Tara notices that social networking site Facebook has decided, in the enforcement of their policy against “nudity, drug use, or other obscene content”, that pictures of breastfeeding babies are obscene. As such, the Facebook obscenity squad had been removing them — and has deleted the account of at least one mom who had posted such pictures.
Break out the Ouija board and get late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously claimed that he couldn’t define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it. As far as the legal definition goes, “obscene” seems to be roughly equivalent to “pornographic”. And I’m pretty confident that Justice Stewart, upon seeing a picture of a breastfeeding baby, would recognize that it was not pornographic. (If you are aroused beyond “normal lust” by such pictures, that may just be you, not the pictures themselves.)
So, what’s Facebook’s problem?
Arguably, allowing users to post breastfeeding pictures wouldn’t put Facebook in any legal jeopardy (since it’s hard to make a well-grounded legal argument that breastfeeding photos per se are obscene). It kind of sounds like someone at Facebook just decided that such pictures are icky.
Judgments of ickiness are pretty subjective. If I were the Queen of Facebook and decided to purge all the icky pictures, there would be certain varieties of facial hair that would disappear from user photo albums. Except that I recognize that such a move would be silly and arbitrary, and would unfairly target an entire segment of Facebook users on the basis of my likes and dislikes.
The difference between the actual Facebook decisions on breastfeeding picture and my hypothetical jihad on soul-patch pictures is that breastfeeding moms already face considerable hostility from the public. They get chased from mall benches into bathroom stalls to feed their babies (this despite being hounded by judgmental friends and strangers should they admit to so much as supplementing an infant’s breastfeeding with formula). They get thrown off commercial flights if they don’t “cover that thing up”. They get the message loud and clear that people think a milk-filled breast with a baby attached to it is an icky thing to see.
Are the men who sport soul-patches hounded out of the public sphere until they can shave or grow a proper beard?
And, this doesn’t seem like a simple matter of aesthetics. It’s almost as if people think they have a right to a public sphere in which they can remain innocent of the details of What Babies Eat (at least, the babies who are eating low on the manufacturing chain rather than being good consumers like their formula-chugging counterparts). However, this tidying of the public sphere disproportionately impacts the folks who usually have primary responsibility for the feeding of the babies: the lactating moms.
Making social isolation a part of breastfeeding doesn’t strike me as a great way to encourage more moms to breastfeed. In my experience, it’s the social isolation more than anything else (even the sleep deprivation) that makes parenting a baby brutally hard. Given the health benefits breast milk seems to confer on the babies who drink it (which may make a difference in the health care costs society is shouldering down the road), making breastfeeding a less attractive choice is dumb.
And spreading the social isolation of breastfeeding moms to social networking sites like Facebook is even dumber, because some clever Facebook competitor is going to refuse to discriminate against users on the basis of aesthetic judgments, and will swoop in to capture the people Facebook is alienating — plus their allies. (If you know of such a Facebook competitor, let me know so I can give it the positive linkage it deserves!)
Can we remember that part of the promise of the internet was that we might create better ways of interacting with each other, rather than reproducing the dumb stuff that makes the three dimensional world so frustrating?
Edited to add: If you’re a Facebook member, there’s a petition group organized to press the issue that breastfeeding pictures aren’t obscene.