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125 People Posed Nude in Front of Facebook's New York Office to Protest Its Ban on Female Nipples

Male celebrities donated images of their nipples for artist Spencer Tunick's #WeTheNipple campaign. Here's a behind-the-scenes look.
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There's not a female nipple in sight on the Astor Place Plaza in lower Manhattan. But outside the New York offices of Facebook, which is also the parent company of Instagram, on a very early Sunday morning, 125 nude men and women are sporting a total of 500 nipples. Each person is holding huge, blown-up photographs of male nipples to cover their genitalia. They are here to be photographed by Spencer Tunick, an artist whose work depicts tens, hundreds, even thousands of naked bodies arranged as art.

Tunick has done more than 75 of these installations—including one at the 2016 RNC called "Everything She Says Means Everything"—so he has it down to a science: Sun rises at 5:27 a.m., start shooting at 5:40 a.m., wrap at 6:03 a.m. The participants and their nipple stickers cluster together and pose, faces serious, backs to the Facebook office, one nipple disc aloft and one over their private areas. Tunick's team yells at stalling taxi cabs and gawping bystanders to get out of the shot; even at this unearthly hour, New York City isn't empty. For another pose, the group faces the Facebook office, asses to Tunick. For a third, they lie on the cold, dirty sidewalk. It's quick and efficient, the quiet punctured by calls from Tunick of "Nipples towards me!" and "Don't smile!" as he switches cameras and darts around for different angles. The participants, a wide range of genders, ages, and races, take the work seriously until after the final shot, when they cheer and hug.

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Tunick's art action drew 125 participants of all genders, ages, and races.
Photo by Getty Images.

Later, artist and creative Melissa Marino, 43, tells me participating in the shoot was "peaceful." "You're with humans," she continues. "It's very, very human."

Together, Tunick and his subjects are creating an "art action" to bring attention to Facebook and Instagram's overtly gendered censorship of the female nipple. The question that hangs in the air here is: Will Facebook or Instagram ban the photographs and videos that come out of this new art installation?


While celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Naomi Campbell have been vocal about freeing the nipple, artists bear a significant burden. Facebook's community guidelines read, "While we restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, women actively engaged in breast-feeding, and photos of post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures." Instagram's guidelines are similar. Nudity in photographed art is seen as taboo as pornographic content, even if its tone is not remotely sexual. Gender non-conforming artists and subjects are sometimes told the nipples in photographs are female, when they don't consider them as such. Artists get their work removed without warning; sometimes, they're banned from a platform. And if they cannot reach people through social media, it's as good as being silenced.

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Tunick, in black, directs a pose as participants face Facebook's New York office.
Photo by Fay Fox.

Artist Savannah Spirit, 43, is among the 125 artists and non-artists who committed to Tunick's call for volunteers. She has had her work censored on Facebook and Instagram and her account deleted "countless times." "My heart sinks. Every time I’ve opened the app and they’ve deleted an image, it’s just sad. It makes me feel like I’m being singled out just because it’s a naked picture," she said after participating in the shoot.

To some, it seems as if Facebook deemed itself the moral authority over image sharing, allowing men to show their nipples but drawing a hard line at female nipples. If artists choose to blur or pixelate nipples, as Tunick must do to post his work on social media to prevent it from getting banned, it sometimes makes it seem more sexual than was ever intended. 

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"It's wack," said Jamie Sanin, 27, who works with art nonprofits and started her own art organization Celebrate Womxn 845. Her work was censored once. "You get a notification like. 'It’s gone forever now, and if you keep doing this, we’re going to lock you out.' It’s not a conversation. You can try to appeal it. It’s too much work. It’s stupid.”

"My heart sinks. Every time I’ve opened the app and they’ve deleted an image, it’s just sad."

What Tunick wants is to change that "corporate world of censorship." He partnered with the National Coalition Against Censorship, a group of more than 50 nonprofits that works to protect freedom of though and expression, to make it happen with the #WeTheNipple campaign, which calls for Facebook to ease rules for artists who work with human bodies. Tunick and the NCAC point to a policy change YouTube made more than 10 years ago to allow nudity in art as an example for Facebook and Instagram to follow. The NCAC sent an open letter to Facebook on the Saturday before the shoot, detailing their requests.

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“This is actually a clothed photograph, people are just clothed in male nipples. We did this work in front of Facebook and Instagram offices, and it’s meant to challenge their pretty harsh rules on censorship nudity against artists on Facebook and Instagram," Tunick said after the shoot. (His official photographs will be released later.) "Hopefully Facebook and Instagram will have some sort of response to our action. Maybe we’ve made a small difference or maybe we’ve made a big difference, but at least all the people had a phenomenological experience.”

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Male celebrities and artists photographed their nipples to be used for the art installation.
Photo by Fay Fox.

The nipples everyone held and that the women had stuck over their own breasts were donated to the #WeTheNipple campaign by Tunick, artists Andres Serrano and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, actor-photographer Adam Goldberg, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and Andy Cohen. "I've known Spencer since he got me to pose naked on the lion in front of the NY Public Library in 1994, and when he told [me] about this ridiculous rule, I was more than happy to lend my nipple," Cohen said in a statement to Esquire.

These so-called nipple donors were given specific guidelines for donating photographs of the nipples. For instance, they couldn't take the photo with a selfie camera. They had to pull the nipple taut. They had to measure the diameter of their areolas. Anything too hairy was Photoshopped bare.

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Participants gather in Astor Place Plaza after ditching their clothes on the sidewalk behind them.
Photo by Getty Images.

It's all legal, too. Nudity is allowed in New York, in fact, thanks in part to a lawsuit Tunick himself brought against the city in the early aughts after being arrested multiple times for pursuing his nude art. All the NCAC had to do was get a permit to gather a large group.

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The Facebook office, behind the participants, is unmarked.
Photo by Fay Fox.

There was a time when men's nipples were as restricted as women's. In 1934, some daring young men wore swim trunks to Coney Island and were fined for topless bathing. But male nipples could not be stopped. By 1937, New York had struck down its topless ban for men. These days, you'd hardly bat an eye at seeing a photo on Instagram of a shirtless man, whether at the beach or modeling some high-end clothing line. Some artists think you should.

"It’s not just about a hundred people in the street with their clothes off holding up nipples," artist Marino said. "It’s a much bigger question: Why is it a female nipple, why is it that we’re being censored.”

And a deeper question might be, why must artists feel the need to censor themselves?

"Why is it a female nipple, why is it that we’re being censored.”

Farah Marie Velten, 38, a visual artist, had a piece of artwork—a self-portrait that showed her breasts—published in a journal, and she wanted to share it on social media. "I realized that it would probably be taken down," she said. "That whole process that I had to go through of deciding if I’m going to pixelate myself or blur the whole thing or not share it at all was really upsetting to me, because it’s artwork, it’s my body, it’s something that’s been recognized as fine art—it’s been published. And now I have to go through this whole thinking of, am I supposed to be ashamed of it? Is it wrong?”

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Participants celebrate after Tunick wraps the shoot.
Photo by Getty Images.

In a statement to Esquire about Tunick's #WeTheNipple installation, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We have been in touch with the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) in the lead up to today’s demonstration. We look forward to continuing the dialogue with NCAC and other affected groups in more detail.”

For his previous installations, Tunick would post a version of his work with the nipples and genitalia blurred out, juxtaposed with an uncensored version on his own website. This time, his social media postings are unblurred—a challenge to whoever's monitoring it on Facebook and Instagram's end. As of this writing, they have not been removed.

This story has been updated to include Andy Cohen's statement.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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