Sometime in the past two days, you’ve probably seen Scout Willis’s breasts. The 22-year-old is best known for being Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’s child, but in the past 48 hours, every media outlet on the planet has covered her topless walk down a Lower East Side street, which she did to protest Instagram’s draconian rules against the female nipple.
To refresh, on Tuesday, she tweeted the photo above, captioned “What Instagram won’t let you see,” along with this:
Legal in NYC but not on @instagram pic.twitter.com/YX9BymV6R6
— Scout LaRue Willis (@Scout_Willis) May 27, 2014
“It would be naïve to say I didn’t think it would cause a controversy, a buzz,” she told the Voice yesterday, in an interview at our offices, the first she’s given since her nipples nearly broke the Internet. “But never did I expect the outpouring – both of media attention, as well as incredibly positive support.”
And some less positive reactions as well: “Some people either aren’t aware enough of the facts to know what it is I’m actually fighting for and talking about, and some people really just don’t want to take me seriously, and would rather write me off as someone who’s just attention-seeking.”
Willis is well aware of how she might be perceived — she’s wealthy, beautiful, has famous parents, and describes her occupation as “a professional dabbler.” She only signed up for Twitter in February, and her Instagram was private until a month ago.
“I wanted to live my life privately,” she says. But after she made her Instagram public, in the first week she’d already received two warnings from the site about posting “inappropriate” content.
“I wasn’t even sure why,” she says. She combed through her photos and figured out the warnings were due to other users reporting photos where she was wearing sheer tops. “It wasn’t like I was posting blatant nudes.” The deletions were particularly galling for Willis because she had a breast reduction surgery several years ago, and has only recently come to feel comfortable with her body.
“It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. It completely changed my relationship to my body,” she says. “I felt so empowered and love my breasts so much. I don’t feel like wearing a bra.”
It’s not just 22-year-olds in sheer tops being knuckle-rapped for showing their nipples — breastfeeding mothers and breast cancer survivors are also mostly unwelcome on Instagram. Instagram’s content guidelines explicitly state: “Photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child isn’t actively engaged in nursing aren’t following our Community Guidelines.” And the site says some post-mastectomy photos aren’t okay either: “Photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly if they’re unaffected by surgery, don’t follow Instagram’s Community Guidelines.”
For Willis, the final straw came when she posted a photo of a bomber jacket she’d designed. It featured two of her friends, topless, on the back of the jacket. That, too, was promptly taken down. Soon after, her account was deactivated altogether.
‘A picture of a picture of breasts got deleted,” she says. “That’s when I got incensed.” Particularly when she compared her photos to Dan Bilzerian’s, a millionaire poker player who’s best known for throwing a woman off a roof and severely injuring her. Bilzerian’s Instagram could best be described as wall-to-wall boobs, interrupted occasionally by pictures of boats, cash, and the occasional butt.
“You people may think it’s easy to ride motorcycles around the house butt naked and fuck big titty broads,” he wrote in the caption of one representative photo. “Well, it’s not, but.. #IDoItForThePeople.” (To be fair, the topless woman in that one has a modesty shield over her nipple, and while Bilzerian is clearly nude, his penis is obscured by the motorcycle he’s sitting on and the woman straddling him. It’s all very tasteful.)
“I didn’t mean to target him, but he was a good juxtaposition for what I was talking about,” Willis says. “His photos are outrageous. They’re just so rude and so mean and every woman is called a bitch,” by Bilzerian himself or his legions of fans. “It was easy. All I had to do is post that next to the bomber jacket.”
Still fuming, she went out for a walk with her boyfriend on the Lower East Side and decided, en route, to make it a protest. She pulled her shirt off, her boyfriend snapped some photos, and the world, unlike Instagram, did not react. (Toplessness has been legal in New York state for 22 years .)
“People were really blasé about it,” she says.
After news of her protest had started to go viral, with people like Rihanna and Dita Von Teese chiming in to support her, Instagram reactivated Willis’s account. They also sent her what looks to be a form letter (she hasn’t spoken with anyone at the company directly, and, although this is shaping up to be a bit of a PR nightmare for them, no one has reached out to her.)
“Our goal is not to unnecessarily remove content or accounts, but instead to educate users about what is appropriate and help prevent further instances of abuse,” the letter reads, in part.
Willis reads that line aloud from her phone and snorts. “They’re calling what I did abuse,” she says, deadpan.
“We’re happy to reactivate your account without the images that don’t meet our policies,” the letter concludes. Instead, Willis took all her photos down from the site and deleted her account altogether.
She’s not impressed with the Instagram-defenders who tell her that the policy has to be one size fits all.
“Everyone says the policy has to be uniform,” she says, impatiently. “Apparently, though it’s OK for women to be degraded and hyper-sexualized, but it’s not OK for them to be proud of their bodies. Some uniform policy bullshit does not make me OK with that. People are selling heroin on Instagram. People are selling guns. Yet my nipple is the problem.”
Willis says Instagram isn’t itself the problem, but instead a mirror of a sexist society: “Instagram is a reflection of a larger issue. It’s the springboard. But it’s not at all the point.” On the site, though, she feels the issue is twofold — the people reporting images of breasts, and Instagram’s willingness to take them down. “Maybe Instagram needs to hire some people to actually look at the content critically,” she says. (Although, as we’ve written about, that’s Facebook’s model, and areola are unwelcome there too, unless they belong to swimsuit models.)
“Women do this all the time,” Willis says, meaning topless protests. “I’m not doing anything novel.” Nor is she pushing compulsory shirtlessness: “I’m not out here for mandatory toplessness. I’m out here for women being empowered to make their own choices. And if you really don’t like it, just unfollow me.”
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that female toplessness has been legal in New York State for 30 years. While Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss first sued in 1986 to overturn the law banning female toplessness, the New York State Court of Appeals did not issue a ruling deeming the practice legal until 1992, 22 years ago.