This story contains embedded images of real births.
It's one of the most beautiful, inspiring moments in the human experience. Birth is an incredible moment for a mother and all who witness it. While often portrayed in the media as a waist-up shot of a fully clothed woman sweating and screaming on her back in a hospital bed, real life images of the birthing process are more diverse, more beautiful and more complicated, and until recently, more likely to be censored on social media.
If you've ever had a snapshot of your delivery removed from Instagram or Facebook, you know what we're talking about. Luckily, times are changing as #uncensoredbirth just delivered a whole new era of social media.
A spokesperson for Instagram tells Motherly the social network's "nudity policy is evolving to allow for photos and videos of childbirth. Over the past several months we have worked with birthing advocates and women's health experts to help craft this policy update that we believe better categorizes birthing imagery as educational and celebratory."
Instagram admits its policies have sometimes been more blunt than they would like "which results in restricting content that is shared for legitimate purposes," but the people who power the popular social network have been listening to the moms and photographers in the birth community in hopes of refining technology and processes to make them more discerning.
Basically, the future of social media involves defining policies that keep birth and breastfeeding photos up, while still taking pornography and other images that violate terms of service down.
Katie Vigos is a mama, nurse, doula, and the influential Instagrammer behind the popular account @empoweredbirthproject. She has played a pivotal role in the evolution of how we share birth stories on social media, and her popular change.org petition was likely a factor in Instagram policy change.
"People are tired of being silenced and having all these really raw and real aspects of motherhood pushed into the shadows," says Vigos. "That doesn't service anyone, that doesn't do us any good. Definitely, over the last several years people have just been more and more hungry for reality and accepting of it. It's now basically culminated in uncensored birth."
Above: Postpartum doula and mother Lauren Archer made headlines last year after her birth photos (captured by Brian Archer) were removed from Instagram. The photo at the centre of the controversy was posted to Katie Vigos' @empoweredbirthproject and prompted a change.org petition.
Still, Vigos says she was hardly the David in a fight against a corporate Goliath. She credits the folks at Instagram (especially the women and mothers on staff) with recognizing the power of realistic birth and breastfeeding imagery and fighting with her, not against her, for years. "I started the Empowered Birth Project in 2014 because I wanted to show people what birth actually looks like, or at least present a real-life portrayal of birth, because it's always bothered me, the portrayal of birth in film and television," Vigos tells Motherly.
She says she was aware of what lines she shouldn't cross in order to avoid having photos removed, and while she "would push the envelope" from time to time, she really did try to play by Instagram's rules.
Above: Showcasing diverse birth stories is an important part of the @empoweredbirthproject.
"I was trying to comply but it was frustrating because they would still censor it when it didn't actually show genitalia, just like the suggestion that it's there. Or one time they took a photo down for a sliver of areola," Vigos recalls.
That's why some were surprised when, in 2015, Vigos says Instagram contacted her not to discuss removing her work, but to actually celebrate it in a very public way. "They hand-selected a few dozen people, Instagram users, to display a photo at a gallery in LA, and they selected a photo from my page of me breastfeeding my son. It was like you could see my whole breast, except for the nipple in his mouth, so it was a very bold statement on their part," she recalls.
Above: Instagram selected this picture for a gallery exhibition at a time when #normalizebreastfeeding and #freethenipple were trending and breastfeeding photos were frequently removed from various social media platforms.
She says once at the gallery, she met with Instagram's then Director of Public Policy, Nicole Jackson Colaco, and the COO, Marne Levine, "and they conveyed to me how much they support the birthing and motherhood community on their platform."
Shortly after that, Vigos says she was informed Instagram had added "an extra layer of protection" to her account, that would keep her photos (many of which are not hers, but rather photos from other mothers and photographers whose work she is amplifying) from being removed. "I would still occasionally get censored," she says, noting that she still expects some photos to get removed or flagged as Instagram moves forward with new network-wide protections, as that requires perfecting processes and basically teaching technology how to tell the difference between a photo of a nude person in the context of birth, and a nude person in the context of pornography.
Vigos believes her petition helped tip the scales in favor of the change, but credits a lot of the work to those behind the scenes—the women who've been working in the Instagram offices for years—bringing her cause up at meetings and in boardrooms. "I think what people don't realize is how much these powerful women in positions of influence at Facebook and Instagram—and most of them mothers themselves—what people don't realize is how much these women have been advocating for this change all this time."
In a statement to Motherly an Instagram spokesperson says, "We are always working to create better policies for our global community and we believe this update is a great example of that."
We believe it's an example of what happens when women, and mothers, are allowed to both be in positions of power, and tell our own stories.