When Aarti Olivia woke up last week to find that a photo of hers had been removed from Instagram, the reason why seemed obvious: it was because she is fat.
Olivia, a plus-sized fashion blogger in Singapore, had posted a photo of herself and two other women; they were all participating in a photoshoot for a magazine feature on how to wear bikinis as a plus-sized person. She posted the image to Instagram on Sunday night, and woke up the next morning to find that it has been taken down for violating community standards.
"The image clearly did not violate the guidelines, we were simply three plus sized women happy after a photoshoot in our bikinis," Olivia told me, via e-mail. "Obviously Fatphobic trolls had reported the image and Instagram blindly removed it. Which really angered me."
Olivia had set out to prove that every body is a bikini body. Instead she proved that only certain kinds of bodies are viewed as acceptable bikini bodies on Instagram.
Olivia reposted the image to Facebook, along with a post about her own indignation, and asked her friends to share it. The image quickly racked up thousands of likes.
This incident is not isolated. Often community guidelines on social networks are used to enforce dangerous culture ideologies about what is beautiful or appropriate. Recall the Instagram moms whose accounts were shut down for shots of breastfeeding or the woman censored for posting a period stain. Just last week, Facebook (which owns Instagram) refused to run an ad featuring a fat model in a bikini, because it was deemed "undesirable," violating the social network's ad standards. "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable,” Facebook wrote to the group that wanted to use the photo to advertise an event, before changing its mind after backlash.
Most often these guidelines enforce ideas that are specifically harmful to women. Through such censorship, Instagram and Facebook serve up narrow prescriptions of the kind of woman society expects us to be, packaged in a condemnation of the kind of woman many of us actually are.
When these stories go viral, tech companies usually brush off the condemnations as "errors" brought on by the "volume" of requests they get each day. After Fusion inquired about the removal of Olivia's post a week after it was taken down, Instagram emailed her and told her it was a "mistake."
But with every new belly roll or bit of armpit hair redacted, it becomes harder and harder to view these incidents as honest mistakes.
When I reached out to Instagram, the company told me that it has not only apologized and restored the image, but has "already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future.” The company did not, however, elaborate on what those steps might be.
In the past, Instagram has admitted that it doesn't "always get it right." But the "error" here is not the chance oversight that led Olivia's bikini photo to be taken down. The error is the standard hard-coded into minds of people reviewing those requests that certain expressions of the female body are lewd.
If social media was supposed to offer today's young women diverse ideals of womanhood, it has failed. Instagram shackles us to the same unattainable ideals that magazines like Vogue always have; only now shame is doled out by the post-flagging crowd instead of magazine editors, with social networks acting as the enforcers.