As campaigning victories go, forcing Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire to admit a discriminatory flaw in its policy is no small feat.
But following a campaign launched in this paper, the Observer can exclusively reveal that Instagram and its parent company Facebook will be updating its policy on nudity in order to help end discrimination of plus-size black women on its platforms and ensure all body types are treated fairly.
In August, Instagram was accused of censoring and silencing the plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams. A wave of content creators then confirmed the platform was repeatedly discriminating against black people, plus-size users and other marginalised communities, by deleting their photos or failing to promote them in the same way it did for its white users.
Speaking to the Observer over the summer, Nicholas-Williams and photographer Alexandra Cameron told of how photos from their “confidence shoot” were repeatedly deleted and taken down, with warnings that their accounts – which have more than 115,000 followers between them – could be closed down. The controversy caused fans to protest and post pictures of the model en masse under the hashtag #IWantToSeeNyome.
The photo-sharing app owned by Facebook was accused of hypocrisy and racism in allowing an abundance of photos of semi-naked skinny white women on its feeds but deleting those posted by black women in similar poses.
Nicholas-Williams said she was shocked that “a fat black woman celebrating her body is banned … I want to promote self-love and inclusivity because that’s how I feel and how I want other women like me to feel”.
The photos in question showed Nicholas-Williams with her eyes closed and wrapping an arm around her breasts. While the pose is a common trope across social media, in this instance it was deemed to violate Instagram’s guidance on pornography.
As well as sophisticated artificial intelligence, Facebook and Instagram employ 15,000 content reviewers across the world. These workers individually sift through thousands of photos that are reported as offensive by users to the app everyday.
Human bias – unconscious or otherwise – might be expected to occur in content deletion and account bans but Facebook and Instagram have exhaustive rules that must be applied to allow either to happen.
The company denied Nicholas-Williams had been racially discriminated against, but confirmed that its former policy on “boob squeezing” had caused her photos to be removed.
Campaigner Gina Martin, who had also lobbied Instagram and who previously got the law changed to criminalise “upskirting” in 2018,said: “This policy change is an example of what happens when you recognise an issue, get organised, form a relationship with big platforms and make yourself difficult to ignore.”
Nicholas-Williams said she was delighted with the outcome. “This is a huge step and I am glad a dialogue has now been opened,” she said. “I want to ensure that I am respected and allowed to use spaces like Instagram, as many other creators do, without the worry of being censored and silenced.”
Instagram’s influence on trends and popular culture cannot be underestimated. The social media site has over a billion users worldwide and millions of pictures are uploaded online everyday by individuals, small businesses, major brands and politicians keen to be part of the conversation.
A spokesperson from Instagram confirmed that pictures of Nicholas-Williams were originally taken down as “we do not allow breast squeezing because it can be most commonly associated with pornography”.
Cameron, the photographer, said: “There is more flesh to hold or place your arm around if you have bigger boobs. There was no suggestion of pornographic squeezing – my photos are explicitly about the female gaze and about empowering women.”
Instagram acknowledged that the shoot showed the model “holding her breasts … [in] images intended to demonstrate self-love and body acceptance.”
A spokesperson for Instagram said: “As we looked into this more closely, we realised it was an instance where our policy on breast squeezing wasn’t being correctly applied. Hearing Nyome’s feedback helped us understand where this policy was falling short, and how we could refine it.”
The new policy on nudity will apply across Instagram and Facebook and come into effect this week.