On Monday, Feb. 6, five dozen women flooded Facebook’s Menlo Park offices in California, challenging the social networking giant’s habit of removing photos depicting breastfeeding. In addition to waving banners informing the crowd that “Breastfeeding is NOT obscene,” and exchanging peer support, mothers took to confronting Facebook by nursing their children in the public courtyard. The protest was part of an international effort to challenge Facebook to end its practice of censoring breastfeeding-related content, with satellite protests occurring as far away as Dublin and Paris. The effort was spearheaded, in part, by Emma Kwasnica, a resident of Vancouver and childbirth educator who emerged as the face of Facebook’s opposition earlier this year after her account was suspended over photos of breastfeeding her children. According to Kwasnica’s interview with The Huffington Post on Jan. 12, the photos were flagged as “sexually explicit.”
Kwasnica’s personal experience is quickly becoming the dominant narrative of women who use Facebook. As reports flood in of women having their accounts suspended for simply re-posting notes in favor of the boycott, the number of fed-up users seeking to hold Facebook accountable for their rampant misogyny, underscoring the cultural ambivalence society has with breastfeeding, especially in public, appears to be increasing.
Women who breastfeed not only face discrimination online. Recent news stories have revealed women being dismissed from courtrooms, kicked off public buses, and even harassed while shopping at family-oriented retailers for deigning to feed their hungry children. Part of this discrimination is due to serious misinformation; it is often erroneously reported that 44 states have enacted laws designed to protect the right to breastfeed in public, when in actuality, these laws exist to clarify the legality of breastfeeding. In other words, if a state does not have such a clarifying law, breastfeeding in public is still legal.
Facebook, with its long-reaching ability to network millions of people in seconds, is often dismissed as a private site or a business providing a social service. But the reality is that Facebook can’t be considered a private sphere. On the tail end of Facebook filing for an initial public offering on Feb. 1, it’s important to recognize Facebook isn’t merely a public one, either. Instead, Facebook’s integration into the daily lives of such a significant portion of the world’s population has carved out a brand new public medium, the first virtual town hall of the Internet age. Therefore, to nurse on Facebook should certainly be protected.
But it’s unlikely such a mass realization will hit the public until nursing itself is demystified. The real heart of contention is society’s obsession with viewing breasts as sexual, and only sexual, organs. Breastfeeding evokes the body politic in a way that bottle-feeding can’t, and Facebook’s capricious and arbitrary enforcement of their nudity policy smacks of misogyny. Unfortunately, as lactivists insist breastfeeding photos are not pornographic or obscene, they’re unknowingly sealing their fate, because sexualized breasts are welcome on Facebook. In the HuffPo’s article on the subject, Kwasnica complained about censoring at least 30 women for breastfeeding-related content, while pages with thousands of members boasting topless photos of themselves (usually, with alcohol) remain uninterrupted.
Of course, the willful decision to sexualize breasts without the consent of the person attached to those breasts is as old as the patriarchy itself. In a piece for Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams laments, “Facebook, where you can create an entire album of your drunken, vomity, relieving-yourself-into-a-sink exploits, where you can share images of your child happily sliding around in his own diarrhea, has long maintained a surprisingly prim attitude toward the comparatively tame issue of breast-feeding shots.” Her Feb. 8 article is, astutely enough, sub-headed, “The social media giant can’t figure out what defines a dirty picture—or the difference between biology and porn.”
In defense of Facebook’s handlers, well, they aren’t the only ones. A common response to the Facebook controversy is to ask whether folks should be allowed to showcase images of any number of bodily functions and occurrences—from peeing in a bush to sexual climax, less-than-adequately defended as “other natural acts”—highlighting the reality that people don’t understand what all the ruckus is about in the first place. People who attempt to shame the movement by condescendingly proclaiming, “It’s JUST Facebook” are really missing the bigger picture. Social media outlets have sparked international revolutions, toppled foreign regimes, and given power back to the people. They mobilized traditionally ignored blocs of voters to breathe new life into the domestic political process. So, it really goes without saying that Facebook isn’t merely just capable of creating great change, it already has. More importantly, Facebook has the power to normalize issues, like breastfeeding, which tend to be very dividing.
“By getting breastfeeding in the public eye and in the news, it helps show fellow mothers and all of the public that it is perfectly acceptable to nurse in public and that women are willing and ready to stand up for their rights and the rights of their children,” Paala Anderson Secor, one of the attendants at the Menlo Park Nurse-In who snapped the photo largely circulating around the Internet, writes. “By helping take away the social stigma, those who want to breastfeed can do so without fear social or legal repercussions.”
However, all is not lost for Zuckerberg’s brainchild. Most of the individuals who participated in the Facebook protests at Menlo Park and abroad still have active accounts, seeming to suggest a confidence that the site can grow to meet the needs of its users. This demonstration of faith offers a rare opportunity for redemption for the social media mogul: by committing to not remove breastfeeding-related content, it will mark the first time in history the site has validated the desired changes in the name of human rights.