You may have seen that I recently started a blog series called ‘How Do I Look?‘ It’s a series focused on skin positivity, on sharing the experiences and stories of those with skin conditions and visible differences. But Instagram are making it increasingly difficult to share these experiences.
EDIT 24/10/19: Read to the end of this post for an update on this issue.
So far in the series I’ve spoken to people with scars, acne, hair loss, vitiligo, psoriasis, eczema, and a port wine stain birthmark. These women were so open, honest, and selfless to share their experiences, as they do every day online. But I noticed as I was writing the articles and inserting images from their Instagram accounts, that error messages would pop up.
The images are still live on Instagram but no matter what I do they just won’t work in the blog posts. At first I thought it was just a glitch. I deleted, I reuploaded, I tried logging out, clearing cookies, editing the HTML. And then I noticed it was only happening on certain images. Ones that showed an eczema flare, a shot of a back covered in psoriasis plaques… I ended up including the images without the Instagram embed link and decided to keep an eye on the situation to see if I was imagining it.
Two weeks ago I tried to pay to promote that photo on Instagram to spread the word about the upcoming gallery exhibition of these photos, and to spread rosacea awareness, but it was immediately rejected with this cookie-cutter explanation:
Let’s break that down: it focuses on my body in the same way that any photo of a person’s face does… it’s not a before-and-after… and its ultimate goal is to make people feel better about their health, not worse… So obviously I appealed their decision and received a standard response saying it would be reviewed and they would get back to me in 24 hours. After two weeks I received this explanation: “We don’t allow ads that focus on aspects of a person’s body to highlight an undesirable or idealized body state“…. so apparently Facebook/Instagram has labelled my face ‘undesirable’. I don’t have the words to describe how upsetting and offensive that was to read.
Here are the full guidelines they sent me. Apparently my skin is put in the same ‘undesirable’ bracket as ‘eating live animals’… so that’s nice to know.
They admit that skin conditions are included. They say it’s because they don’t want people to feel ‘singled out’… personally I feel more singled out that they have decided certain skin conditions are ‘undesirable’. If you click the ‘Undesirable’ highlight on my Instagram profile, I’ve shared some ads shown to me on Instagram that clearly show ‘idealized’ body types, close ups of body types, and before and afters. So it looks like their guidelines are pretty loose on the ‘idealized’ side…
But let’s get to the bigger issue. The one that affects you, me, millions of people who don’t have perfect skin, or bodies, or whatever appearance is deemed ‘desirable’. We already know that Instagram are hiding certain images.
At least once a week, I will have to click a ‘sensitive content’ warning in order to see the image behind it. According to their guidelines, this is used when “posts don’t violate our guidelines, [but] someone in the community has reported them and our review team has confirmed they are sensitive. This change means you are less likely to have surprising or unwanted experiences in the app.”
I can completely see why some images (e.g. those depicting self-harm scars) can be triggering and therefore need the sensitive content warning, but for Instagram to have decided that my natural skin and everyday appearance is either ‘undesirable’, ‘surprising’ or ‘unwanted’ (by algorithm accident or by a conscious decision from the review team) is just unacceptable.
Instagram have been criticised for their overzealous censorship in the past: Psoriasis groups campaigned in 2018 to get their hashtags unblocked, and the Psoriasis Association even started a petition to get Instagram’s attention. The situation was discussed in the BMJ, with many dermatologists weighing in on the issue. Instagram responded at the time to say “People use Instagram to connect around the things that matter to them, including sharing their experiences of psoriasis to raise awareness of the condition and get support from the Instagram community. In this instance, some psoriasis-related hashtags had been temporarily restricted while we removed spam content which violated our guidelines. The issue has now been resolved and these hashtags can again be freely used by the community in the spirit in which they were intended.” (NB: This isn’t true – many of the hashtags are still blocked, 18 months later).
