Allegedly, there are over 1 billion active Instagram users. The demographic breakdowns of IG apparently reflect “real life” pretty well in terms of an approximately even split between masculine-identified people and feminine-identified people, except in the 18 - 34 y.o. demographic, where there are allegedly 20 million more male users. Perhaps that means something for how Instagram has shaped its digital culture.
Slick Chicks is one of several accounts that I have been proud to follow and support in the disabled and chronic illness communities that has amplified fem-identified persons and has prioritized fem-aligned voices. After all, chronic illness is a feminist issue, and patient advocacy has historically been a grass roots movement of patients supporting other patients. Yet for such a uplifting community, the online component isn’t what we would call “thriving.” Despite some accounts amassing significant followings, a quick look at the average clicks and evidence of engagement indicates that very few people are participating in these spaces, unless they are intentionally going out of the way to do so.
This is because fem-helmed and fem-centric spaces are often subject to content filtering, content demotion, outright content removal, restrictions on promotion ability and restrictions on participating in using public hashtags (a.k.a., "shadow banning") across social media platforms, including IG. When you cross-section these fem-identified people with visible physical differences or with candid discussions of psychological trauma, the chasm deepens.
“Shadow banning” has roots in user suppression that goes all the way back to the earliest forums of the internet, but shadow banning as we know it has been utilized as a silent stalker on women’s social media content since the mid 2010s. Sex workers and educators as well as sex work-adjacent athletes and entertainers, such as recreational pole artists, were the first to speak out against digital discrimination in the wake of SESTA FOSTA, but their dissent largely went unheard outside of adjacent sex-positive individuals.
Neither Instagram nor its parent company, Facebook, has ever issued an official statement acknowledging that they utilize shadow banning, and for years, Instagram has dodged clarification on what kind of content is deemed “inappropriate.” Instagram’s stance on nudity is defined as:
We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.
As an agender trans person with disabling conditions and a mixed ethnic/cultural background, I’m no stranger to having uneasy footing in public spaces. But normally, I'm simply a proud and informed ally and advocate to my friends and colleagues who have been the primary targets of shadow ban sanctions—until these same sanctions have started impacting me. In the past months, I've used my Instagram platform to become more adamant about my physical and mental illnesses and have persisted as a trans advocate outside of "Rainbow SZN." I finally experienced my first shadow ban this past week when a portrait of myself and my friend wearing our undergarments in a non-revealing staging was demoted and ultimately restricted from appearing in the hashtags.
(photo feat. @thedisabledhippie, taken by @holldoll821)
After doing some research, another friend gave me this heads up: Facebook has issued a much more explicit and draconian stance on what kinds of images they deem “sexually implicit” in nature on their advertisement guidelines page.
(screencap from Facebook)
These images include fully covered masculine and feminine bodies… and apparently undergarments are inherently sexually motivated in nature.
(Screencap from Facebook)
However, yet another page attempts to muddle this into a grey area with a half-heartedly sympathetic approach:
We understand that nudity can be shared for a variety of reasons, including as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons. Where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content.
At this point, I’m at an impasse. The sensual, yet innocent photograph of my friend and I is apparently borderline pornographic on its own. Sure; that’s ridiculous, but let’s hypothetically concede to that. However, the context of the photograph exists as a piece of protest art to rainbow capitalism during Pride month… therefore?
(photo feat. @thedisabledhippie, taken by @holldoll821)
Under the circumstances, I am now unsure whether it was the image itself which triggered the algorithm to suppress such content, of it it was the text that accompanied it (a criticism on mainstream corporate stores failing to even pay lip service to LGBTQ+ communities). Instagram infamously uses the same image algorithm as its parent company to identify, filter, censor or promote content, and Instagram has had its own enhanced content filter AI since at least 2017.
What I am sure of is that the community I love and support returned that love and that support tenfold. The engagement numbers on my “offensive” post come 100% from word-of-mouth speaking back against the outrage. Likewise for my friend's counter-campaign to the shadow ban. What I've taken away from this experience is that when we speak up, the powers that be may turn an ear, but the community will absolutely listen and bring themselves to the front lines.
What does this mean for us?
When Slick Chicks announced the #slickchicksonline campaign, I knew I wanted to reach out. Because shadow banning disproportionately affects visibly disabled, bipoc, visibly queer and sex positive folk and fems, and because shadow banning deliberately attacks these people when a certain parameter of skin is identified in their images, their content may not even be visible in this tag. In fact, when going to the tag, it indicates that there are 100+ posts, but only a dozen or so are actually visible. Many of these images are duplicate re-posts. We may never see the correct reflection of our numbers in the hashtags, but we can make ourselves seen and heard in greater numbers by the power of sharing and re-sharing our experiences.
Slick Chicks as a brand has consistently gone out of the way to engage with and to uplift content that is created by persons who align with groups that are not favored by the IG algorithm. The fact that I was graciously invited to contribute a guest column is evidence to this! However possible, I want to use my rediscovered mode of expression to help more folks be able to share their Slick Chicks stories and to share the mission of empowering people with foundational confidence.
Ariel is a life-long subscriber to chronic illness who has given up trying to find the ‘unsubscribe’ button. He lives with his partner and animals on a modest homestead in the southeast United States. Apart from being a permanent patient, Ariel is a death positive advocate and frequent blogger on his Instagram and his WordPress blog.
Wordpress: https://caarpethatdiem.wordpress.comKo-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/carpethatdiem