Instagram Removes Woman’s Topless Post-Mastectomy Photo

The cancer survivor doesn't have any nipples, but her breasts violated "Community Guidelines"

Photo: Instagram @ihartericka
Sep 01, 2016 at 10:25 AM ET

Instagram is notoriously unfriendly to the female nipple, but it turns out not even breasts without areolae are safe from censorship. That’s what 30-year-old Ericka Hart, a New York-based sex educator and breast cancer survivor, learned this week when the company removed a Boomerang clip of her spinning around topless on the grounds that it violated “Community Guidelines.”

Hart was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago and had a double mastectomy. She underwent reconstructive surgery, but has no nipples. Over the weekend, she went to the music festival Afropunk wearing flowers in her hair, a beaded necklace, bright yellow shorts, and a red shirt that she eventually removed. She posted an image of herself shirtless, arms raised victoriously, with the caption, “Here, slaying, and raising awareness.” She added a series of tags, including, “#freethescars,” “#carefreeblackgirl,” and #blacklivesmatter.” She followed with several other photos posed with fellow concert goers — hands in the air, tongue out, looking proud.

But on Monday, she received a message from Instagram reading, “We removed your post because it doesn’t follow our Community Guidelines. Please read our Community Guidelines to learn what kinds of posts are allowed and how you can help keep Instagram safe.” The Boomerang post in question was taken down, while the other topless images remained. She responded by posting a screenshot of Instagram’s takedown message and the caption, “Let the censoring of bodies begin. Shame on you @instagram … Sucks that this happens, reducing visibility and perpetuating patriarchy. #freethescars.” Instagram’s guidelines bar “some photos of female nipples,” but state that “the vast majority” of post-mastectomy photos are allowed. The company believes, according to the guidelines, “that undergoing a mastectomy is a life-changing experience and that sharing photos can help raise awareness about breast cancer and support the women and men facing a diagnosis, undergoing treatment or living with the scars of cancer.” Last year, Instagram shut down an account that collected images of women’s post-mastectomy tattoos, but later re-instated it, calling the removal an “error.”

Instagram did not respond immediately to Vocativ’s request for comment, so it’s unclear why Hart’s photo was removed. She points to “patriarchal notions of censorship.” This isn’t the first time Hart has encountered this, either: She says Facebook has removed her topless post-mastectomy photos in the past. Hart, who is black, also raises the possibility of a racial component to the censorship. “The policing of black and brown bodies is deeply rooted in this country, as well,” she said. “So, it is no coincidence to me that the photo was removed while you can search #breasts on instagram and you will get lots of white breasts.”

For now, her followers are left to incredulously comment on the removal of the clip, with everything from red-faced and downcast emojis to the woman who wrote in response to the company’s message, “Learn about how you can keep Instagram safe?! Your battle scars do not threaten that in any way.”

Update: After the publication of this story, Instagram provided the following statement to Vocativ, “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We mistakenly removed the post and we apologize for the error. We worked to rectify the mistake quickly and have already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future.”