I spoke to Holly Dillon, the amazing woman behind the #GetYourSkinOut account:
“In the last year, both my account and the hashtag have been blocked by Instagram numerous times. The personal content I shared on Instagram was flagged for being offensive. My body, my story, my life was deemed inappropriate to share – a clear message and example of how something considered ‘other’ or different, like psoriasis, is still being defined by its misconceptions and not widely recognized or accepted as a norm. This needs to change.
Instagram and other social platforms have to do better at tightening and defining their algorithms. This has now happened 3 times and each time seems like step back for the community. On one hand, these platforms allow us to grow and connect, but at any given time a situation like this can happen and block years of work and personal stories from the community. As we move further into a tech dominated world, companies and website must be designed with these things in mind, with proper parameters and knowledge so that people and conditions aren’t isolated. Things like psoriasis must be accounted for in the beginning phases and not as an afterthought.”
How are we meant to fight for representation, to be seen and heard, to spread our experiences, and provide support for those who need it the most if Instagram – and, by extension, Facebook – are censoring us? These images being hidden means that they won’t appear on the Discover page (basically the only way to attract new followers thanks to the ridiculous algorithm), they won’t come up in search, the accounts using them won’t be suggested as accounts to follow, and it means that if you use ONE hashtag that they have deemed ‘sensitive’, all of the hashtags you have used will be invalidated, stunting your reach and making it impossible for others to find your content. This is so damaging for people like me who are trying to create a community online but – more importantly – what kind of message does this send to others with rosacea, or psoriasis, or a birthmark, or any of the many, many other visible differences? It tells us that we’re ‘undesirable’.
Instagram may think that they are building a safer online space by “helping people avoid posts they’d rather not see” but when that requires making a judgement on someone’s appearance, is that right? I would rather not see images that have been so FaceTuned that they look inhuman, but I’ve never seen one of those behind a sensitive content warning (even though I’d put good money on them causing more harm to people than an image of my big red face…)
To be honest, this seems like a training issue. I don’t want people to boycott or ‘cancel’ Instagram. But I would love to know the guidelines that the internal review team work to – I’ve emailed them but have yet to receive a reply, but I’ll update this post if I do hear back.
If Instagram/Facebook would like to discuss how they can work more closely with the skin positivity communities that they are isolating with their guidelines, I’m more than happy to chat to you. Let’s talk about the ways in which you can make your platform a safe, supportive, and useful tool for our communities to use. So if you’re reading this Instagram, let’s have a coffee and chat shall we?
The Verge interviewed me for this great article about the #undesirablesofinstagram campaign and they got a statement from Instagram who said: “I looked into it and this ad was rejected in error and we are sorry for the mistake. It’s now up and running.” […it wasn’t!]
This response is so disappointing. Their OWN GUIDELINES clearly point out that they discriminate against those with skin conditions, so it can’t be an accident. Either they are saying that the guidelines are wrong, or they think they were right to decline my ad. More importantly this campaign was never about the ad; this was about a huge company labelling other human beings as ‘undesirable’. This wasn’t about me being upset that I couldn’t promote an ad, or about getting an apology, or ‘cancelling’ Instagram. I wanted them to address the main point of the blog post which was blocking hashtags, hiding images of real faces behind ‘sensitivity’ warnings, and their outdated and damaging guidelines related to appearance. Them blocking an ad of mine was just a tangible symptom of their badly-worded and discriminatory guidelines. What’s most disappointing is that this could have been a wonderful opportunity to show real support and kindness to the skin positivity community but the issue has been brushed under the carpet.
If any of my lovely followers would like to help me raise this issue and hopefully correct it, please use the hashtag #UndesirablesOfInstagram on social media. The only way we can improve representation and make our voices heard is if we continue to shout about it. You can share this blog post, or the instagram post below. I would also recommend looking at the beautiful and brave people who have shared their photos in solidarity using the #undesirablesofinstagram hashtag.
I am so pleased to say that there is an update to this campaign. You can read all of the detail HERE. (Spoilers: we did it!)
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== SAVE THIS IMAGE TO PINTEREST TO SPREAD SKIN POSITIVITY ==