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Instagram account suspended over breastfeeding selfie

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Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day quite like having your Instagram account suspended over a breastfeeding selfie.

Toronto-via-Winnipeg photographer Heather Bays says she had her account shut down without warning after receiving several complaints about an image of her breastfeeding her daughter.

Bays had little recourse; Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, doesn’t make it easy for users to reach out if their accounts have been deleted. So, Bays started a new Instagram account and used her other social media networks to spread her story via the hashtag #saveheatherbays. By Monday night, she’d heard from Instagram: it would restore her account.

(An Instagram employee told Heather in a telephone call that it wasn’t the breastfeeding pics that violated its terms of use, but rather shots of her young daughters with their bare torsos exposed, citing child pornography concerns. Her breastfeeding shots have been restored; the other shots have not. For her part, Bays doesn’t buy it.)

When it comes to breastfeeding shots, there’s been much debate on whether they should be allowed on social media sites. One doesn’t need to look far for both anecdotal reports of Facebook pages being shut down despite that site’s breastfeeding photo-friendly policy or comments along the lines of, "Ew, I don’t want to see that."

But Instagram and other social media sites could be a powerful tool in dismantling the stigma surrounding public breastfeeding. Because our society, online and off, still has a big problem with seeing a baby on the boob.

In our culture, breasts are sexual. They are considered to be private parts, to be covered up by bras, T-shirts and blouses in public and revealed in private — this despite the fact they are often treated like public property. Breasts are fixtures of erotica and porn. They give and receive sexual pleasure. To be sure, tits titillate.

People are usually excited to see a slip of a nip in our sexualized, Girls Gone Wild culture. But when breasts are employed in other ways — i.e. to feed a baby — many people’s knee-jerk reaction is revulsion because they have internalized the message (a message that is continually reinforced by all manner of media, by the way) that breasts are sex objects and sex objects alone.

Although it’s not illegal in this country to do so, breastfeeding moms are often made to feel like they can’t nurse their child in public spaces. Many people say the sight of someone breastfeeding "makes them uncomfortable."

You know what’s uncomfortable? Enduring looks of scorn/derision/disgust. Being harassed or discriminated against. Having to eat your lunch in a bathroom stall with your head covered by a hot blanket. That’s uncomfortable.

And if breastfeeding a baby in public is cause for offence, imagine what a mother must deal with if she decides to publicly nurse a toddler. A 2012 Time Magazine cover featuring a woman named Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her three-year-old son while staring defiantly out from the page was met with a chorus of horrified gasps. (The magazine was likely cashing in on a shock value that can only exist so long as people find breastfeeding somehow shocking.)

But photos like Bays’ can help normalize breastfeeding. They can help us see breasts through a different lens, so to speak. They can go a long way in showing that there’s nothing sexual or shameful or disgusting or offensive about breastfeeding. Rather, that it’s a pretty normal thing that women all over the world do every day.

That’s a message worth enforcing, isn’t it?

Of course, in order for that to happen, Instagram and Facebook may be required to look at how they deal with reported images and complaints. It may require more specific language on terms of use pages. It may require a more nuanced policies. It may even require more employees; the Instagram employee that contacted Heather told her that only 68 people work for a site that 150 million people use.

And if those changes make the pearl-clutchers and hand-wringers of the world uncomfortable, well, might I suggest a hot blanket.

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