“Look, these bodies exist too and they’re beautiful.”
It’s been nearly two months now since the “adult content” ban went into effect on Tumblr, but a handful of key things have not changed.
On December 17, 2018, Tumblr officially outlawed all content considered to be pornography in order to comply with the SESTA/FOSTA laws—laws that are allegedly supposed to combat human trafficking, but instead just make life exponentially more difficult and dangerous for sex workers.
According to a former employee, Tumblr’s new policy was influenced by the fact it had such a massive child pornography problem that Apple removed the Tumblr app from its stores, but the machinations were were already in motion months earlier due to the fact that Verizon—the parent company that owns Tumblr—couldn’t sell ads next to all that porn.
The first thing that any Tumblr user will tell you about the result of this ban is either that there are just as many porn bots on the social media platform as ever or that there are just as many Nazis. All the porn bot creators had to do was change the language their bots used and/or tag posts with “sfw” (safe for work) to avoid the wrath of the wildly ineffective, thrown-together auto-flagging program. Meanwhile, the average Tumblr user has had to put up with posts getting flagged when they have absolutely zero sexual content, but apparently have something in them that looks like a “female-presenting nipple” to a poorly-constructed algorithm.
Many users vowed to leave Tumblr when the ban was announced, and many did. Sex workers and body positivity blogs in particular have been affected. I myself have been on Tumblr since 2012 and credit the communities there for my education in everything from white privilege to non-binary genders to fat positivity. That last issue is of special interest to me as a woman who has gone from being thin or at least “not fat” in 2012 to being solidly fat today in 2019.
Like many people, I gained weight in my 20s due to a natural change in metabolism that happens to the vast majority of humans. Today, at 210 pounds and (almost) 5’5”, I’m a size 16, which is actually the average U.S. pant size for cis women. However, I am “obese” according to my BMI and my hanging belly and double chin would have me labeled as such by any of the mainstream news networks who love to panic about the so-called “obesity epidemic” in America.
I don’t have to tell you that it’s hard to be a fat woman in this country, and increasingly in many other countries around the world. Over the years I’ve experienced a stark difference in the way I’m treated by loved ones and strangers alike, not to mention by myself. Confronting the hateful voice in my head—placed there by a profoundly fat-phobic society—has been one of the greatest challenges of my 20s.
My biggest support in this battle against self-hatred has been other fat women. If it wasn’t for Tumblr, I don’t know where I would have found such a strong community around loving and accepting the body you have, at any size. Part of learning that acceptance has been viewing fat, naked bodies.
Even before the “adult content” ban, I didn’t see much nudity on my Tumblr dashboard, pornographic or not. But most of what I saw was people sharing their naked bodies in a celebratory manner. Whether they were dim, blurry selfies or professional photo shoots, Tumblr users exposed me to naked trans bodies, naked bodies of color, naked non-binary bodies, and naked fat bodies. Sometimes all at once. All were wonderful, and all worked to support those marginalized people who were left out of magazines, ads, and even mainstream pornography.
“Look, these bodies exist too, and they’re beautiful,” said every naked nipple, no matter the gender of the person they were attached to. For me, the fat bodies were a wonderful comfort, and I hoped to some day gain the courage to display my own fat naked body, unashamed, to help other women like myself learn to love and accept themselves.
Now I can’t. And since December 17, 2018, I don’t see naked fat bodies anymore. Ever. Tumblr was the only place I saw them before that date. Where else can I find them? I certainly tried Googling “fat naked bodies” for this article, and you can imagine what I found. Pornography featuring fat women is nearly always fetishized, which is not what I’m looking for. And I don’t want to have to wade through any kind of porn site in order to see a body like mine. I miss being able to see those bodies casually, unexpectedly, on Tumblr, as though it were as normal as a video of a cat batting things off of a counter.
And it’s not just full nudity. Due to the terrible quality of Tumblr’s nipple-detecting program, any photo containing something that looks round and fleshy tends to get flagged. I don’t even see fat bodies in bras and panties anymore. It doesn’t help that many of the body-positive blogs that posted these photos left Tumblr out of protest or because they knew their blogs wouldn’t be able to function anymore.
I reached out to three fellow fat women who had fat-positive Tumblr pages or used a Tumblr blog to promote their sex work to find out how they’re doing and/or where they are now.
Satine La Belle
Satine La Belle, a sex worker who uses multiple social media platforms to sell nude photos of herself for income, has been the most affected. She abandoned her Tumblr account once the “adult content” ban went into effect because she felt like it would be a waste of time to continue, especially with how overzealous the nudity-detecting program is.
“I felt like there was no point in having another platform where I would have to risk my hard work if there was anything sexual, whether that was a nipple or just sex positive sentiments,” she said.
