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Facebook Revises Policy on Hate Speech After Boycott from Women's Groups

Michael Colanero, founder of the Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project, has had beef with Facebook since 2011. Colanero and his team of artists created a series of images featuring breast-cancer survivors -- many of whom had been through mastectomies -- topless, their chests painted elaborately with thick paint.

Facebook deleted most of those photos, deeming them inappropriate for the site. Yet Facebook has frequently allowed sexually-charged images of scantily-clad women in other instances.

"Breasts for marketing and sexuality are just fine, but breasts for a cause or awareness ... are routinely deleted," said Colanero, who has been banned from Facebook a few times for posting from his "Survivor" series. Colanero is an artist and gallery owner himself.

Sports Illustrated vs. Breast Cancer Awareness Body Paint Project
Sports Illustrated vs. Breast Cancer Awareness Body Paint Project
Courtesy of Michael Colanero

Last week, though, feminist groups and Twitter-users took Facebook to task, and began pressuring the social media monster to change its ways. They instigated an ad boycott.

An open letter to Facebook on the Huffington Post read:

Groups, pages, and images [explicitly condoning rape or domestic violence or suggesting] that they are something to laugh or boast about... are approved by your moderators, while you regularly remove content such as pictures of women breastfeeding, women post-mastectomy and artistic representations of women's bodies... The only acceptable representation of women's nudity are those in which women appear as sex objects or the victims of abuse.

Facebook finally seems to have capitulated. Late Tuesday, the networking site released a statement saying "it has become clear that our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate."

To highlight his point about the "Survivors" project, Colanero placed a rightfully non-controversial Sports Illustrated photo he found on Facebook next to his own supposedly controversial ones. Looking at them, it's clear that the SI photo is more "pornographic" (though it would be an inaccurate descriptor for both) since it's hyper-sexualized and shows more skin than the photos with his models.

In its legal terms, Facebook states, "you will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

Which could be interpreted to cover both the Sports Illustrated photos and the "Survivors" project.

There's also this link to SI's "Real or Paint" bathing suit photo album, in which the magazine posts pictures and has its fans guess whether or not it's a paint job.

While those stay up, "all of our images have been deleted at least once," Colanero said.

One such deleted photo was posted by Jamie Inman during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and was so tame, in fact, it appeared on the cover of the Sun Sentinel in late October 2011.

Inman, who flew to Florida from California to get painted and photographed by Colanero's team after undergoing a double mastectomy a few years before, suffered severe psychological trauma after her surgery. It was her second bout with cancer, and surgeons had failed to inform her of available options, leading her to lose her nipples and the sexual sensation that goes with them. "It was devastating to me," she says.

She spiraled into depression, and suffered from PTSD and flashbacks of her time in treatment. One flashback served as the inspiration behind her body-paint image.

"I was looking up out of a convertible and thought about the Doppler radar and the weather. When you have this surgery, they put a mini doppler in you that measures movement like the storms, except it's blood," she said.

The association triggered a "full PTSD flashback" in which she hallucinated her "chest being ripped apart," her body being "torn asunder" and "torn open in this huge, gaping wound."

"It's not what really happened, but it was how I felt," said Inman, a therapist by trade who finds comfort reaching out and educating women about the various options that were denied her.

From that flashback came a powerful image that found its way to the cover of the Sun Sentinel yet down into the censorship recesses of Facebook. The image, both violent and touchingly sweet, creates an illusion of her tearing open her chest, from which a wave of roses pours out.

"I wanted to portray the agonizing experience that resulted in beauty -- the beauty in terms of personal growth that came out of it," Inman said. "[The painting] was part of the recovery, because of the emotional component. Being able to do something ourselves, with our bodies, which we had complete control over after our bodies had been subjected to burning and poisoning. Being able to do something different with our bodies was an empowering experience."

When her picture was banned from Facebook, she wrote, "There are countless Facebook ads that appear unsolicited showing women in sexually suggestive poses far more revealing than my photos. Millions of men appear bare-chested on Facebook with no fear of recourse. As a two-time survivor of cancer, I am hurt and offended." Facebook, she said, was "standing between people and information that can save lives."

Facebook Revises Policy on Hate Speech After Boycott from Women's Groups
Courtesy of Michael Colanero

Likewise, another participant, Fort Lauderdale resident Lisa Grey said, "[Broward-based body painter] Keegan [Hitchcock] and Michael selflessly give so much of their own time without reimbursement to help women feel beautiful after a very ugly life experience. The project has been so therapeutic to so many women. We are still beautiful of course -- but sometimes after a tragedy, you need someone or something to help you see that beauty again."

Facebook's community-standards page now reads:

Facebook has a strict policy against the sharing of pornographic content and any explicitly sexual content where a minor is involved. We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people's right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.

That shows a definite evolution, or at least a new vagueness. They fail to define "limitations" and appear to permit photos of women breastfeeding (which would have been censored previously).

Don't be fooled, however, the problem runs deeper. In addition to trying to pass off content advocating violence against women as humor, according to ThinkProgress Facebook also "rejected an ad ... that disputed scientifically unsound claims that abortion can cause higher instances of breast cancer, arguing that the advertisement violated the company's guidelines 'by advertising adult products or services, including toys, videos, or sexual enhancement products.' "

(Really? Educational/scientific materials are adult services?)

Colanero is hopeful that Facebook will now allow his Survivor series.




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