Facebook's hypocritical breast-feeding controversy

The social media giant can't figure out what defines a dirty picture -- or the difference between biology and porn

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 8, 2012 4:45PM (EST)


This week in Controversies We Can't Believe Are Still Happening: Facebook. Breast-feeding. Discuss.

Facebook, where you can create an entire album of your drunken, vomity, relieving-yourself-into-a-sink exploits, where you can share images of your child happily sliding around in his own diarrhea, has long maintained a surprisingly prim attitude toward the comparatively tame issue of breast-feeding shots. Though the company insists that "breastfeeding is natural and beautiful," and that "the vast majority of … photos are compliant with our policies, and we will not take action on them," it also maintains that "photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities." Photos that are taken down, Facebook says, "are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain about them."

It seems fair enough to create a boundary on a social media site. And it doesn't take much searching – likely in your own friend feed – to see plenty of mothers who have profile photos or family albums that depict them proudly nursing their children.

The problem, however, is Facebook's capriciousness enforcement terms, and how maddeningly punitive and arbitrary they can be. Some women skate by with nary an eyelash batted at their pictures. But a person whose photo is deemed by Facebook to have an unacceptable degree of nipple will not just find the picture removed, but often her account temporarily deleted on a vague "breach of terms of use" charge. Treating women like petty criminals for posting what are obviously not sexually explicit images is just stupid business.

So on Monday, mothers took to Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., and offices all over the world to do their lactating in person. As childbirth educator Emma Kwasnica, who attended a nurse-in in Houston this week, told the local CBS affiliate, "There’s no other way to look at it. We’re being treated as pornographers."

Judge for yourself -- though be prepared that the occasional nipple may qualify the images as NSFW -- the "Topfree Equal Rights Association" has a neat compilation of photos that Facebook users say have been removed over the years. Some of them dare to show a contentiously exposed, not-in-use breast along with a baby contentedly latched on the other one.

None of them seem especially incendiary -- and none of them look that different from other photos that  survived just fine on Facebook. The idea that the biggest difference between the photos that stay and those that are deleted is "users who complain" is insulting. It tells women to be prepared to be punished, largely on the basis of whether someone else decides they ought to be. And in the same week that a jackass like Staples co-founder Tom Stemberg whined that the Affordable Care Act, which grants a "reasonable break time" and space for working mothers to express milk, will turn America's workplaces into sinisterly futuristic-sounding "lactation chambers," Facebook's ongoing boneheadedness speaks to a larger issue. It illuminates the depressing reality that breast-feeding, after all this time, is still deemed inappropriate, unproductive and just plain icky. And that a nipple, even one with a hungry baby nearby, is just darn scandalous.

Why does it matter? And why would a woman choose to post a photo of her baby at her breast, anyway? Well, for starters, if you've got a baby, chances are high that you're in a near-constant state of having somebody clamped on you. If somebody wants to take a picture, odds are good that's what it's going to be. It's often sweet, tender and special, and photos encourage other people to accept it and maybe even give it a go themselves. A photo, after all, is a defining statement. And it's one any mother, especially a new one, should be free to make.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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