Last Friday, actress Florence Pugh attended Valentino’s Fall/Winter 2022 couture show in Rome. She wore a frothy pink dress which, being transparent, exposed her breasts. Posting photos of herself on Instagram, beaming at the show, Pugh brazenly asserted of her nipples: “Technically, are they covered? »
The show itself, titled The beginning, was an exuberant celebration of the history and future of the Valentino brand. A decidedly diverse catalog of models walked the Spanish Steps draped in flowing red silk, shimmering silver sheaths and puffy pink feather capes.
As extravagant as the show was, it was the appearance of celebrity guests such as Pugh that captured mainstream attention. Even those who haven’t seen footage from the show have probably seen a photo of Pugh, whose image quickly went viral.
Why is the image of a handsome actor in a pink dress at a luxury fashion event in Rome causing such controversy? As Pugh herself puts it, it’s “all because of two cute little nipples…” In 2022, visible nipples on social media remain a point of contention.
Celebrities often make statements with what they wear. Just two days before the Valentino show, all eyes were on Kim Kardashian at the Jean Paul Gaultier show in Paris, where she wore a replica of the famous pinstripe dress worn by Madonna at the 1992 American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR) gala.
Yet, rather than being bare like Madonna’s famous look, the dress was a modest version, with bust cups filled with nude fabric. On Kardashian, the radical political statement made by Madonna thirty years ago seemed somehow kitsch and stilted.
The pink confection that Pugh wore in Rome, provocatively feminine in its color and silhouette, was not a statement in itself. It wasn’t until she posted the images on Instagram that she became a lightning rod. Even then, it wasn’t the dress that was the statement, it was what the dress revealed.
Instagram and #freethenipple
Upon posting, Pugh immediately became the recipient of two different responses. There were those who, contrary to Instagram’s famously strict policy no policy on female nipples, were quick to comment on the beauty of Pugh’s look and praise her for avoiding the long overdue policing of women’s bodies. And then there was the influx of toxic comments about Pugh’s body.
Pugh has since uploaded a second post, in which she responds to the misogynistic comments she received on the initial post. In the caption, Pugh provokes: “Why are you so afraid of breasts?” She directed this question to the group of men who posted negative comments about her body, but it could also be directed to Instagram’s controversial content moderation practices.
The caption not only draws attention to the “ease of men totally destroying a woman’s body, publicly, proudly, for all to see…” but also how social media mechanics contribute. to unrealistic standards of beauty. It is precisely these expectations that Pugh rejects, proudly proclaiming:
It’s always been my mission in this industry to say “fuck it and fuck that” whenever someone expects my body to turn into an opinion of what’s hot or sexually attractive.
Pugh isn’t the first celebrity to make a political statement about the experience of misogyny online and how women’s bodies and self-expression through nudity are disproportionately controlled. In 2015, Naomi Campbell’s contribution to the #freethenipple digital campaign was deleted for violating Instagram’s Terms of Service. Since then, Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham and Cara Delevingne have all claimed Free the Nipple.
However, despite the long-running campaign to change attitudes towards women’s bodies, Instagram Community Rules continue to penalize nipples that present a woman.
Double the double standards
As of now, Pugh’s post is still on Instagram. This is positive and suggests the dial is moving slightly. However, Pugh is young, white, cisgender, and conventionally attractive. She is a successful movie star with vast amounts of cultural capital. Many Instagram users who don’t fit into these categories would likely see an equivalent photo quickly deleted.
In 2020, Instagram’s nudity policy came under fire when an image of model Nyome Nicholas-Williams, half-naked and with her arms wrapped around her breasts, was repeatedly deleted. The removal of the photo revived claims by racial prejudice and fat phobia in Instagram’s content moderation processes.
Notably, the photograph showed no nipples, but violated an Instagram policy banning images depicting “breast squeeze.” It was called to penalize fat and plus size users by disregarding the ability of those with larger breasts to stand. Instagram has since attempted to improve its policy on this specific type of nudity to allow for the “holding” or “sucking” of breasts.
Due to a lack of transparency in content moderation practices, research into the potential impacts and biases of content governance on Instagram remains a challenge.
Some community research suggests that deleting posts on Instagram disproportionately target women, people of color, tall users, and members of LGBTIQ communities. The detrimental impact on sex workers, even when they are not employed as sex workers, has also been documented.
Still others to research also found that images of “underweight” women needed to be removed from Instagram at a higher rate, suggesting that while content moderation is applied inconsistently across body types, a perceived bias towards thin women can be exaggerated.
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Showing breasts on the catwalk is far from remarkable. In effect, several models marching at the Valentino show wore see-through clothes through which their breasts could be seen. It was in Pugh’s Instagram post that the conscious political statement was made. As she notes in the caption of her second post, “we all knew what we were doing.”
The regulation of bodily autonomy has, of course, become a particularly volatile topic in recent weeks, since the upset of Roe against Wade. The policing of bodies online can be seen as a mirror image of more dangerous policing offline.
While Instagram’s guidelines state that in some cases photographs of “female nipples” are permitted “as an act of protest”, in such an environment, it’s hard to see how an image of women’s breasts can be anything other than an act of protest.
That a post like this can elicit such vehement responses surely tells us that it’s high time to #freethenipple.