"Censorship of the Female Body" by Esther Young

          Media’s treatment of the female body is a disappointing reflection of what this culture deems beautiful or ugly. In American culture, body hair is considered ugly and even trespassing social media safety guidelines. Even women’s hair removal product companies, though aimed at selling their razors and shaving creams to women, do not allow the appearance of actual body hair in their ads. This censorship conveys the message that a woman in her unaltered, unshaven state is unacceptable and even offensive. This upholds a double standard of beauty. While photos of bikini-clad women in their unaltered states are censored, naked celebrities photo-shopped to glossy, toned “perfection” are splashed across magazine covers and the same social media sites that censor nipples and female body hair. Women in their natural states are censored while photo-shopped images of the female body are used to sell and make profit, while promoting an unnatural and idealized standard of beauty. Meanwhile, ads showing men with pubic hair peeking out from the top of their Calvin Klein underwear are also freely displayed.

          To promote gender equality, censorship must normalize women’s bodies. No longer censoring female pubic hair is one step in showing acceptance of the female body, in any form, even her unaltered form. No longer censoring the female nipple when exposed in a non-sexualized manner is another step. Women should not be encouraged to be ashamed of their bodies just because they do not fit the hetero-normative standard of beauty, and the female body should not be held in such contrast to the male body, which receives little to no shaming for being uncovered or unshaved. A country that claims to value equal treatment and nondiscrimination will strive for gender equality by evaluating how its laws cast shame on women’s bodies unequally through censorship. A country of equality will enforce censorship in a way that normalizes women’s bodies, either by censoring male and female bodies equally or lifting the censorship of the female body.

          In December 2014, Leah Budde, a student at Ohio Wesleyan University, was asked to design a poster to advertise an event called “Written on the Body.” Held by the OWU Women’s Resource Center, whose mission is to promote gender equality in the school and local communities, the event was a body image speak-out that invited students to gather and discuss different perceptions of their bodies. Leah, a fine arts major with a concentrations in figure drawing, promptly drew up a design that received positive feedback from the Women’s Resource Center. However, she was later notified that her design had been denied by the Counseling Services Department because it might be too “triggering” or “upsetting,” possibly discouraging attendance to the event (Budde). Leah’s design contained the bare images of a male back and the frontal view of a female body. Though the department heads did not specify, Leah knew the image of the female body on the poster, uncovered, was the “upsetting” part of the design. A bare male chest would not spark the same controversy.

          The same parts of the female body that are also present on the male body are treated so differently when they belong to a woman, and not a man. Nipples on a man are routinely displayed on magazines, television, and social media. No state or federal laws are issued forbidding a man from being topless in public. Yet there are only five states – New York, Maine, Ohio, Hawaii, Texas – where a women can go topless wherever men can legally. The baring of female breasts is punishable by fines or imprisonment in still many cities, and the states of Indiana, Utah, and Tennessee have a complete ban on women being topless.

          A number of cases of Facebook removing photos considered violations of nudity demonstrate how women’s breasts are seen as cause for censorship even when they are made visible for positive, healthy causes. In early 2013, Facebook received backlash after removing certain photos of young breast cancer survivors that were part of The SCAR Project, an artistic awareness raising campaign for young women. Before Facebook had begun censoring this project, Scorchy Barrington, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, was one of many other cancer survivors who had come across these photos and found them emotionally healing. “I welled up,” she said about her reaction to seeing one particular photo of a breast cancer survivor that showed horizontal scars across her chest and tears streaming down her cheeks. “It’s like darn it, she’s still living…you don’t have any choice. Just keep going” (Schoenberg). When Facebook, a major conduit for this photograph project, removed four of the photos from the SCAR project page and banned the project’s photographer from the site for thirty days, Barrington started an online campaign to protest the censorship. The 20,000 signatures she collected petitioned Facebook to stop censoring photos of women who had undergone mastectomies, surgeries that remove all breast tissue in order to treat breast cancer. In response, Facebook posted a clarification stating that they allowed post-mastectomy photos, but photos with fully exposed breasts violated its terms. In other words, display of the nipple was a violation of its terms. This meant that even photos of a breast cancer survivor showing surgery on one breast with the unaffected breast remaining would be removed, because the nipple remained (Doi). In the summer of 2014, this exact incident took place, with Facebook removing a photo of a woman who had undergone a mastectomy to remove her right breast (The Huffington Post).

           How is there such a vast difference between the male and female body that even the image of a natural part of the female body is considered violation even when used for causes of awareness and emotional healing? Bare male chests are everywhere, viewable by children and all Facebook users, but a female’s nipples must be deconstructed by computer pixels or covered by a thick black line, or even affected by a mastectomy in order to remain uncensored. Censorship denotes shame. When anything is censored, the implication is that it is indecent, obscene, unsafe, trespassing. What a culture chooses to censor is a reflection of its values. The fact that the female body receives censorship on a level so beyond that of the male body says that this culture is ashamed of the female body. Censorship of the female body speaks the message that the female body, in its natural state, is taboo or there is something wrongful to keep hidden: that body hair on a woman is ugly; nipples on a woman are obscene. If censorship is to continue dictating what is deemed acceptable in society and what is not, it must be enforced in a way that promotes gender equality and positive self-image for women.

