Sensitive Material

Content moderation tries to render certain bodies unseeable

Full-text audio version of this essay. Read by the author.

In the weeks before my top surgery, I starved for images of bodies that looked like mine was about to. Unable to fall asleep at night, I panned through the #topsurgery tag on Instagram, peering into the bedrooms and bathrooms and recovery rooms of strangers showing off scabbed incisions or bright pink scars on their bare chests. Looking back through certain individual accounts, I noticed a palpable shift in the way these people held themselves. Before top surgery, their poses looked tight, uncomfortable, burdened. After — even in pain, even wearing bandages and drains — they loosened up.

As if scrying my own future, I looked so deeply into Instagram I eventually stumbled upon my own surgeon’s account. Between colorful squares of trans-affirmational memes, before and after diptychs of his patients appeared. Most of the “before” pictures were censored, a black bar hovering over the nipples. “Sorry for the censor, but @instagram deleted our first post for violating their terms and conditions even tho this is a man,” read an accompanying note.

For a long time I couldn’t articulate the difference between feeling uncomfortable with the violent trappings of womanhood and actually being something other than a woman

Instagram is not the only online platform to shy from hosting images of bare breasts. Once a haven for uncensored porn and transition timelines alike, the microblogging website Tumblr, in 2018, announced a new set of community guidelines that proscribed all adult content. The network’s mangled language for this ban defined newly prohibited nudity as “images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples.” Many current or former Tumblr users, as well as bewildered onlookers, seized on the phrasing’s absurdity. “This ‘adult content’ apparently includes something called ‘female-presenting nipples,’ which might be the worst example of that awful kind of wannabe inclusive linguistic posturing I’ve heard since ‘female-identified or vagina-bodied people,'” wrote Harron Walker in a blog post for Jezebel.

Tumblr’s nonsensical language, which still governs the neutered site’s content, conflates gender presentation — the way a person formulates gender through clothing, makeup, hair, posture, and other surface techniques — with gendered embodiment: the way a given body reads to a cisnormative gaze. Nipples, as discrete body parts, of course cannot “present” as anything. What Tumblr’s policy gets at is the charged quality of nipples attached to breasts, especially those associated with the sexed phenotype known under cisnormativity as “female.”

For many years, Tumblr offered something of a reprieve from the puritanical gaze of other popular social media platforms. Users could collect and display porn, or make their own — many sex workers depended on their followings there for income. With one fell swoop, Tumblr joined Facebook and YouTube in the practice of puritanical image-filtering, and the accompanying ad revenue that pours in when a site is algorithmically guaranteed to contain no porn. With its blanket ban, enforced using algorithmic image scanning, Tumblr nixed not only porn but classical paintings of nude women, portraits of entirely clothed women, and even depictions of Jesus, famously rendered throughout history on the cross with her titties out.

Because mainstream platforms use proprietary algorithms and overtired contract workers to root out nudity alongside gore and hate speech, their methods are clumsy and inexact. Their blunt results reveal the steadfastly cis gaze embedded in their decision-making processes. In 2010, both Facebook and YouTube removed images of Dominic Scaia’s bare chest after top surgery. At first, Facebook deleted his account outright; both platforms relented and allowed Scaia to reupload the images after he protested and spoke to media.

Bodies like Scaia’s muddy online censorship’s binaristic nudity protocols. Many trans men and transmasculine people pursue top surgery without taking testosterone, and so their bodies and faces still correspond to a normative vision of femaleness. Smoother, hairless skin, rounder features, and bigger hips can all communicate gendered information to a hungry algorithm or an exhausted content moderator. Body size, too, can blur the lens: A fat trans man like Scaia has the same silhouette as a fat cis man, but is more likely to be labeled obscene than a trans twink. This double standard occasionally strikes even fully clothed cis people, and is compounded for racialized users: In 2017, Instagram removed a selfie taken by the Black Muslim model Miski Muse, claiming it was inappropriate even though she was completely dressed. “If my hips weren’t as wide, would my picture have ever been taken down? Probably not,” Muse wrote in a post protesting the censor. “Curvy is tacitly seen as immodest — sexualized by default — so my photos as a curvy hijabi are consumed and seen as obscene.”

My experience as a gender-starved young person was largely visual

The way a body’s gendered signs cohere into a single image that is either permissible or forbidden confuses algorithms and people alike. In 2011, the model Andreja Pejić — then known as Andrej — appeared topless on the cover of Dossier magazine. Pejić was not yet out as trans, and had not begun medically transitioning, but was known and celebrated in fashion for her svelte androgyny. Though she has no breasts on the Dossier cover, US retailers Barnes and Noble and Borders would only stock the issue if they could sell it in an opaque bag, as if it were porn. The issue was not Pejić’s chest, which scanned male. It was her hair in curlers, the askance tilt of her chin, her eyes downcast to reveal long lashes. Before coming out, her affect was female enough for her partial nudity to be obscene.

Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube’s machine-aided filters are less discerning than the American booksellers who clocked Pejić. In 2015, Courtney Demone embarked on an experiment called “#DoIHaveBoobsNow?” Demone, a trans woman from Canada, started sharing topless self-portraits to Facebook and Instagram when she began hormone therapy. She wanted to test the needle on the platforms’ obscenity alarms, to see how much breast it took to be gendered female by the opaque machine. “At what point in my breast development do I need to start covering my nipples?” she asked in a Guardian interview. “I already feel shameful about them being visible, but at what point does society say it’s unacceptable for them to be out?”

For years before committing to surgery, I wondered if shame had poisoned my self-conception. From puberty, the shape of my body marked me as an easy target for sexual harassment. Having breasts invited both disgust and desire: I could no longer go topless anywhere, in public or private, because my body was a scandal. At the same time, it was only scandalous because people might want it.

