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The Fine Art of Censoring Your Instagram Nudes With Emojis

How the new tools of communication became the new tools of censorship

Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita created the first widely used set of emojis in 1999. After a decade of success in Japan, Kurita made his emojis available on Apple and Android, providing us with the emojis we know today.

The history of pasties is harder to trace, but there are photographs of so-called exotic dancers from the U.S. burlesque scene wearing pasties dating back to the late 19th century. Whatever their origin, pasties came into prominence to protect erotic performers from police raids and morality violations with serious legal consequences. As Playful Promises, a popular lingerie company, describes on its blog:

“Dancers were often arrested if they were deemed to be showing too much skin. Here the pastie became a weapon in the fightback against the censors, and allowed dancers to perform nearly-nude with the addition of a g-string to cover their modesty. Different states had different laws, and burlesque dancers were particularly ingenious in getting around them — attaching a piece of string around the pasties in a halter neck style was enough to get them classified as a bikini, and is still known as wearing them ‘Boston Style’ due to the particularly strict laws in that state!”

Today, though, these histories have collided. Or better put, on Instagram at least, emojis have become the new pasties.

Instagram, of course, is conservative as fuck. It shadowbans strippers and maintains prudish guidelines in a way Twitter doesn’t, ostensibly to ensure its status as the world’s most lucrative social platform for brands. Which basically means that skin — particularly breasts and nipples — are completely verboten on the app and can get your account suspended.

“I absolutely only censor my photos to avoid getting my account disabled,” says Aaliyah Ei, a non-binary model and sex positivity activist from New York. “Even pictures I post without any obvious nudity or that are censored to death, end up getting taken down with the warning, ‘If you’re reported again, your account may be disabled.’ So I usually end up using the LINE Camera app, because their stickers are really cute, or just completely photoshopping my nipples out all together.”

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Don’t trust a gremlin to be your #Maserati #mami ?

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“I see accounts every day posting very explicit or violent content that isn’t taken down, yet photoshoots I do or works of art I create with my body are almost immediately reported and deleted,” Ei continues. “I’ve even tried appealing to Instagram that my nipples aren’t female so they don’t violate community rules to no avail. IG never addresses these reports or puts the pictures back up. In fact, I never even receive a response.”

Tiara “Barbie” Kelly, a friend of Ei’s, feels similarly. “I’ve honestly had my page reported and deleted four times!” says Kelly, a dancer, actor and model who did stunts in Black Panther and has danced in music videos alongside A$AP Rocky, DRAM and Juicy J. “My current account is my latest page that I’ve been able to maintain and grow. I still post nudes as most of my favorite photoshoots are artistic nude. I’d advise you get away with more on stories versus posts, but IG can detect when things show, so it’s best to blur things out or draw lines on your nipples.”

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Circa 2015 @jabarijacobs #tbt

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With her current Instagram account nearing 19,000 followers, Kelly suspects her latest run without having her account disabled or taken down is likely due to the size of her following compared to her previous accounts. “It’s fucked up, but I believe having the following protects you versus my smaller following pages. Look at Kim K and other celebrities who have taken advantage of highlighting people of color assets for profit.”

Jessica Calleiro, an artist and film and video director, is similarly frustrated when it comes to being reported, but also views the use of emoji pasties as an opportunity for a little cheekiness. “Coming from a very conservative background, I claimed my own sexuality slowly and a lot later in life than my peers, so being naked on earth is still so wonderful, indulgent and exciting to me, because I’m just so thankful for it,” she explains. “My Instagram is an extension of my spirit in this world, and I try and convey all the silliness, love and sadness that is in my heart.

“Censoring myself with emojis is to not have to bother with being flagged (because that pisses me off so much), but also making fun if I seem too serious,” she continues. “Sometimes super serious comes off as not genuine to me, and a bit of humor brings things down to earth!”

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? embarking on #myyearofenya

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Calleiro adds, “Sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself — and the rules while you bend them. Emojis can also aid in telling more of a story. Blurring just makes my head hurt, like not seeing a nipple at all freaks me out. If you have to conceal a nipple, put a dolphin on it! It’s just more fun! I’ve had my stories and photos taken down before, and it just builds on anger against ‘the man’ and stuff, so I censor because there are other things I’d rather put my energy toward.”

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It me ??? by @davidaltobelli #loveday

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For photographer Amanda Merten, aka “MandaKnowsButts,” the emoji-as-coverup also makes her feel as if she’s doing something a little less “wrong.” “When I have to censor a photo, aside from it being annoying, it makes me feel like it must be because I’m doing something ‘wrong.’ So using an emoji makes it feel more light-hearted and innocent.”

As for exactly how to use emojis to conceal nudity in your posts, Merten has a few suggestions: “The smaller the better! For example, for covering nipples (ugh), I’d suggest something showgirl-y like stardust or stars as opposed to something like clown faces, unless that’s what you’re going for! Honestly, though, freak what you feel, really.”

Her overall feeling about such self-censorship, though, can be summed up with the earliest emoticon, one that even long predates Kurita’s emojis: 🙁