KC artists are being digitally erased
Instagram’s fight against female sexuality is hurting local models, photographers, and our own self-image.
In September of last year, Bella Fernandez was scrolling through her Instagram DM’s when she was booted off her account and redirected to the login page. When she tried her password, Instagram said her account didn’t exist: It was deleted. She didn’t exist.
Fernandez had been erased.
“I really felt like I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I really was completely blindsided by it. There was no warning about it. There was no email saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to get deleted soon,’” says Fernandez, a local model who focuses on normalizing nudity through revealing, honest photography. Much of her business comes from Instagram, and before her account was deleted, @bellatrickortreat had over 27,000 followers.
“I got this text from Bella, she was freaking out,” says Kansas City artist Peregrine Honig. “Rightfully so. It’s her income, and her body is her maker commodity. And it’s her body. It’s her choice, period.”
Honig is the owner of Birdies, a lingerie store that Fernandez has modeled for. In 2014 Honig posted a picture of a 3D-printed sculpture of her nude body taking a selfie. Titled #textme, the sculpture was photographed next to a toothbrush for scale, but Instagram flagged it and her entire account was deleted. Huffington Post even picked up the story.
“All because of a little, pink, plastic nipple,” Honig notes of the sculpture that was censored.
On Instagram’s community guidelines page, it states that nudity isn’t allowed, including photos and digitally-created content “that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.” Female nipples can’t be shown either, unless it’s post-mastectomy scarring or a woman actively breastfeeding. So nipples have to overcome cancer or be “functioning” to be allowed? And what even constitutes a “close-up” of a butt?
“Things needed to be censored,” Fernandez says. “And I followed those guidelines. I didn’t post anything close up; anything that I did post was heavily censored. So there wasn’t anything to be seen.” But many of her posts were deleted or shadowbanned—where Instagram keeps them up, but removes them from the feeds of your followers. Without letting the creator know.
“I think that’s the thing that’s really frustrating for a lot of people too is there are these regulations, but they’re also not fucking clear,” says Tayanna Harris, a boudoir photographer behind @goodbodieskc and a queer-focused wedding photographer who has also faced censorship. “There’s no list. So how do you know what things you shouldn’t be able to post?”
In April 2019, Facebook shared its new “integrity” plan for content at a press event. TechCrunch reported a presentation with a slide called “Example Non-Recommendable Content.” It listed “violence,” “graphic/shocking,” and “sexually suggestive” as categories of content that would be removed or shadowbanned. The last category included a woman wearing a bra and underwear—much like a swimsuit—sitting on a bed. Literally just sitting on a bed. To Facebook, which owns Instagram, that was deemed “sexually suggestive.”
Apparently we aren’t allowed to have boobs and sit now? I’m not sure how to avoid that. But thanks for letting me know.
Instagram in the Lens of Body Positivity
Let’s take a step back for a second. Instagram doesn’t allow nudity, so what? Studies show that 80 percent of women are dissatisfied by their appearance. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to lose weight. By the age of ten, 81 percent of girls are afraid of being fat. We are facing a body-image epidemic.
“When I was growing up, you did not see a woman of my size on a cover of a magazine. And now we see women like Ashley Graham, Precious Lee, and Lizzo,” says Dr. Amber Botros, a model and the owner and lead physician of Plaza Medical Spa. “But growing up as a child who was always more heavyset, I didn’t have role models like that, and I was always told by my family and others to wear longer skirts, wear longer shirts, you’re too sexy.”
Dr. Botros’s modeling promotes body positivity, self empowerment, and plus-sized inclusion—often done in lingerie. She’s known on instagram as @ambercurvemodel, boasting an impressive 311,000 followers, and travels to New York City, L.A., and beyond to work with national and international photographers.
“To see women who are comfortable and confident at any size and aren’t focused on diet culture or always focused on losing weight, that’s something that I think for young women is so important,” Dr. Botros adds.
Body positivity is inherently part of our sexuality and self-perception, according to Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a therapist and certified sex educator out of St. Louis.
“Body positivity actually helps us set boundaries on how we’re treated, what we allow, and how we prioritize pleasure. So this idea that self-sacrifice equals goodness is something that is bred into specifically females,” says Dr. Brown-James. “So, I worked out really hard so I deserve to eat this cupcake, or my size is super thin because I’ve worked so hard at restricting my food and now I get to feel good about myself. Versus, you get to feel good about yourself no matter what.”
If you place your worth on your body or where your body is at, how do you also believe that you deserve pleasure? Not just sexual pleasure, but pleasure in the sense of what feels positive for your body. When can you feel good about feeling good?
