Jan 2, 2009

Lifestyle - Facebook's War on Nipples

Ada Calhoun

The breast-feeding wars have long followed a familiar pattern. A woman gets thrown off a plane for nursing her toddler; she sues Delta. Barbara Walters says sitting next to a breast-feeding woman made her "uncomfortable"; ABC's headquarters get surrounded by 200 women staging a "nurse-in." Maggie Gyllenhaal is photographed nursing her daughter in public; tabloids rush to either praise her as a role model or tell her to throw a blanket over her shoulder.

The sides have been distinct: breast-feeding advocates insist that women should be able to nurse anytime, anyplace, while opponents use words like discretion and discomfort. But the latest battle apparently has nothing to do with the best way to nourish a baby or the boundaries between private and public. It's about the nipples, stupid.

Facebook has drawn a line in the sand by removing any photos it deems obscene, including those containing a fully exposed breast, which the site defines as "showing the nipple or areola." In other words, plunging necklines or string bikinis are fine - just no nips. The purging of bare-boob pics began last summer and has swept up, alongside any girls gone wild, a growing number of proud - and very ticked-off - breast feeders. (Read about giving birth at home.)

On Dec. 27, some 11,000 protesters held a virtual nurse-in by uploading breast-feeding photos onto their Facebook profiles, and 20 or so women showed up at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to breast-feed there. By Dec. 30, more than 85,000 members had joined a Facebook group called "Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!"

The group, founded by San Diego mom Kelli Roman, urges Facebook to change its obscenity policy. "We expect you to realize that nursing moms everywhere have a right to show pictures of their babies eating, just like bottle-fed babies have a right to be seen," their petition reads. "In an effort to appease the closed-minded, you are only serving to be detrimental to babies, women, and society."

Assisting their cause is the Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA), a Canadian group that has started posting on its website photos that breast feeders claim were removed from Facebook. One or two are vaguely pornographic shots of naked women holding babies, but most are straightforward and innocent.

"There are two problems," says Paul Rapoport, coordinator for TERA, which has been advocating that women should not be penalized for going topless since 1997. "First, Facebook removes photos arbitrarily. Second, its policy clearly implies that visible nipples or areolas always make photos of women obscene. Facebook stigmatizes breast-feeding and demeans women."

Facebook counters that it is far from the only organization steering clear of Areola City. "Could I place an ad related to breast-feeding that showed a woman breast-feeding a child but exposed her full breast in TIME or on your website?" asks spokesman Barry Schnitt. "During the course of this protest, I've called many media organizations and asked them this question. Not a single one has said yes."

The Facebook furor has brought up a bizarre cultural issue. We're all for breasts - the more cleavage the better. But the second a nipple is visible or we are reminded of nipples by the sight of a baby attached to one, all hell breaks loose.

When a tabloid website catches a star like Britney Spears, Keira Knightley or Tara Reid in a red-carpet "nip slip," traffic goes through the roof, as Web surfers click to catch a glimpse of the forbidden bit of skin. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)

It is perhaps understandable that we'd be so enflamed by the sight of women's nipples because we see them so rarely. Barbie dolls don't have nipples. Magazines routinely airbrush out nipples on fully clothed (but presumably chilly) models.

In the past decade, some 40 states have passed pro-breast-feeding legislation. Rapoport, however, says he considers such laws a "two-edged deal because it exempts nursing women from prosecution but reaffirms the sense that a topless woman is obscene without a baby."

Meanwhile, men's nipples aren't a problem. Recent photos of President-elect Barack Obama walking shirtless on a beach were greeted with puns about how he is "fit to be President," "buff-bodied" and "chiseled." (See pictures of Presidents at the beach.)

And perhaps the surest sign that "pregnant man" Thomas Beatie has been accepted as a man - even though he still has female sex organs and the ability to deliver a baby - is the fact that his nipples, the same ones he had when he was a woman, are suddenly O.K. to look at. They are acceptable features for the cover of a book, the pages of a magazine - and the profile photos for the Facebook groups supporting him.

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