From periods to body rolls, the subject of women’s health is being silenced online. A new campaign wants to end that.
Did you know that the word ‘vagina’ is one of the most frequently flagged terms by Facebook? Or that all women’s health companies surveyed by the Centre for Intimacy Justice have had an advert rejected by Facebook and Instagram, and 50% of the brands had experienced suspension of their entire account.
This type of digital silencing is called ‘cyber censorship’ – and a new campaign is calling for an end to it. The Menstrual Revolution has been launched by women’s health brand FEWE in a letter to Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at Instagram and Facebook’s parent company Meta. In it, FEWE’s CEO Rebekah Hall has called for the platforms to “address this inequality and injustice”.
The letter is also signed by women’s health activists and brands including Strong Women, Charli Howard, Yoppie and Luna and states: “We all use your platforms to educate people about women’s health, something the UK government has recognised is sorely needed. However, there’s a problem. Meta controls two of the largest education portals in the world: Facebook and Instagram. Meta’s policies and machine learning tools deem women’s health matters to be taboo, adult content and worthy of censorship.”
Talking to Stylist, model Charli Howard says that she has experienced this type of silencing first hand. “I post a lot of body pictures online and it’s weird that when I post an image where there is a bit more body on display, especially when it’s fat, curves or body rolls, the images are censored.
“My followers told me that when they try to share it onto their stories, it’s taken down for no reason whatsoever. I do remember writing one post about painful periods and it was hidden by the algorithm. It’s not just influencers or celebrities that this impacts – regular women and small companies are all being censored for just talking about normal things,” she says.
The dangers of health censorship
Silencing information about women’s bodies isn’t just annoying – it’s dangerous. Without access to information, many women live in pain or ignorance about their bodies, and the cycle of shame continues.
In research by FEWE, 45% of people think the menstrual cycle is just one week long, believing the bleed itself is the only change in a woman’s body throughout the month. A paper from the British Medical Journal also found that 80% said they continued to work or study while feeling unwell with period pain – with a knock-on impact on their education or output. And it takes an average of seven and a half years to receive a diagnosis of endometriosis, despite often debilitating symptoms. Honest conversations about our bodies are the only way to change this.
“Societal judgement and taboos meant women’s experiences were never discussed before, but I think it’s amazing that we are now seeing women take ownership of their bodies with information and research into our cycles,” says Howard. “This education has helped me a lot – I thought that agonising period pains were a natural thing, but I’ve learned that I shouldn’t be living like that.
“Once you start understanding your body and understanding your hormones, you can understand yourself. I think that’s powerful. But when platforms stop women from accessing education and from talking about their bodies, we’ll never move forwards. I mean, you can buy Viagra over the counter but you can’t talk about periods online – that’s really, really disturbing.”
Why we need an algorithm change
This isn’t the first time that social media brands have been called out for their censorship. In 2020, Instagram agreed to change its policies after model Nyome Nicholas-Williams’ campaign about its censorship of plus-size and Black bodies meant her images were being removed. And the #FreeTheNipple movement is ongoing as a result of the platform’s continual banning of female nipples, despite images of topless men being plastered over people’s feeds.
FEWE’s campaign recognises that “machine learning and algorithms are behind this problem”, saying that they don’t believe Meta intends to censor women’s health. “However, it is the outcome, and it is a hugely damaging one. You need to correct the tech that is causing this issue,” the letter states.
Stylist reached out to Meta for a statement regarding The Menstrual Revolution campaign, and while it did not provide a spokesperson it did reiterate that there is not a blanket ban on words like “menopause” or “vagina” but it claims to look at how each ad is positioned before allowing them on it’s platforms.
For Howard, the algorithms are a result of those at the top of tech companies being “older guys who haven’t got any experience of or knowledge about the female body. There are so many more products discussing and understanding how the female body works, but men need to be educated as well as women in order to change that mindset.”
In order for that knowledge to reach the next generation, we need to end the cyber censorship of women’s health. We hope that campaigns like The Menstrual Revolution are heard.
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).