Woman water birth
Photo: Marijke Theon


Why is the sight of a vagina giving life such a taboo?

The #stopcensoringbirth movement is challenging Instagram’s censorship of childbirth. It’s a ban that suggests deep-seated misogyny over how women’s bodies are permitted to be seen, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

I spent a considerable amount of my first pregnancy some 13 and a half years ago watching a low-budget daytime documentary called Portland Babies, on Discovery Home & Health. It followed women under the care of posh London maternity hospital The Portland in the latter stages of their pregnancies and throughout their labours. However many books I read, advice I sought and classes I attended, it was this daily, graphic, levelling and familiarising exposure to women in labour, both vaginal and surgical, that most reassured me I could handle what lay ahead. I went into my own labours knowing that the birthing process was designed pretty well, that I was more than capable of doing what I’d seen on the telly and if the baby or my body had other ideas, there were heaps of emergency and safety measures in place. It played a huge part in demystifying the process of childbirth – blood, placenta, mess, screams and all – and, critically, alleviated many of my fears.

Social media barely existed then but, if it had, I’d no doubt have spent my largely immobile third trimester not gazing at the telly, Tesco carrot cake in gob, but scrolling through Instagram and Facebook for similar inspiration and assurance. There, I’d have been lucky to find anything that even remotely depicted the reality of labour, before social media took it down, having reclassified graphic, true images of childbirth as “offensive materials”, belonging in the same family as graphic violence, racist imagery and pornography.

This is the baffling predicament the #stopcensoringbirth movement, populated by mothers, midwives, doulas and photographers, is trying to change. One of its most vocal campaigners, LA nurse Katie Vigos, was interviewed in The Guardian this week about her crusade to change Instagram policy and content guidelines. The company states: “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”. This, it turns out, applies to any context, including imagery of newborn babies and mothers in labour (as well as children – seen a picture of your friend’s bathing kid customised with a flower-shaped emoji recently? It’s Instagram’s imposed fig leaf, to disguise genitals). Vigo told The Guardian: “They’re saying because genitals are involved in childbirth [this type of image] belongs in pornography.”

Vigo and her Empowered Birth Project recognise fully that a bloodied placenta sack and baby’s head crowning in a dilated vagina aren’t everyone’s poison, and readily admit that such images can be shocking to anyone not purposely seeking them out, so they’ve asked Instagram to allow them to post blurred or obscured images that require a deliberate and informed click before they materialise. But, so far, despite ongoing talks, their policy stands firm.

To use your children’s entire lives as money-making social content is moral – what’s not OK is the sight of a vagina giving them life in the first place. There, platforms adopt a zero-tolerance policy

Instagram isn’t the only platform censoring images of childbirth. In Australia, doulas, mothers, midwives and baby photographers are standing together in the name of #stopcensoringbirth, after a number of women saw their accounts suspended temporarily after they had posted their intimate childbirth photographs on their timelines. British women, too, have uploaded their own childbirth and breastfeeding photos with the same hashtag.

What has incensed and mystified campaigners worldwide is how something as natural, everyday and universal as childbirth can be classed as obscene, when women’s bodies are routinely used on social media for arguably more offensive purposes and positively sail through clearance. And because, as users, our squeamishness is highly selective and that – dare anyone say it – suggests deep-seated misogyny over how women’s bodies are permitted to be seen and for whom and what purpose they exist.

Apart from graphic close-ups of zit, blackhead and cyst extraction (which I’m guilty of watching for hours at a time), it’s technically fine to post on Instagram photographs of anorexic children as “thinspo”, videos of women’s noses being broken in order to remove bumps or crookedness via plastic surgery (doctors and other medical personnel are subject to different rules) and graphic imagery of animal cruelty and suffering in the name of protest or charity. Unless people report the imagery as offensive, all social-media platforms turn a blind eye. One is seemingly allowed to write captions on how bras give you breast cancer or to assert that your impeccably art-directed raw diet can cure it (I’ve observed several clean-eating idiots telling their many thousands of followers to abandon conventional medicine in favour of raw vegetables, and waited in vain for Instagram to intervene). It’s OK to pose with hunting trophies and guns, and it’s permissible to slut-shame, fat-shame, even victim-shame on a public account. To use your children’s entire lives as money-making social content is moral – what’s not OK is the sight of a vagina giving them life in the first place. There, platforms adopt a zero-tolerance policy.

Social media is hugely influential on the self-perceptions and behaviour of young women, and in denying them the opportunity to seek out imagery depicting what they will, in all statistical likelihood, experience in their lifetime is to deny and disempower them in a deeply unhelpful way. Being pregnant is scary; the thought of childbirth can be alarming. To indirectly tell women it’s not only dirty, obscene and offensive, but also that it should be hidden behind a firewall, does nothing to demystify it and denies them the opportunity of seeing, via their most-used platforms, that birth is a normal, broadly safe and overwhelmingly successful process, whatever form it ultimately takes. We know that fear and anxiety directly inhibit the birth process. Who are Instagram to decide to make the hard even harder? Until they back down, #stopcensoringbirth will engage in another labour of love – and one they’ll insist on conducting in public.


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Photo: Marijke Theon
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Body Honestly
Wombs etc

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