By Kristen V. Brown
San Francisco Chronicle.
Tiffany Gray’s Instagram feed is awash with the kind of images that inspire envy.
There are photos of her kids rolling around in the grass and playing in the sand, backlit by a glowing late afternoon sun.
Gray refers to it as a diary of “mothering from the trenches,” but her depiction of motherhood skews more toward sunshine and lollipops than warfare.
The Oregon mother of four was surprised, then, when her account was disabled in April after being flagged for lewd imagery.
Someone, it seemed, had taken offense at images of her breast-feeding, which Instagram allows, or photos of her children.
Her account was eventually shut down.
She was especially flummoxed because the photos removed from Instagram hardly seem like the type to offend sensibilities — the breast-feeding shots didn’t fully reveal her breast, and the photos of her kids showed them in swimsuits or from the waist up in the bath.
Gray had found herself amid a brewing Instagram war.
In one camp: hundreds of moms, if not more, who consider uploading photos of themselves breast-feeding or of their kids in the tub a way to share the experience of motherhood.
In the other: a group of people, some of them mothers themselves, who find that imagery inappropriate and systematically flag it for removal.
It’s a kind of proxy battle over the same ideas that have always made public breast-feeding a contentious topic: feminism, a woman’s body, how to parent.
And like many battles that are primarily waged online, it can get ugly.
“As a breastfeeding mother, I am utterly disgusted by this b-,” one commenter on the snark-heavy forum Get Off My Internets wrote, linking to an Instagram image of a woman breast-feeding.
“It sounds really dramatic,” said Gray. “But there are mothers considering themselves vigilantes that are out to get our accounts disabled. They are vindictive and they are vicious.”
Breast-feeding in America has historically been a charged issue. At different times it has been considered feminist and antifeminist, better for a baby than formula-feeding and worse, though its nutritional benefits are unchallenged today.
“You still continually see issues about breast-feeding in public,” said Linda Blum, a Northeastern University sociologist who studies the ideologies of breast-feeding.
“People don’t want to see it. We have legal protections for breast-feeding in public, but still there is this notion is that it’s lewd.”
It makes sense, then, that in the present era this battle would take place on Instagram.
“In many ways, it is about who our bodies belong to, who our breasts belong to,” Blum said. “That’s what you’re seeing on social media.”
In 2012, angered by Facebook’s censorship of photos of women breast-feeding their children, moms staged nurse-in demonstrations at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters and satellite offices around the world.
In June Facebook, which owns Instagram, updated its terms of service to allow breast-feeding.
Last month, when the model Natalia Vodianova posted a professionally shot breast-feeding photo to her Instagram, it inspired both pleas to stop “sexualizing” breast-feeding and a listicle in Women’s Health Magazine of “5 Breastfeeding Selfies We Love.”
“Women can have very emotional reactions to breast-feeding because they are being bombarded by conflicted messages,” Blum said.
“It’s divided women against each other.”
Recently, a San Francisco mom and a Texas mom who have never met in real life started a website, motherbleep.org, to help moms whose images or accounts have been deleted.
They quickly heard from dozens of women. Some of them had images of themselves breast-feeding deleted; others had images of their young children nude or partially nude taken down.
Alexis Sassard, who runs the Texas arm of the site as well as her own blog, said much of the feud seems to be contained to the “mommy blog world.”
In response to motherbleep.org, an antibreast-feeding Instagram account was created and then deleted. Get Off My Internets is rife with rants about images of both breast-feeding and less-than-fully-clothed kids. Rumors swirl about who might be writing those rants.
“I am guessing some of my followers might also be some of the same people that flag my posts,” said Gray, the Oregon mom who with more than 12,000 followers is popular in Instagram mommy circles.
The only forum frequenter who agreed to speak with The Chronicle said that she was fine with the breast-feeding images but takes issue with photos of kids who aren’t fully clothed.
“Yes, my mom has pictures of me as a naked little kid but they are in albums or boxes or whatev in her home, not on the Internet for all and sundry to see,” said the commenter, who would not give her name.
“For one, it is a privacy issue. More importantly, sick individuals known as pedophiles can troll public Instagram sites, blogs, etc., and use these images for, well, you know.”
Next week, Oakland mom Mandee Jaigirdar is organizing a protest at Instagram’s Facebook campus headquarters.
Her group, Mothers of Instagram, is asking for more clarity about what is permissible on Instagram, as well as for the company to stop deleting images of both breast-feeding and unclothed children.
“You’re not only playing into the war on women, but you’re helping aid the creation of an entirely new playing field — a virtual one — a battlefield which has more power than previous generations have ever been subjected to,” a letter from the group reads.
Instagram’s chief means of policing the content on its network is its users. Its community guidelines are vague, but typically if another user flags content as inappropriate, Instagram investigates, issues a warning and disables accounts if there are multiple violations.
The company said it only removes content if it violates policies, though many of the women contacted for this story provided photos deleted from the site that did not appear to break Instagram rules.
“We try hard to find a good balance between allowing people to express themselves creatively and having policies in place to provide a comfortable experience for our global community,” an Instagram representative said.
“We have long allowed photos of mothers breast-feeding. Our guidelines do put limitations on nudity, including nude images of children, to help keep kids safe online.”
But Gray is still miffed as to how anything she posted violated any policy.
“If I can nurse in the courtroom, I can nurse on the Internet,” Gray said. “I’m not like this big nursing advocate. But when I found out what was going on, I felt like this is more than a nursing issue. It’s a feminist issue. And we have to kind of pave the way.”