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Heather Bays says her Instagram account was shut down a few minutes after she received a negative comment about this photo. (Instagram/Heather Bays)
Heather Bays says her Instagram account was shut down a few minutes after she received a negative comment about this photo. (Instagram/Heather Bays)

Breastfeeding on social media: How one picture led to a Toronto mother's ban from Instagram Add to ...

Let’s be honest, if it’s cleavage you’re looking for, Instagram has a bevy of options.

There are countless youthful “models” in sultry poses on the photo-sharing site. In Britain, a bride-to-be has become a sensation for flaunting her boob job. But a breastfeeding mom? Call in the censors.

Heather Bays, a professional photographer and Toronto mother of two, saw her Instagram account summarily shut down, just a few minutes, she says, after she received a negative comment about a black-and-white photograph that showed her nursing her 20-month-old daughter.

The breastfeeding picture may have offended someone, but it was inevitably Bays’ pictures of her daughters – the eldest is three years old – in their diapers, that prompted Instagram to close her account on the weekend. Those pictures violated the site’s nudity rules, which, a company spokesperson explained, prohibits photograph that show “female nipples” no matter the age of the child.

It raises some thorny issues for an image-addicted society in which events are only made “real” when someone has downloaded a picture of it. Why are so many people still conflicted about public displays of breastfeeding, while, presumably, not batting an eye at the images of scantily clad models that dominate the Web? At one point does tasteful become only marginally acceptable and then slide into the illegal realm of child pornography?

As a photographer, Bays is always snapping photos of her children. Her breastfeeding shot was taken by her husband during a quiet moment on their living-room couch. Her youngest is “weaning and I could tell that my breastfeeding days were numbered,” recalls Bays, who specializes in newborn and children photography. “It was a nice moment. I don’t even think twice about putting these pictures on Instagram.”

Still, someone posted a complaint, saying her picture was “not cool.” And within eight minutes her account was closed – shut down on Mother’s Day, her best marketing opportunity of the year.

But when she finally connected with Instagram, Bays said, they refused initially to tell her which pictures had been reported and were behind the account being closed. She says the woman speaking on behalf of the company denied it was the breastfeeding photo, and Instagram says officially that breastfeeding photos are permitted. (But this is a road the site has been down before, and Bays claims she has already heard from more than two dozen mothers saying they believe their accounts were cancelled for the same reason.)

Instagram’s security measures kick in, a spokesperson explained, when the sites receive a number of complaints in a short time, and when questionable photos involve children, the site errs on the side of caution and quickly shuts down an account.

In this case, Instagram agreed to reinstate Bays’ account by late Monday, but would first have to remove any photos of her daughters with their “torsos” showing. Bay says she was told this constitutes child pornography, a suggestion “almost more ridiculous” than if breastfeeding had been the issue.

“What about all those diapers ads then?” she asks. “It’s a gross way to view things. It makes me uncomfortable that that’s their view.”

Bays’ account has now been reinstated, with the picture of her daughters in their diapers removed and her breastfeeding photo reposted. “This goes to show that more mothers should be posting pictures breastfeeding,” she says.

It also reveals the need to foster an ongoing public debate about the rights and responsibilities of image-sharing, both individual and corporate, and the bounds of taste and acceptability. That’s a discussion larger than who gets to see what on Instagram.

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