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Facebook’s ‘undesirable’ appearance policy keeps blocking the wrong people

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Lex Gillies loves Instagram. As a rosacea activist and beauty blogger, the app has become her primary tool for sharing her work and connecting with other people who live with skin differences.

“I didn’t know anybody with rosacea in my real life and it was the internet that gave me all of these people who I could speak to and they would understand,” Gillies told The Verge.

But over the past few days, her relationship with Instagram has strained. Last week, photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor opened an exhibition in London titled “Epidermis.” The show features models with different skin conditions, like rosacea and acne, on full display. Gillies modeled for one of Harris-Taylor’s photos. To draw awareness to the show, Gillies decided to promote her photo on Instagram and put some money behind it to increase its reach beyond her nearly 20,000 followers.

“I want people to go to the exhibition and for people to see the work,” Gillies said. “Because it’s not very often that you get artists wanting to focus on something like skin conditions, people talking about rosacea.”

View this post on Instagram

Swipe across to see the three emotions experienced when confronted with an enormous photo of your naked face hanging in a flipping gallery ⁣ ⁣ I cannot describe how emotional this experience was. Walking around the space, surrounded by photos of women at their most vulnerable. All strong. All beautiful. All changing perceptions of skin conditions one photo at a time. ⁣ The amazing @sophieharristaylor 'Epidermis' exhibition is open until the 13th of September and it's free. You should go if you can! ⁣ (ALSO the irony is not lost on me that in the same week that my photo is being bought as actual art by strangers in a gallery, the same image is also being censored by Instagram for being 'undesirable' ... #undesirablesofinstagram)⁣ ⁣ #skinpositivity #rosacea #rosaceaawareness

A post shared by Lex Gillies - Rosacea/Beauty (@talontedlex) on Sep 8, 2019 at 10:47am PDT

But no matter what she did, Instagram wouldn’t approve her promotion. After first submitting it, she was greeted with a pop-up notification in the app that said, “This ad isn’t running because it uses images that excessively focus on a person’s body or body part, or depict unlikely before-and-after results.”

She appealed the decision, and in a handful of follow-up emails, Gillies finally received another response. This time Facebook, which owns Instagram, expanded on the ad policy that led to her inability to promote her post.

“We don’t allow ads that focus on aspects of a person’s body to highlight an undesirable or idealized body state,” Facebook’s policy reads.

Facebook lists over a dozen “body depictions” that the platform does not allow to be promoted, including images that focus on “fat/cellulite” or “ill-fitting clothing.” Facebook said that it doesn’t allow users to promote close-ups of ears, nostrils, and feet or “excessive or grotesque food consumption” like “eating live animals.”

This list also included close-up images of “a person’s skin with the aim of highlighting medical conditions” like “acne, eczema, and dermatitis.” This is likely why Gillies’ post wasn’t allowed to be promoted.

In theory, the policy is meant to block predatory ads that target people who are overweight or have skin conditions, pushing unusual and often medically dangerous miracle cures. “Ads referring to someone’s body or appearance are personal in nature and we don’t want users to feel singled out,” Facebook explained.

“Apparently my skin is put in the same ‘undesirable’ bracket as ‘eating live animals’... so that’s nice to know.”

But in practice, the policy isn’t nuanced enough to recognize ads like Gillies’, which are looking to celebrate those same conditions. Gillies responded to Facebook’s policy on her blog, writing, “Apparently my skin is put in the same ‘undesirable’ bracket as ‘eating live animals’... so that’s nice to know.”

Facebook has been making this same mistake for years. In 2016, an Australian group called Cherchez la Femme attempted to advertise an event focusing on body positivity and feminism. In the group’s post, they included a photo of Tess Holliday, a famous plus-size model. But the photo fell victim to the same “undesirable” tag, resulting in the entire campaign being blocked. After outcry from the body positivity community, Facebook reversed the decision.

It wasn’t until The Verge reached out to Instagram and Gillies’ followers began to post selfies tagged with #UndesirablesofInstagram that the company decided that her rosacea photo did not violate the platform’s rules. “I looked into it and this ad was rejected in error and we are sorry for the mistake,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

“It’s now up and running.”

But until the policy changes in some way, Facebook and Instagram will likely continue to strike down ads that aren’t picturing people as “undesirable,” but rather as desirable figures with bodies worthy of being celebrated and not in need of some miracle cure.

After her ad was allowed to run, Gillies told The Verge, “This response from them is so disappointing. Not only have they completely glossed over the fact that they referred to skin conditions as ‘undesirable’ but they are point blank refusing to comment on their wider disregard and targeting of the skin positivity community.”

“This campaign was never about the ad,” she continued. “That was just a tangible symptom of their awful and discriminatory behaviour.”


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