It’s been a full eight months since Facebook officially granted moms the right to lactate in the site’s newsfeed. But somehow, every time a breastfeeding photo is removed, it stokes a whole new round of controversy.
The latest uproar reaches us from England, where the Web is abuzz with rebellious #brelfies. They began, per local media, with an incident that happened a month ago, when Facebook took down a Liverpool mother’s photo for violating the site’s nudity policy. Since then, the “new parenting craze” has purportedly “swept social media” — though on Facebook, in all fairness, it’s hard to quantify these things.
Why is it that breastfeeding selfies — “brelfies,” ugh — provoke such reliable furor? After all, deletions like this one are anomalies: Since June, Facebook has welcomed photos of mothers’ breastfeeding, even enshrining the principle in its moderation policies. Facebook only reviews breastfeeding photos when users complain. Even then, it doesn’t delete them, except in rare cases where moderators think the breastfeeding is tangential to the actual nudity on display.
And still, a certain segment of the Facebooking public will never, ever miss an opportunity to make a stink about Facebook “censoring” breastfeeding photos. It may be one of the most persistent myths about the site, right up there with the viral “privacy notice.”
On some level, that has absolutely nothing to do with Facebook — the breastfeeding photo is just a convenient online proxy for a larger debate about breastfeeding and breastfeeding in public. (A debate that, I need not tell you, is polarizing as hell.) People who feel strongly about this issue, in one direction or the other, are frequently militant — evangelical, even — about that belief; it’s a powerful symbol of their politics, their identities.
And if the past year has taught us anything about Facebook, it’s that users share a keen anxiety about the site’s ability to “moderate” identity. A Native American activist recently filed suit against the site, complaining Facebook suspended accounts registered under native names. The site faced similar complaints in September from members of the drag community. And on Thursday, a year after Facebook allowed users to choose from a list of 58 gender identities, the company rolled out a big 59th: fill-in-the-blank.
“We’re hoping this will open up the dialogue,” one Facebook engineer said of the change.
But when it comes to the vagaries of personal identity, and how its shaped or stifled by the Internet, dialogue’s the only thing Facebook isn’t missing.
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