Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Your Breastfeeding Photo Policies Are Offensive

By Wendy Wisner

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

When I became a mom almost nine years ago, I didn’t have a Facebook account. And like many new parents, I had a lot of questions about babies and parenting in general; if I wanted answers, I had to ask a friend, call my pediatrician, do an Internet search, or — gasp! — get a book on the subject and read it.

These days, a large swathe of parents turn to Facebook for crowd-sourced guidance; it’s a fast, easy way to connect, a means to share articles, ideas, and experiences. In fact, as a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), I use Facebook to chat with my peers and to help mothers with their breastfeeding concerns. I’ve fostered a small but engaged Facebook page — The Wendy House — that draws mothers who are worried about, intrigued by, and have struggles and triumphs surrounding breastfeeding.

Mr. Zuckerberg, you’re married to a pediatrician, so you probably know that breastmilk is the optimal food for newborns. You may also know that mothers sometimes have more-than-a-little difficulty breastfeeding; they need lots of help and encouragement along the way. My page is just one of many places on Facebook where moms can get this kind of support.

Recently, I made a meme that I shared on my page. It depicted the diversity found in breastfeeding — all the varied ways mothers find to meet their breastfeeding goals. Plain and simple and honest, I thought.

I was proud to show a working/pumping mom, a mom nursing twins, a baby who is drinking a bottle of pumped milk, and a baby at the breast, milk dripping sweetly from the corner of his mouth. The members of my page thought the meme was great, so when Facebook gave me the option of “boosting” the post, I was happy to shell out a few dollars so it could reach more Facebook users, and perhaps grow my community.

However, within just a few hours of making the request to “boost” the post, I received a message saying that my ad was rejected because it contained “excessive amounts of skin,” “suggestive content,” “nudity,” and “cleavage.”

I had to laugh at first, remembering the myriad times I had seen “excessive skin” and cleavage on Facebook not related to breastfeeding. But soon my laughter was replaced by anger, and then by incredulity. I thought of the mothers I’d worked with who felt uncomfortable breastfeeding outside their homes, who went to elaborate lengths to cover up while nursing at parks, stores — even the offices of their pediatricians. I thought of the moms who pumped bottles of milk so they wouldn’t have to breastfeed when they were out and about. I thought of the mothers who gave up nursing because they felt chained to their homes.

And I thought of the mothers who had been harassed while breastfeeding — even though every state but Idaho has laws in place protecting the right to breastfeed in public, regardless of how much skin (including nipples) is visible during a nursing session. I thought of the time I was nursing my six-month-old at a Subway and was told to go nurse in the bathroom because my breastfeeding was “indecent exposure.” I thought of the words the clerk used, almost identical to the words used in Facebook’s message to me; my quickened heart rate and the flush in my cheeks reminded me of the day I held my baby against my breast and felt shamed and exposed.

Nevertheless, I responded simply and courteously, explaining that my ad depicted the natural act of breastfeeding and was an encouraging, educational image for parents. There was a little back and forth, and I eventually dug up Facebook’s official policy on images of breastfeeding:

Does Facebook allow photos of mothers breastfeeding?

“Yes. We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies.
Please note that the photos we review are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other Facebook members who complain about them being shared on Facebook.”

Naively, I thought that with a few explanations and some discussion, Facebook would decide that my photo belonged to that elusive “vast majority.” Although I couldn’t imagine how a breastfeeding photo wouldn’t be “natural and beautiful,” the photos in my meme certainly seemed to fall into that category. I thought maybe the concern was over the close-up of the baby nursing, yet that seemed like a textbook “breastfeeding photo” — one that might, in fact, grace the cover of a breastfeeding informational handout or book.

I wasn’t getting much specific feedback from the ad team, so I scrutinized the photo further. I wondered if it was rejected because the milk dripping from the baby’s mouth was off-putting in some way. I wondered if the race of the mother — the dark color of her skin — was somehow a factor.

What was really going on?

A few days later, I got a message from the Facebook ads team that stunned me. I got my answer: my photos were too “sexually suggestive.”

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At this point, there was no time for manners. I wrote a quick note denouncing this statement, but I realized that I was getting nowhere fast communicating with the Facebook ad team, and decided I needed to voice my complaint to a higher official and in a larger forum.

Mr. Zuckerberg: these photos are not on a kink site, and these depictions of breastfeeding are not sexual. Full stop. If they are in fact inducing sexual desire in Facebook users, surely this population is comparable to the same small slice of humanity that gleans arousal from all kinds of everyday things — should we police and ban those too?

And that’s to say nothing of the millions of flesh-filled photographs — from community and business pages for strip clubs or exotic dancers to women (and men!) posing provocatively on beaches, in Vegas, in bed, etc. etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum — which are purposely sexually in nature and are not banned.

For someone on your ad team to suggest that these breastfeeding photos are too “sexually suggestive” amid the content that gluts everyone’s Facebook pages every day is not only laughable, it’s hypocritical, damaging, and offensive. And it’s something that you need to correct immediately.

The real issue is not my ad or my little meme. Despite the official policy, countless images of breastfeeding have been removed or deemed “inappropriate” by the Facebook team. As one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet, you need to make sure that your policies reflect accurate information, empower parents, and stop perpetuating myths about breastfeeding, women, and bodies.

I understand that breasts are sexualized in our society. In fact, I’m sure Facebook’s general scrutiny of photos comes from a place of wanting to protect young people from the onslaught of exploitative images that are posted daily. But that’s exactly why we need to show that breasts have an ordinary, wholesome function. We owe it to ourselves to take back women’s breasts and bodies, to desexualize them and teach our children about their original purpose.

I have two sons, both breastfed. My older son has seen his younger brother breastfeed countless times. He will grow up knowing what breasts are for because he has seen them all of his life, and he knows that there is nothing strange or taboo about them. Furthermore, if my boys become fathers someday, they will have an idea of what normal breastfeeding looks like, how babies behave at the breast, and (I hope) how they can support their partners in their breastfeeding journeys.

I know, Mr. Zuckerberg, that your wife is pregnant with your first child. Perhaps she, like the majority of new mothers, wants to breastfeed. I hope that if she does, she is armed with good information and support. I hope that she is never shamed while nursing, and that she doesn’t feel she must be confined to her home because breastfeeding is too “sexual” to do in public.

Maybe you agree with me, and think that the photo I shared does meet your requirements. Obviously, you don’t personally oversee everything that happens on Facebook. But it’s important that your staff are educated properly on how to analyze the breastfeeding photos that are brought to their attention. It’s critical that they understand that breastfeeding — regardless of how much flesh is exposed — is a feeding method first and foremost, and shouldn’t be conflated with sex.

You owe it to all the mothers who struggle with breastfeeding and turn to Facebook for advice and support. These mothers need to know that their bodies are beautiful, functional, and made to do the most natural thing on earth. You owe it to your wife, as she begins her journey of motherhood. And you owe it to your newborn daughter, who will grow to be a woman before you know it. You have the power to contribute to a more body-positive world for her and her generation.

Sincerely,
Wendy Wisner, IBCLC and mom

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Lead image: Flickr/Flávio Correia Lima