“I think that we’re conditioned a certain way because that’s all you see,” says Traci Miller, the photographer behind Indium Boudoir. “So then when you’re on your feed, and you see anything that’s not that, at first I feel like it’s shocking. And then the more you see it, the more it normalizes, and then it’s not a big deal.”
Seeing other bodies, from size and shape to color and gender, whether it be on Instagram or the world around us, reiterates there is no “normal.” Bodies vary. Confidence comes from within.
“All those different types of pictures and images disrupt that narrative, and it makes it expansive and inclusionary of all sorts of different folks,” says Dr. Brown-James. “Body positivity is not just being happy about your body all the time. It’s accepting what your body is and not necessarily having to push it into the shoes of the world.”
Finding Self Love in Boudoir Photography
One tool in the journal of self love is boudoir photography. If you’re unfamiliar with the trend, boudoir is photos taken—typically in lingerie—as a way to feel sexy and confident and to see your body through a new lens.
“It’s typically folks with varied bodies who don’t see their bodies always represented in media. I think boudoir is an awesome tool to really fall in love with yourself and to realize you are sexy and desirable and nothing’s hotter than knowing yourself and having that confidence there,” says Dr. Brown-James, who recently treated herself to a boudoir session.
Leah Emerick, a certified professional boudoir photographer who has been shooting in Kansas City for the past two years, sees first-hand how boudoir impacts the women she photographs. Her Facebook and Google reviews are filled with stories of self-love and inspiration:
She captured the beauty of who I am, which truly overshadowed any physical flaws I may have focused on. I felt beautiful inside and out by the time we finished. […] I’d never seen myself like that. – Barb C
Through the lens of her camera, she helped me see how beautiful I really am after years of self doubt and criticism. I was given the courage and confidence to go and find a wedding dress for my wedding because of my shoot with Leah. – Ashten R
It caused a complete 180 change in how I view myself and how I respond to my environment and the people around me. Booking a session with Leah could be the best thing you ever do for yourself. Do not wait for a better time when things are perfect. You are perfect right now, just the way you are. – Lauren N
It’s not just Emerick’s reviews that are flooded with feedback, but Miller’s, Harris’s, and so many other boudoir reviews share the same message: Seeing your body this way heals. It doesn’t fix every aspect of your body image, but it’s a big step in the right direction.
“I try to just show women that side of themselves that they don’t see, that everyone else does,” says Emerick.
Model Fernandez encourages doing a boudoir shoot just for yourself: “You don’t even have to do anything with the photos. Just do this so you can see how beautiful you are.”
But how do Facebook and Instagram feel about your newfound self love? Therein lies the issue.
If you search Instagram by hashtags (those “#” noted tags often listed at the ends of post to group similar content), #boudoir and #boudoirphotography will pull up a message that says: “Recent posts from #boudoir are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.” Those hashtags are shadow banned—meaning if included in a post, your followers won’t see that post in their feed. #curvy, #curvygirl, and #cheeky are also shadowbanned, but #fit, #skinny, #thin are all fine to use.
“There’s so many. To be honest, I can’t even keep up with it,” says Dr. Botros, who noticed last year that #lingeriemodel was still an ok tag, but #plussizelingeriemodel was banned. Since then, #lingeriemodel has been added to the shadowbanned list.
You probably see what’s happening here. And why it’s bullshit. We agree.
Instagram’s Algorithm is Fat-Phobic
Botros has had her entire account shadowbanned at times for up to three months. During then she sees no growth in followers, limited requests for work, and less engagement overall. Much of that banning she attributes to fat phobia in Instagram’s algorithm.
At this year’s Curvycon—a New York City convention dedicated to celebrating plus-sized brands, bloggers, models, and more—Dr. Botros heard a panel about social media. Many plus-sized models faced similar issues: Their photos were disproportionately taken down, thanks to a skin-to-clothing ratio as part of the algorithm. If a larger woman is to wear, say, a swimsuit compared to a thinner woman, their skin-to-clothing ratio is going to be nowhere similar.
“If we wear the same clothes, my skin, I mean it’s going to quadruple their’s,” says Dr. Botros.
“It’s the same outfit,” says Dr. Brown-James, “and it speaks to the idea that we should hide fat.”
They are facing mathematical sexism. Truly, a brave new world of misogyny.
Instagram’s algorithm isn’t consistent either. A few months ago, Dr. Botros did a photoshoot for Miller’s lingerie store Indium Intimates. Dr. Botros wore a sheer, black set that showed a bit of her nipple through the bra. In Miller’s experience, as long as a nipple was covered with something, even sheer, it would still pass. They both posted the photo on their separate accounts. Dr. Botros’s was immediately deleted. Miller’s wasn’t.
“I was really surprised,” Miller says. “She thinks it was because of her size, she’s more targeted. But she does have more followers, so it very well could have been reported.”