Nearly all of Satine La Belle’s content on Tumblr was flagged before the ban even officially went into effect, including some of the content she used for her livelihood.
“I released a nude that is normally only for purchase on Tumblr before the change for my fans. It was flagged right away and I notified Tumblr about being able to have titties out until the 17th. It was then no longer flagged for a little bit.”
Predictably, the ban has had an impact on La Belle’s ability to make money as a sex worker, and she’s had difficulty making that up on other platforms.
“It has gone alright for me, but I have found it much more difficult to find clients on Twitter then I had on Tumblr. I think it is because Tumblr was a great safe space for nudity, nude art, porn, etc. Since it was more normalized there it was easy to find clients who knew what they wanted and were ready to pay.”
Bec Mae Scully
Bec Mae Scully is the owner of the body-positive Tumblr blog Chubby Bunnies, which was hit so hard by the ban that the entire blog is now hidden behind a content warning. Attempting to go directly to the blog lands you on a page that says “This Tumblr may contain sensitive media,” then directs you to your dashboard where you can view it on the right-hand sidebar. If you don’t have a Tumblr account, you can’t view it at all.
Chubby Bunnies boasts a couple hundred thousand followers and has been a very active account for 10 years. Since the ban went into effect, Tumblring just hasn’t been the same for Scully.
“The ban has affected my interaction with followers a great deal,” she told me. “With close to a couple of hundred thousand followers who would usually be interactive daily with submissions, likes and reblogs have now disappeared.”
The lack of interaction has saddened Scully, but it also interferes with her ability to help the people that Chubby Bunnies is reaching out to.
“As silly as it might sound to some, Tumblr in a lot of ways saved my life,” said Scully. “At least 6 beautiful souls have said that because of the blog it helped them not end their life.”
Interaction with followers isn’t the only part of Scully’s blog that was disrupted by the ban.
“I didn’t make any money off the blog, but had recently been trying to put things in place so I could make a business out of it. When the ban came through it’s put it all on hold.”
Not only that, but the ban almost utterly wiped her blog out.
“At first 99.99% [of Chubby Bunnies’ content] had been removed. Then some of the content came back, and most of it is flagged, including my profile picture which was a caricature of me with mermaid hair covering my ‘female-presenting nipples’ that they seem to have such a problem with.”
The “adult content” ban is supposed to have exceptions for artistic expression and content used to make a political statement. Unfortunately, their flagging software has been wildly unsuccessful in make these distinctions. Users have to appeal every individual post flagged in order to get actual human eyes on the post. When your flagged posts number in the thousands, it creates a problem.
Chubby Bunnies is a Tumblr-exclusive blog, but Bec Mae Scully has many beautiful photos on her Instagram account if you’re lucky enough to be friends with her.
Even a Tumblr blog that focuses on fat positivity without showing a lot of skin, like Fat Girls Doing Things, has been affected by the “adult content” ban.
“The ban has mostly been just annoying for me, there isn’t a lot of ‘adult content’ on the blog so in that regard I haven’t had a ton to deal with,” says Amisha Treat, owner of FGDT. (Fat Girls Doing Things.) “It has however reduced the amount of interaction and submissions happening, which is very disappointing, but I get why that is happening.”
Treat also talked about her constant efforts to block porn bots and blogs, which often target body positive blogs to steal images.
“It has done nothing to reduce the number of porn blogs that follow,” Treat told me. “In fact, it has made it harder to identify which ones are [porn bots] because their icon and posts are blocked so I can’t always confirm if I should block or not.”
Although the FGDT community is still largely intact, Treat is concerned that things will get worse. Unfortunately, there are no social media platforms out there that are quite like Tumblr.
“I have had to spend time trying to find another platform in case the ban continues as is, which is proving to be very difficult in terms of finding a site that allows easy interaction and submission availability.”
In spite of widespread dissatisfaction with the “adult content” ban, Tumblr has given no indication that they plan to change the policy, and the flagging program has not improved. I myself have had two posts recently flagged — one classical nude painting and one that contained no nudity at all. I appealed both successfully.
Unfortunately, nothing is likely to change until the reason for the ban, the SESTA/FOSTA laws, are changed or repealed. Sex workers are leading the efforts to make this happen, but due to massive and widespread whorephobia in the U.S. and abroad, few are listening despite the fact that the laws have already been credited for the assault and murder of multiple full-service sex workers.
I’m lucky the ban’s effect on me has been comparatively mild. But I think about all the young women out there who are or are becoming fat who won’t have the same community support and access to unfiltered, unfetishized images of naked fat bodies. Eating disorders and the self-hatred and depression caused by our society’s intense fat-phobia have killed many and will kill many more. The hindering of a formerly indispensable tool in the fight against the stigma and hatred of fatness is nothing short of a tragedy.