          The purpose of censorship may have originally been to uphold propriety and maintain decency by shielding the public from what it may find offensive. However, censoring the female body actually backfires this purpose of censorship because it indirectly reinforces the objectification of women. Former top model and media activist Ann Simonton stated, “If women’s breasts weren’t hidden in shame or seen as obscene and wicked, how could Madison Avenue, pornographers, movies and television profit from their exposure?” (Goivere) In truth, selling women’s bodies is a profitable strategy. An exposed female body, splashed across the pages of a magazine or flashed upon a screen, does catch attention. One factor that allows the exposed female body to be an attention grabber is the attitude surrounding it, due to censorship making it secretive. The public is deemed unable to handle the image of a woman’s breast with the nipple showing. The implication, then, is that when a fully exposed breast is seen, there is reason for malfunction, for lack of control. If a man is seeing what public television and social media sites shield him from, it seems excusable for him to act “unconsciously,” to view this exposed body part as simply a body part and to treat her body like an object.

          This sort of objectifying view may begin at a young age, also fostered at this time by censorship. When there appears to be such secrecy surrounding the female body, its exposure is more enticing. Explicitness adds to the power of revealing, and for a young person still learning about sexuality, censorship creates curiosity in exaggerated ways that can be damaging in shaping views of women and their sexuality. For a young person still developing his or her view on what natural, normal sensuality looks like, the censorship of certain body parts can instill a sense of differentiation, or otherness, with those body parts. Even if all females are supposed to have breasts, seeing them hidden by computer pixels and thick lines and ridiculous smiley stickers can lead a young person to think that since there is something to hide, seeing what is hidden must result in incredible consequences. Given this frame, if there is not a parent or another mature figure in the young person’s life who guides him or her in a healthy view of sex, then it is easy for unhealthy ideas to take root. There is already added motivation for young people to explore porn sites and pornographic materials to view more of the forbidden.” Further down the road, the adolescent may view the censored body parts as subjects of shame and impose that shame on her own body. Or, the adolescent may experience a heightened sense of wonder when he is aware of seeing uncensored, fully exposed breasts for the first time and begin to view these female body parts as objects of power. This unhealthy mindset is then reinforced as censorship continues to present the message that there are things which should not be seen and foster the message that when they are, a person is left to his own devices. Respect of women as humans, not objects, may or may not be involved in the matter. To encourage a view of women as humans and not objects to affect men, censorship must not create misguided curiosity by hiding women’s bodies.

          The role of censorship in reinforcing objectification of women is seen especially in the standards of movie ratings. Today, if topless women with their nipples exposed are shown in a movie, it is granted an NC-17 rating (Govere). This stands in contrast to men routinely being shirtless in movies, upper half fully exposed, and there are no laws dictating movie ratings based on a naked male chest. NC-17 ratings are given to movies that show a woman receiving sexual pleasure, but for a man receiving sexual pleasure, ratings can be weaker. This unequal treatment of sexuality according to gender presents the message that female sexuality carries more weight, more shame or more power. Either message is unhealthy because they facilitate a culture where women are shamed for embracing their sexuality, or men find an excuse in the power of female sexuality to separate a woman from her body by objectifying her.

         Censorship is also harmful because it reinforces the standard of beauty for women instead of promoting a positive self-image for all women. Instances of censorship occurring in response to images of women that do not fit the hetero-normative standard are prevalent with Instagram, which has been called out multiple times for censoring photos showing female pubic hair. In October 2013, Petra Collins, a Toronto-born artist, writer, and photographer posted a photo of herself from the waist down, wearing a bikini bottom against a sparkly backdrop (Collins). It was an artistic shot, not a photo depicting nudity, violence, or hateful imagery. But what differentiated her bikini picture from the millions of other photos of bikini-clad bodies on Instagram was that hers showed an unshaven bikini line. Instagram deleted her account, and later sent a notice that she had trespassed Instagram’s safe community guidelines. Another case involved Instagram deleting an account over a post that showed two sisters in bikinis, showing slight nipple and pubic hair (Sigrun).

          Body hair on a woman is only considered ugly because this culture considers it so, and its censorship on social media reinforces that idea. This is dangerous to a woman’s self-image because it conveys the message that a woman in her unaltered state is unacceptable, that she must be shaved in order to avoid offending an online community. A double standard of beauty is being upheld here. While women in their natural states are censored and their online accounts are deleted – forcing silence upon a supposed platform of online free speech – images of “ideal beauty” are free to pass around on the same online community. Often, these images of women that are beautiful according to this culture’s standard are unrealistic and do not represent a great, diverse population of women. When these images are prized and the images challenging the beauty standard are censored, divergent thinking that embraces different ideas of beauty is also being censored. The double beauty standard for women is maintained.

          Every culture has its norms, but if this country is to practice what it preaches in terms of nondiscrimination and equal treatment, it will promote norms of equality and positive self-image for all women. Censorship has the power to influence the culture it is enforced in and to reinforce the standard of what is acceptable or unacceptable, decent or offensive, beautiful or ugly. In creating these culture norms, women’s bodies must not be censored in such a way that they are alienated, hidden in shame and further made vulnerable to objectification. Censorship must normalize women’s bodies. This country must either begin censoring all body parts on men that are censored on women, or – more reasonably – gradually lift its harmful, objectifying censorship of the female body.

Work Cited

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