Censoring images of breasts alongside decapitation videos and images of abuse slots female-presumed nudity into an unstable category. Porn is dangerous because it invites the unruly and violent desire of cis, straight men — desire that cannot be curtailed but can at least be diverted to messy sites quilted over with autoplaying video ads. Outside of these designated cesspits, porn prompts revulsion and removal. Naked breasts get swept away alongside open wounds.

A common trans-exclusionist talking point is that transmasculine people are simply running away from the pain of being women. We buckle under misogyny, the story goes, and transform ourselves into a simulacrum of the oppressor to avoid remaining oppressed. The story is not true — almost no transmasculine people escape misogyny unconditionally, no matter how much medical transition they pursue. But the premise — that sexism is painful, and shedding female signifiers might be a way of jettisoning pain — seeped into me. I worried that I only wanted to slough my breasts because they were permanent, unhealing wounds.

I have tried and failed many times over to explain gender dysphoria to people who don’t experience it. For a long time I could not articulate the difference between feeling uncomfortable with the violent trappings of womanhood and actually being something other than a woman. My experience as a gender-starved young person was largely visual. Seeing my own naked body in the mirror sent error tones blaring through my mind. I looked to myself like a bad photoshop, a pair of breasts spliced crudely onto a boy. Seeing pictures of men — not all men, just certain ones, scruffy, boyish beings lacking in normative masculinity, many of them gay, many of them trans — had the opposite effect. That body, my brain seemed to demand, that one.

More than censorship, I’m wary of the bizarre dissonance my peers might feel at witnessing a previously obscene body made anodyne

When I finally reached a therapeutic dose of testosterone after a year of testing the waters, my visual centers lit up. I spent hours watching R.E.M. videos, seized by a simultaneous desire and affinity to an extreme I had never quite felt before. Davey Davis dubs this phenomenon “BUFU” — be you, fuck you — a strange, all-consuming, and resolutely gay desire to have and become the object of one’s sexual longing.

There was, no doubt, pain in my experience of living in a breasted (and therefore obscene) body. It is painful to be looked at by men who want you and are also disgusted by you, who want to fuck you and repel you, to categorically separate their bodies from the objects of their volatile desire. In transition, I fled discomfort. I wanted to stop binding and to stop feeling my breasts reappear whenever I took my binder off. I also pursued pleasure. I devoured images of those who lived in the “after,” who had scars instead of breasts, and I waited for my surgery date to arrive.

A common genre of trans social video is the surgery reveal, the moment when a person unwraps their bandages and sees their new body for the first time. Many transmasculine people unveil themselves in their surgeon’s office a week post-op, a friend or partner filming them as they look at themselves in the mirror. Some laugh incredulously. Some cry with joy. My own reveal happened, per my surgeon’s instructions, at home 48 hours after I woke up from anesthesia. Alone in my bathroom, I unwrapped the ace bandage around my chest. What I saw horrified me: I was covered in yellow bruises and black scabs, my abdomen distended from post-surgical constipation, with thin plastic tubes siphoning blood and lymph from holes in my sides. Overwhelmed and in a lot of pain, I experienced a depression so predictable it was on the graph my surgeon had given me of the moods most patients, even cis ones, go through after surgery.

My body healed. The drains came out. Slowly, I noticed that the constant alarm bells that had plagued my proprioception for nearly two decades had gone silent. There was nothing left to protest, no unruly shapes that felt like strange weights I’d been made to carry. Every time I put on clothes I felt a rush at how they fit. I went running, and in the afterglow I felt like I had climbed into a body that was finally mine.

I have not shared an image of my chest online, so I don’t know how Facebook or YouTube would classify it now. It seems equally likely that they would ignore it as remove it: even without breasts, I still scan as female to most strangers. More than censorship, I’m wary of the social rupture of sharing post-op photos with people who have known me since middle school, the bizarre dissonance they might feel at witnessing a previously obscene body made anodyne.

Images of trans bodies illuminate the innate cisnormative biases in the algorithms that govern content moderation on social platforms. These filters, through their misgendering, also permit moments of defiant play. In 2017, transfeminine electronic musician SOPHIE released her first music video. The clip, set to the ballad “It’s Okay to Cry,” shows her topless against a morphing greenscreened background. At first, she’s relatively still; as the song picks up, so do her movements. The song climaxes with a drum fill and a cascade of backup vocals, and SOPHIE dances ecstatically in an artificial downpour. She poses with her breasts visible in the frame, and blows a kiss to the camera. The video has not been flagged on YouTube since its release, nor does it require an age requirement to view. Similarly censor-flaunting images appear in the Instagram and YouTube feeds of the producer Arca, another transfeminine artist early enough in her transition to slip through the cracks of content moderation. And in the Dorian Electra video for “Man to Man,” the transmasculine singer appears topless, having bound their breasts with nude-colored kinesthetic tape and drawn fake nipples over their pecs.

These self-aware moments of trans play serve as beacons for those of us with similarly confusing bodies. They evade the machinery that seeks to stamp out images of certain bodies, to render them unseeable. While content filters employ transphobic logic in their removal procedures, gendering transfeminine bodies as male and transmasculine ones as female, their clouded vision also means they cannot see trans people the way we see each other. In between the slats of the machine, our eyes find bodies that look the way we feel, and light up in pleasure.

Sasha Geffen is the author of Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, an analysis of queerness and gender nonconformity in the past century of popular music. Their writing attends to the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology, and has been published in Artforum, the Nation, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Boston, they now live in Colorado.