women’s bodies should be hidden,” Bouton said in an email. “Facebook doesn’t make any difference between hyper sexualized images of women, pornography, violence and art or the use of nudity as a political tool and a way to protest against how society tries to control women’s bodies.” (Facebook did not respond specifically to Bouton’s criticism and offered the blanket statement quoted above.) Earlier this year, Instagram (owned by Facebook) censored a photo of a fully clothed woman with menstrual blood on her pants, which it eventually restored.

For Facebook to flag and remove a personal photo as a violation of community standards, it must first be reported by a Facebook user. For advertisers, there is a combination of automated and manual checks to identify illicit ads or, as in the case of ThirdLove, those that point to a website Facebook finds inappropriate. The company’s community standards state: “We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content—particularly because of their cultural background or age.”

Bouton notes that topless men, however, are allowed on Facebook. “Naked men can show their chest recklessly because their body is not considered as erotic and indecent,” she said. “These policies are discriminatory towards women and unworthy of a website that claims to fight for freedom of speech. Why should women’s breasts be considered offensive while men’s are not?”

For many Facebook users, the line between allowed and prohibited nudity remains murky.

Facebook also restricts how users might discover risque content. Searching for hashtags and topics like #bra and #lingerie on both Facebook and Instagram is impossible. Curiously, you can search for #jockstrap.

As a private company, Facebook is completely within its rights to decide which content to censor, and as Lee Rowland, staff attorney for the Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) points out, it’s a policy issue, not a legal one. But, she said, Facebook wields enormous power over its users’ means of expression.

“The average person’s soapbox today is a digital one, and the result is that the most frequent forum for today’s speech occurs on the platforms of companies like Facebook and Twitter,” Rowland said. “They’re truly gaining pseudo-governmental power to enforce societal norms on broad chunks of the population and their speech.”

When Rowland wrote a blog post about a topless female statue that had riled the citizens of a town in Kansas, she posted it to Facebook. Despite the social network’s claim that art and sculptures “like Michelangelo’s David” were in the clear, the picture was removed—twice—with only a notice that Facebook had removed the content. There was no clear way to appeal the decision; the ACLU contacted Facebook but received a response saying it “can’t respond to individual emails.”

Facebook’s public policy manager, reached via email, eventually said multiple mistakes had led to the takedown, according to Rowland, and the post was reinstated. (Bouton contacted Facebook’s help center when her photo was removed and says the company never replied.)

Rowland sees Facebook’s policies as ultimately detrimental in ways the company may not realize—and not just to its advertisers. “Elevating women’s breasts to something that meets the front line of censorship can really backfire against educational materials, and against materials that help women with any questions about their bodies,” she said. “Though Facebook is within its right to have policies like that, those policies can end up being very outdated in their view of female sexuality.”

The company’s policies project its image to the public; if the company wants to be seen as dedicated to free speech, it should err on the side of less censorship. “It’s a risky business strategy,” she said. “If women don’t feel they can speak freely about their bodies and about things that matter to them on Facebook, it certainly makes sense they would find another outlet online to do so.”

At the end of the day, Zak said, Facebook wants to make money through advertising. The company eventually reinstated ThirdLove’s advertising at the beginning of May, but in the meantime, ThirdLove lost business and Facebook lost advertising revenue. The social network’s current stance hurts both it and potential advertisers, according to Zak. “It defeats all types of goals,” she said. “Business goals and the goal of what’s fair and not fair to show as content.”

Photo via Connie Ma/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed