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Friendly Reminder That Scout Willis Once Staged a Topless Protest on the Streets of NYC

After she was banned from Instagram for posting a photo of a sweatshirt she designed depicting two topless women, Scout Willis protested by walking the streets of New York City minus a shirt or bra, calling attention to the fact that, unlike on Instagram, both genders are legally allowed to display their nipples in New York. In response to Willis’s topless protest, Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom gave the following explanation for the site’s policy on female nudity: “Our goal is really to make sure that Instagram, whether you’re a celebrity or not, is a safe place and that the content that gets posted is something that’s appropriate for teens and also for adults.” Scout Willis then fired back, writing an article for xoJane.com about the reasons behind her decision to launch a topless campaign: “Women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple— degrading as they might be—remain unchallenged.” Willis goes on to remind her readers that, in the 1930s, “men’s nipples were just as provocative, shameful, and taboo as women’s are now, and men were protesting in much the same way.” Though Instagram and other social media platforms could conceivably be key players in reshaping how our society perceives female nudity, as of now, they seem unwilling to embrace this potential role as vehicles for change, instead adopting a more passive/responsive approach.

Instagram’s Terms of Use stipulate that users “may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content via the Service.” The site’s Community Guidelines further reiterate that nudity is prohibited, including “photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed.” Crucially, Instagram makes no mention of male nipples when explicating what precisely the umbrella term of “nudity” encompasses, a conspicuous omission that only testifies to the fact that nipples on women are perceived to be inherently sexual, whereas nipples on men are merely shrugged off as just another anatomical feature.

Scout Willis’s ability to bare her chest on the streets of New York City without legal repercussion results from a court case decided over two decades ago, in which the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of displaying one’s nipples in public for noncommercial purposes, regardless of gender. The ruling of People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss—the 1992 case that theoretically ended the detaining, arresting and ticketing of NY women for being topless in public—states “the People have made no attempt…to demonstrate that the statute’s discriminatory effect serves an important governmental interest or that the classification is based on a reasoned predicate.” Evidently, though Instagram claims it only seeks to foster an age-inclusive environment with its nudity policy, judges have failed to find any compelling interest being served by discriminating between male nipples and female nipples. While social networks are not presently obligated to revise their terms of use so as to be in conformity with court decisions such as People v. Santorelli, evolving attitudes on the subject of “topless equality” may prove sufficiently incentivizing to effect change.

Image Source: xoJane.com

Ellie is a Political Science and Policy Studies double major at Rice University, with a minor in Politics, Law and Social Thought. She spent the spring of 2017 studying/interning in London, and hopes to return to England for grad school. Academically, Ellie's passion lies in evaluating policies that further the causes of gender equality, LGBT rights, and access to satisfactory healthcare, specifically as it pertains to women's health and mental health. She also loves feminist memoirs, eighteenth-century history, old bookstores, and new places. She's continuously inspired by the many strong females in her life, and is an unequivocal proponent of women supporting women.
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