Pole dancer says Instagram is censoring ‘dirty and inappropriate’ photos: Our community is ‘under attack’

Pole dancers from around the world are banning together to fight against Instagram's new policies deeming their content "inappropriate." (Photo: Facebook)

Instagram is apologizing to pole dancers for hiding content hosted by the community’s most commonly used hashtags. But even after the platform said that the restrictions were made in “error,” pole dancers, athletes, performers and entrepreneurs say that there’s a bigger issue when it comes to the censorship practices — one that seems to be threatening their livelihood.

“The censorship is affecting our whole community because it makes it harder to share and connect,” Sweden-based instructor and performer, Anna-Maija Nyman, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I felt that our community is in danger and under attack.”

The controversy for pole dancers — practiced by many in settings from workout studios to stages — began on July 19, when hashtags such as #poledancing, #poledancer and #polesportorg were noticeably wiped off all content previously aggregated by pole dancers around the world.

To alert fellow dancers, California-based pole star, Elizabeth Blanchard, wrote in a post that day that the banning of 19 hashtags appeared to be an effort to shadowban the community.

“There seems to have been a massive ‘cleanse’ on instagram and pole dancers have been deemed dirty and inappropriate...or as Instagram puts it we don’t ‘meet Instagram’s community guidelines,’” the 39-year-old wrote in her post. “There has been lots of talk about shadowbans lately but this purge of hashtags is hard to mistake as being targeted towards pole dancers.”

According to The Economist, shadowbanning is a method used by social networks to “quietly silence” an account by curtailing how it gets engagement without blocking the ability to post new content. “Shadowbanned users are not told that they have been affected,” the publication explains. “They can continue to post messages, add new followers and comment on or reply to other posts. But their [content] may not appear in the feed, their replies may be suppressed and they may not show up in searches for their usernames.”

In her Facebook post, Blanchard went on to explain the ripple effects of this practice, specifically that accounts which continue to use the banned pole-dancing–related hashtags will eventually not even show up on their followers’ feeds. Atlanta-based exotic dancer Nikki St. John says that she’s already experienced a detrimental decrease in engagement on her account.

“Hashtags were one of the main reasons why I was able to organically grow my account so fast! I was getting thousands of visitors to my page daily outside of my regular followers because of Instagram’s hashtag system,“ St. John tells Yahoo Lifestyle via email. “Now, even my followers weren’t seeing my posts. My reach dropped dramatically.”

The problems that come with decreased engagement, the dancers say, go beyond not getting a certain number of likes on a piece of content. According to St. John, this move has the potential to negatively impact a pole dancer’s career. “It’s very frustrating, because, as a content creator and small business owner, I rely on social media to promote my products. Not only is this silencing my brand, by shadowbanning my brand name, it’s also stopping me from generating income,” she says.

Australia-based instructor, performer and business owner Michelle Shimmy echoed St. John’s concerns. She says she’s noticed how difficult it has become to engage with students of the Pole Dance Academy in Sydney and to attract customers to pole-wear brand Shimmy & Sparkle, both of which she owns with her sister, Maddie Sparkle.

“Not being able to hashtag our posts without running the risk of being shadowbanned is really damaging for our business, as it makes it harder to reach potential customers,” Shimmy says, while noting that social media is meant to “keep small businesses in small industries like ours alive.”

In addition, Shimmy points out that the current restrictions facing pole dancers on the social media platform are part of a much larger issue having to do with Instagram’s policy changes to “manage problematic content,” which she suggests are inherently sexist.

“Instagram has long been the subject of accusations that it treats female bodies very differently from male bodies,” Shimmy explains over email. “We still report lower engagement because of the amount of skin showing when we pole. I know of other communities that have been impacted — belly dance, burlesque, aerial circus etc. It’s disproportionately women who are affected by this, as male skin isn’t seen as innately ‘inappropriate.’”

Shimmy isn’t the first to accuse Instagram of discriminating against female bodies.

In 2015, the social media platform was called out by Buzzfeed for removing eight photos of women that were seen as a “violation” of the site’s standards. The posts included a woman with a menstrual bloodstain, a sweatshirt featuring topless women and a female child showing her belly button. In 2017, a college student in California revealed that the platform had deleted a picture of her weight-loss transformation, which apparently “violated” its guidelines. Just last week, another woman accused the platform of “body shaming” for the same thing.

Instagram is defending itself against the claims that its new policy of removing hashtags is discriminatory. In April, the platform released information about what it characterized as a new “strategy” to reduce the spread of problematic content.

“We have begun reducing the spread of posts that are inappropriate but do not go against Instagram’s Community Guidelines, limiting those types of posts from being recommended on our Explore and hashtag pages,” Facebook said of its initiatives on Instagram. “For example, a sexually suggestive post will still appear in Feed if you follow the account that posts it, but this type of content may not appear for the broader community in Explore or hashtag pages.”

After pole dancing content was seemingly deemed “inappropriate” or “sexually suggestive,” as evidenced by the hashtag bans, Shimmy says, “It feels like we're being punished for living in female bodies.”

“It’s obvious discrimination,” Annemarie Davies of United Pole Artists, a community company responsible for disseminating information amongst pole dancers globally, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The pole dance industry is 80 percent female and is why we were so heavily targeted. It's women that are being discriminated against, not just pole dancers.”

A Facebook spokesperson tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “The hashtags #poledancing and #poledancenation, among others, were restricted in error, and we have restored them to full visibility. We apologize for the mistake. Over a billion people use Instagram every month, and operating at that size means mistakes are made — it is never our intention to silence members of our community.”

Still, London-based pole dancer and blogger who goes by Blogger on Pole, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she and the rest of the dancers behind an existing Change.org petition to get Instagram to stop censoring pole dance will continue to fight against the platform until it more effectively moderates content.

“Pole dancing is a fun sport that helps people get together in a unique community, it’s a great workout, it helped me think about getting stronger instead of thinner, and it welcomes underdogs of all sorts. I think what I want people to do when they are presented with pole dancing is to be curious about the world, instead of being judgmental,” she shares. “We need social media to be more about international human rights than community guidelines, we need it to start having NSFW filters to prevent unnecessary censorship, and we need platforms to work with users more closely and listen to their feedback”

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