This week, Instagram announced new rules around dieting and cosmetic surgery content that will see controversial posts hidden from under-18s or removed, in one of the biggest moves in the social media site’s history.
The initiative followed concerns about the impact such content can have on the mental health and body image of young people. Under the new rules, posts that promote the use of certain weight loss products or cosmetic procedures, and which offer an incentive to buy or include a price, will be hidden from users known to be under 18.
But while the change will be welcomed by many, its arrival has brought a new controversy as users have highlighted that women who are sharing photos that directly oppose dieting and cosmetic surgery culture are being penalised under Instagram's guidelines.
Body positivity campaigners, breastfeeding mothers and even women posting holiday snaps in bikinis are finding their photos hidden or removed for violating guidelines around nudity. It’s a practice known as “shadowbanning” and it matters, they say, because it hampers their ability to challenge conventional beauty standards and equates to the censoring of women’s bodies.
Indeed, body positivity campaigners say one of the most important elements of the app in fighting diet culture is representation of all body types outside the narrow spectrum visible in mainstream media.
Molly Forbes, presenter, podcaster and host of Channel 4’s Naked Beach, says: “This is a scary step back. It’s effectively telling us our bodies should be kept hidden, not shared and celebrated on our own terms.
“Seeing women’s bodies in non-sexualised ways is a powerful thing that has helped lots of women reclaim and opt out of the stereotypical male gaze.”
Instagram experts say the platform has in fact been reducing visibility on photos of women’s bodies for a while. “These posts aren’t just hidden from under 18s – they’re hidden from discovery to everyone except existing followers,” says Sara Tasker, an Instagram coach and the author of Hashtag Authentic. “Certain posts are blurred until you click on them. It seems Instagram is trialling new ways to limit different types of content. I’m 100 per cent on board with reducing visibility for diet culture, but I find it concerning that artificial intelligence (AI) is being programmed to censor our skin.”
Among those who have found themselves on the wrong side of Instagram’s regulations are a group of pole dancers, who noticed the hashtags they used to allow their community to share content had been blocked. After a petition from Pole Dancers of Instagram went mainstream, the platform lifted the restriction.
Tasker, meanwhile, has been investigating reports from her students and clients that their posts are being hidden or removed. All of those who have reported this are women. “We very quickly recognised the kind of posts that are being affected,” she says.
Florence Grace, a body positivity campaigner and content creator, discovered she had been shadowbanned by Instagram after she shared a photograph of herself wearing a bikini. Her posts stopped appearing in hashtags and searches, a practice critics say amounts to being “punished” by the platform, as it means users cannot grow their accounts and attract new followers.
When Grace shared her experience with a UK bloggers group, she found women reporting shadowbans after sharing swimwear photos, breastfeeding photos, fashion shots of corsets and underwear, and even fitness and dance posts.
Shortly after Grace got her shadowban lifted, a photo of her in a bikini was removed altogether by Instagram for “going against community guidelines” surrounding nudity. She was not naked in the photograph.
“It feels very unfair,” she says. “I’m all about making other people feel comfortable with their bodies, especially girls who aren’t slim. I encourage people to feel they can wear swimwear and challenge the idea that they shouldn’t be able to if they are fat.
“It’s infuriating this is happening to people who are trying to do good things.”
Just days after her photo was removed, Grace saw a naked photograph of a Love Island contestant called Cara Delayode-Massey appear on her explore feed. As an experiment, she reported the image to Instagram. The company responded to say the photograph did not violate the platform’s guidelines around nudity. This paradox, suggested Grace, reflected a bias against diverse body types.
There are work-arounds available to users of the platform who wish to grow their followings and escape censorship. But resorting to them is far from ideal, argues Tasker, who says she has advised clients to avoid posting too many images in which they show skin, or to mix the posts with other types of content.
“If you create the kind of content that’s likely to be getting caught up in this filter and you want to grow your audience, it’s probably advisable,” she says. “But I hate advising women to hide their bodies away, when we’ve already had to do that so much in history.”
When she ran searches for similar content featuring men, none had been censored as suitable only for over-18s, she adds.
Emma Collins, EMEA public policy manager at Instagram, said: “Our goal is to keep Instagram a place people feel comfortable and empowered to build and grow communities of support.
“Whilst we have recently introduced a new policy around the restriction or removal of certain weight loss products and some cosmetics procedures posts, this only applies to content reported to us by the community.”
The platform also offers users the ability to appeal against the removal of their content for violating guidelines around nudity. Following a query from The Telegraph, Instagram has restored Florence Grace’s photograph.