Fernandez has seen inconsistencies with the algorithm too. On multiple occasions, Fernandez and the photographer will post photos from a shoot. What Fernandez posts, even if it’s more censored, will get taken down, but the photographer’s post won’t. Harris has seen similar issues with her models.
We should reiterate that: The exact same photo can be taken down if posted by the model, but left standing for the photographer. It’s hard to be more blatant than that.
“Recently I had a photo of a fat woman that I posted that I photographed in Philadelphia, and it’s a photo of her covering her breast and then the rest of her body is obscured by shadow,” Harris says. That post was taken down. Devin, the model in the photo, wasn’t surprised: “Every photo that people post of me always gets taken down,” Harris recalls her saying.
Later, Harris posted another photo of Devin, but this time with a white line through the image, covering her nipple. That post has stayed up, since February.
“If you want to give me a clear rule to follow, I’ll follow it,” says Harris. “But me putting a little line over like a barely there nipple, just because I was concerned about it. That’s stupid, and this is the kind of thing that people want to see. People want to see people like Devin.”
“Fat women are finally able to be seen as relevant and beautiful and celebrate, feeling comfortable and confident in their skin, and that there’s nothing wrong with it, it doesn’t mean we’re unhealthy,” says Dr. Botros. “And you know, unless you’re looking at our labs and our medical history, no one knows whether you’re healthy or not. And now we have this social media platform that sees us as over-sexualized or is trying to censor or inhibit our growth.”
Politicizing Women’s Bodies
FOSTA-SESTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, were passed in 2018. Both acts hold social media accountable if there is sex trafficking going on, but are ultimately a way to harm sex workers under the guise of sex trafficking. Traffickers don’t get punished; sites that share sexually explicit content do.
Instagram’s restrictions could be a way to avoid being held liable. Before FOSTA-SESTA, hashtags like #boudoir and #lingerie were fine. But if FOSTA-SESTA is targeted at sex workers, why are boudoir photographers, models, and artists getting looped into these regulations?
“They are censoring the internet because they don’t want sex workers to get work off the internet. So the fact that they included freaking boudoir is mind blowing to me,” says Miller. “How did artists get roped into this? I think that’s insane that it’s in fact affecting photographers and models. I just feel like it’s not the same category.”
“I don’t think that what I’m doing is necessarily something that is sexualizing people. I think it’s an empowering thing. Not saying that they can’t be intertwined, but I think that they can be exclusive,” says Harris, who added she supports sex workers.
The censorship of boudoir photography isn’t just hurting our body image on the internet, it’s hurting local businesses, too. Both Miller and Harris had to change their Instagram handles to protect their business after FOSTA-SESTA passed. Harris went from @heyboudie to @goodbodieskc; Miller switched from @indiumboudoir to @indiumgems. #boudoirkc was also on the list of shadowbanned hashtags.
“It’s been a struggle. It’d be easier if they weren’t banned,” says Miller. “And I feel like it hurts people looking for you too. It’s not just us wanting to reach people, how are they supposed to find us? And we’re not using the hashtags. You can’t go to them. So you just hope that either Google it or someone shares you with them.”
Miller has had to get creative in promoting both her boudoir businesses and lingerie store. She uses #kcboutique on Instagram, gets clients through Google inquiries, and tries to do social media giveaways. Harris watches what she posts and gets work from word-of-mouth. After Fernandez lost her first account, she’s built a new one up to 12,600 followers and is even more careful with what she posts. Emerick doesn’t use Instagram for her boudoir at all. She finds it too risky.
So where do we go from here? We can’t force Instagram to change, try as we might. And ultimately our problems exceed any social media platform. Women are hyper-sexualized in our society, fat-phobia runs rampant, we didn’t even begin to cover the sexism behind nipple-censorship or how these regulations impact the transgender community. It’s a series of unfortunate social distortions that crossover to create unending No Win scenarios. What can we do?
Without an easy answer, perhaps the best place to begin is to reflect on the inherent questions: How do we see ourselves? Do you feel you deserve pleasure? Where does your worth lie? How do you see your body? If there is a barrier, what is it and how can you overcome it?
Challenge yourself to see your body in a new way. Follow an array of shapes and sizes on your social media. Schedule a boudoir session. Hell, take a sexy selfie of yourself tomorrow. Don’t even send it; just take it for yourself to feel good about you. Stare into the mirror and say out loud “I’m beautiful.” What’s the worst that could happen?
Society isn’t going to change overnight. If each of us sees ourselves differently—if we grow to love and respect ourselves and in turn respect others—maybe things will change. And if not? At least we leave behind a memorial pile of heroic thirst traps in our wake. Shadowban that, bitch.
Follow the women of this story on Instagram:
Dr. Amber Botros
Dr. Lexx Brown-James