Saturday, January 3, 2009

Facebook Breast Ban: When Does a Girls' Body Become "Indecent"?

While teen girl cleavage and bathroom-mirror-pouting has been a fixture on MySpace for years now, the more "mature" social networking site Facebook has recently ruffled a few maternal feathers by removing photographs from its site that violate its terms of service. The images in question are those which show breastfeeding in which part or all of the mother's nipple or areola are revealed. While breastfeeding photographs in general are not problematic according to Facebook, those which do not have a baby neatly latched on to the breast so as to conceal any potentially offending flesh will be removed.

A spokesperson for the site, Barry Schnitt, explained that some images were removed to keep the site "safe" and "secure", including for children: "Photos containing a fully exposed breast - as defined by showing the nipple or areola - do violate those terms on obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit material and may be removed...The photos we act upon are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain."

The decision has sparked a full-scale debate not only about whether breastfeeding images are appropriate on social networking sites, but also about whether revealing the breast while feeding a child in public is appropriate and whether it constitutes "exhibitionism" on the part of the mother. The comments on one blog portray the idea that mothers who feed in public should shroud their chest and feeding baby in a blanket or trudge out to the privacy of their car. (Let's not even think about those poor mothers who don't have a car to conceal their feeding. These ones should just stay home.)

Other commentors take up the idea that Facebook spokesperson Schnitt makes: the presence of pictures of mothers feeding online where part of their areola or nipple is showing could be viewed by children. I'm not sure why the unlikely event of children seeing photographs on Facebook of mothers feeding babies is so problematic. It only becomes this way when we carry over our adult sexualisation of breasts to children themselves, bringing our own understandings of pornography and a body-obsessed popular culture to what is an essential aspect of raising a child (unless medical reasons preclude it). Still others commented on those who may find breastfeeding sexually arousing gaining pleasure from some images. I once met a man who worked at a "rehabilitation" centre for sex offenders (he incidentally said child sex offenders were never actually rehabilitated). Part of his job was to go through the TV Guide and ensure all children's programmes, including Humphrey B. Bear and Hi-Five, were struck from it and unavailable to be viewed by them because the sight of any children could be arousing to them. We cannot more broadly remove every image of children or babies that someone, somewhere may find arousing.

What intrigued me about the discussion was when a few posters, who could not see the offense in the female breast performing its essential function, homed in on the offending nipples and areolas themselves: what about the nipples of men and girls? Male nipples we know have no apparent function in the same way as female nipples do for feeding, so perhaps we can exclude them from consideration. Nevertheless, the Facebook policy appears to dwell on nipple exposure rather than the actual swell and volume of the breast which is part of what differentiates the female's chest from the male's. That aside, it was interesting to consider that the nipples of girls can be spotted on beaches and pools across Australia almost up until the point of sexual maturation. If it is female nipples themselves that are the most sexualised object in a breastfeeding photo, why do young girls swim publicly with them visible?

Now I shouldn't be trying to find logic in these ideas, so these questions may be unanswerable, and I also could not believe the way in which many posters likened public breastfeeding to public acts of defecation, urination, vomiting and sexual intercourse. These hang-ups about the female body performing its designed purpose are so deeply ingrained that is no wonder that some people reach adulthood in ignorance of the fact that breasts exist to feed babies. Also no surprise that girls themselves are getting the message that sexualised MySpace breasts show their attractiveness but breastfeeding is an abject act that will ruin her desirability. One poster discussed the "blue veiny" lactating breast with horror. The silicone breast is more natural and appealing than the reality.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well, facebook's going to have to get some consistency happening. And they'll probably need to consult their handy volume of Kristeva's Powers of Horror in order to build a policy around images of bodily excretions. s'ok I'll start em off: urinating, defecating, menstruating, vomiting, blowing noses (or picking them), spitting, that everything? oh perhaps removing ear-wax with a cotton bud. Oh, now that opens some new avenues: flossing, removal of toe jam, well I suppose then we can't discount evacuation of dick-cheese. But we probably can't run to belly-button fluff which doesn't really count as abject given it's not a bodily fluid as such...good mate. that's given me a lot to chew over - oh, no, can't have that, saliva again! god, it's everywhere!