Facebook’s fear of nipples is outdated

By Kitty Knowles 3 February 2016
Facebook has real-life nipple blockers. Pic: iStock/OSTILL

"There's no technology that detects female nipples," confirms Facebook. Who made these errors of censorship then?

If you take your top off in a busy London street – and you’re a man – barely anyone bats an eyelid. You can strut around, take a few selfies, post them to Facebook or Instagram. This same freedom doesn’t apply to women. Because, nipples.

The thing is, to different people, the nipple has different meanings. To some, it’s a symbol of wholesome motherhood, to others it’s an emblem of their sexuality. For many it’s just a nipple. A functional body part that every man and every woman has.

Ultimately it should be up to the owners of said nipples to decide what their nipples are.

While there’s not actually a law banning women from being topless in the UK, you could find yourself arrested for “disorder”, “indecency”, or “breach of peace”, as these legal terms are not strictly defined.

In the US, nipple censorship is even worse. You may already know the Free the Nipple campaign, started by director Lina Esco because it’s still illegal for a woman to be publicly topless in 37 states.

A 'Free The Nipple' campaign flyer. Pic: Free The Nipple.
A 'Free The Nipple' campaign flyer. Pic: Free The Nipple.

Nipples online

But while we Brits might be able to get away with topless sunbathing, or even the odd naked country walk, its a different deal altogether on social media.

Facebook has long sensored the nipple. It’s upset new parents by banning photographs of mums breastfeeding. It’s aggravated artists and photographers who want to post or share their depictions of the female form. It’s annoyed women who simply don’t agree with the idea that their bodies should be either sexualised or policed by others, especially on a platform where men’s bodies aren’t.

Just this week, Facebook has came under fire for censoring an image shared by a cancer patient in order to raise awareness of how to spot symptoms.

The image posted by Rowena Kincaid to raise awareness of breast cancer symptoms. Pic: Rowena Kincaid.
The image posted by Rowena Kincaid to raise awareness of breast cancer symptoms. Pic: Rowena Kincaid.

Real-life nipple spotters

I’ve often wondered how platforms like Facebook, or Instagram, manage to maintain their nipple censorship.

You might have assumed that there was some fancy algorthym that could detect and block female areola, but it turns out there isn’t. An actual person goes through Facebook and flags any nipple pics they deem inappropriate.

This was confirmed last night by Simon Milner, Facebook’s policy director for UK, the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at the Home Affairs Select Committee. 


An viral meme in the making, a Vine video posted by Siraj Datoo, UK Political Reporter at BuzzFeed, has now been viewed 175,000 times since it was posted last night.

“There’s no technology that detects nipples, female nipples,” Milner is seen to say.

If there’s no technology, no magic nipple-finder, then you can assume there’s a lot of work that goes into keeping women’s bits in line.

Maybe if Facebook ploughed less manpower (and therefore money) into keeping the nipple under wraps, they’d have a little more left in the pot to pay their taxes…