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Exclusive – Meet Nyome, the model who changed Instagram’s nudity policy

The social media platform has pledged to do better when it comes to censoring plus-size Black women’s bodies, following a campaign from model Nyome Nicholas-Williams.

‘If thin, white models can post nearly-naked photos on Instagram, why can’t I,’ asked plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams (who uses the handle @CurvyNyome) in response to Instagram repeatedly removing semi-nude photographs from her profile. ‘Millions of pictures of very naked, skinny white women can be found on Instagram every day, but a fat Black woman celebrating her body is banned? I feel like I’m being silenced.’

For years now, Instagram’s blatant censorship bias has come under increasing fire from its users. Clearly inconsistent with what is deemed to go against community guidelines, scrolling through the explore page still presents post upon post of men showing their nipples, influencers in nothing but thongs, and bigots spouting offensive rhetoric. But when Nyome uploaded a series of beautiful, tasteful images captured by Alexandra Cameron, Instagram immediately marked them unsuitable for viewing, citing that they contained ‘nudity or sexual activity.’

In one of the shots, Nyome sits with her head back, eyes closed, covering her bare breasts with her arms – a pose that you’ll find on the feeds of countless celebrities, influencers, and social media users with little to no objection from the platform. ‘Although they’re more than suitable for the space I’ve cultivated on my account, it even got to the point where my entire page was at risk of being deleted because I refused to let them censor my body,’ she says.

‘When they censor my images, they tell me – and everyone else – that there is one size that is correct and worthy, a narrative that has been repeated to women our entire lives and this exact way of thinking is what I am trying to change. I never tire of speaking up about things I’m passionate about, but I am tired of this always happening when we’re in 2020.’

This quickly led to a wave of outrage online, Nyome’s followers eagerly rallying to share the censored photos under trending hashtag #IWantToSeeNyome. With momentum gathering somewhat overnight, it wasn’t long before thousands had come together to accuse Instagram of – yet again – exhibiting signs of racism and fatphobia.

‘Trying to get my picture to stay up has opened a wider discussion around the fact there is very obviously a major issue regarding the censorship of bigger bodies that are Black,’ she says. ‘All I’ve ever wanted to do was model and show plus-size Black bodies in a positive light so that everyone can be properly represented – this whole situation has been beyond shocking to me. My hope is that Instagram will have an answer as to why women like me are being censored so routinely and expose their approval process in doing so.’

Fortunately, the plethora of posts and appeals supporting Nyome has brought Instagram’s apparent unfair targeting of Black content creators to the forefront, prompting CEO Adam Mosseri to acknowledge the urgent need for a reassessment of its algorithms.

‘Hearing concerns about whether we suppress Black voices and whether our products and policies treat everyone equally, we’re committed to looking at the ways our policies, tools and processes impact Black people and other under-represented groups on Instagram,’ he said.

But this wasn’t good enough. Asking Nyome whether or not she believed Mosseri’s intentions to be genuine, she expressed a strong belief that ‘no one wants to truly address what’s happening here’ because ‘blame is always passed on.’ In a modern day society, for Nyome, transparency is the most important thing – transparency from both people and the technology they control.

She questions the machine-led system that chooses which images are appropriate and which aren’t, explaining that whoever writes the codes for them (most often white men) have a tendency to bring their own biases into their work. This has in fact been proven, with recent evidence suggesting racism in artificial intelligence. She also asks who, on the other hand, wrote the guidelines the humans manning the approving process have been adhering to up until this point, concerned that standards have not shifted whatsoever with the times.

‘If you feel a certain way about something or someone, say it with your chest. Even if you’re going to receive backlash, be transparent, be open. We are aware that Instagram is biased against black people and then you add plus-sized women on top of that and we’ve got ourselves a whole, continuous issue that no-one is actually dealing with.’

Seconding this, Gina Martin, the writer-cum-activist who successfully campaigned in 2018 to change the law and make upskirting a criminal offence decided to share Nyome’s story with her 65K followers, helping to launch the movement that has since gained serious traction. Disheartened by the discrepancy between what Instagram said and what it was actually doing, a petition was initiated, calling to ‘stop Instagram from censoring fat, Black women.’

With over 16,000 signatures and counting, Nyome and her supporters have finally succeeded in getting the platform to review its policy on nudity – an obviously encouraging win, but one that’s relatively bittersweet. ‘When people exist in bigger bodies, and black women and people of colour talk about this censorship, the response is just ‘oh yeah, that happens,’ says Gina. ‘It’s embarrassing that it takes a verified white woman to talk about it for Instagram to do something. And this is just one case. It’s been happening for years.’

Nyome’s quest to make a real change, despite the complications she encountered along the way, is absolutely revolutionary for the plus-size Black community. Instagram responded to the criticism and set up a meeting with Nyome, during which it was agreed that they’d make a change in the way they review images. Sharing the news of her success on Instagram, she posted an email screenshot with details of the upcoming policy review.

Previously revealing that the social media platform had restored the images after formally apologising for deleting them, Instagram further outlined why. ‘Our guidelines do not allow breast squeezing as it is often associated with pornographic content, but we made mistakes in how this has been enforced. We’ve shared new guidance with our review teams to help them better distinguish between squeezing breasts and simply holding or covering them, and we’re looking closely at our existing policy to understand where we can improve this experience for our plus-size community.’

It’s a promising first step, but major influential platforms such as Instagram would certainly benefit from more transparency and less hypocrisy. It’s tiring to see claims of solidarity against racism while refusing to accept biased algorithms. It’s tiring to see the irresponsible promotion of unhealthy behaviours while hiding bodies that don’t match western-centric beauty standards. It’s tiring to see platforms embrace diversity while minimising plus-size exposure.

Social media is an incredible tool, but it’s also incredibly harmful. ‘They need to set out a strategy to ensure their staff – or their coding and algorithms – aren’t, as it seems to me, racist, sexist and stigmatizing Black plus-size bodies,’ finishes Nyome. ‘They need to answer for their apparent racial bias and why it’s Black women that are always bearing the brunt of peoples prejudice when it comes to reporting images. There is an issue here, that’s undebatable, they need to be open about accepting that and figuring out what they can do to move forward.’

Kudos to you Nyome for refusing to let this one slide!