Sharing Nudes on Tumblr Helped Me Learn to Love My Body

On December 17, Tumblr banned explicit content, including nudity—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Here’s why

Meaghan Wray
A close-up on a woman's knee and upper body
(Photo: iStock)

I remember the first X-rated photo I took with my MacBook’s Photobooth app. I was 18 years old. I waited till dark, then positioned my laptop on a stack of pillows, perfectly angling the screen down on my body, careful to crop out my face. I was wearing my private school’s gym T-shirt and a pair of cheeky Christmas-print underwear. Nothing about it was intended to be sexy—I did it because I wanted to put a spotlight on the parts of me I’d once been bullied for. I didn’t have a professional camera or a ring light, or even an ounce of respect for my body, which I constantly criticized as being too fat, ugly and undesirable. But in that moment, I felt oddly at ease collecting images of the parts of me I hated most. With a couple clicks, they’d be live on Tumblr—my community, my virtual home and the place I would learn to love myself.

This was before “selfie” was even a word. Back in the mid-2000s, there was the webcam self-portrait, lovingly referred to by the Tumblr community as “GPOY,” or gratuitous portrait of yourself. My dashboard was full of these photos—three-mega-pixel booties, breasts and tummies and beautifully shot nude self-portraits of the bloggers and photographers I followed on the platform. On Tumblr, nothing was off the table—it was like walking into an alternative universe, one that traded in conventional beauty standards for real, unfiltered bodies. I saw the freedom of inhibition in people I followed, and I wanted a bit of it, too. But that’s all ending this week.

On December 3, Tumblr’s CEO Jeff D’Onofrio shared the news that the blogging website—most popularly used for connecting with others over personal photography, art and written work—would be banning “adult content, including explicit sexual content and nudity (with some exceptions).” According to D’Onofrio’s lengthy explanation, controlling this type of content will give Tumblr “the opportunity to create a place where more people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” going on to add that there are plenty of other websites to get adult content. But the nudes posted on Tumblr, for the most part, were never meant to be pornographic. They served an entirely different purpose—a purpose I didn’t realize until I started participating.

Unlike other spaces of the internet—used to curate the “perfect” image or gain social clout—Tumblr was borne from a desire to genuinely connect with others. That’s what made it a safe space for me to be vulnerable and honest, because everyone else was, too. I saw how it relieved my friends from the burden of hiding their bodies, and I wanted nothing more than that. Sharing myself with the world, on my terms, became an act of love—and, eventually, an act of protest against the lie that sexual expression is something to be ashamed of.

Posting my naked body on the Internet forced me to confront the parts of myself that I was taught to hate. While it took years to fall in love with what I once thought were my too-big legs and butt, photographing them at least forced me to really look at myself, something I’d never really done before. Tumblr was also the first place I saw bodies like mine represented—a place before Kardashian figures were the norm, and where back rolls and body hair and butt cheek pimples weren’t weird or disgusting, but human. My Tumblr friends and I would comment on our photos, praising our bodies for their differences. Of course, the compliments helped—Tumblr was the first place where thick thighs seemed to be desirable—but there was little prejudice. Everyone was beautiful.

As with most social media platforms, popularity ebbs and flows, and many people I knew from Tumblr gradually shifted to Instagram a few years ago. I haven’t been active on the platform for years—I deleted my blog at a peak of 6,000 followers because I had become too attracted to the attention. But I miss the diverse and uncensored representation of bodies that Tumblr offered. You just don’t see that on Instagram, which supposedly doesn’t allow nudity in most circumstances, yet continues to police and remove images of fat, differently abled bodies, while leaving up photos of thin, white women in similar stages of undress.

This policing of bodies isn’t just confined to social media. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump signed a set of controversial laws—Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Online Sex Traffick act, or SESTA-FOSTA—that enabled state and federal authorities to pursue websites hosting sex trafficking ads. Many of these sites, however, were also places for sex workers to find legitimate jobs and communicate with their peers to keep each other safe. “I think the ban [on Tumblr] is an indirect result of the war on sex workers in the U.S.,” says sex- and body-positive blogger Honey Rose. “[The] legislations have run amuck and continue to attempt to silence sex workers, under the thin guise of caring about their safety.”

Tumblr also acted as a way for sex workers to reach their clients, and now this nudity ban will present another restriction. Honey found her way to Tumblr through the pursuit of a career in camming—a form of sex work where individuals sell self-made amateur adult videos. “I was curious about becoming a cam girl but struggled with confidence, so I started with pictures and short video clips [on other platforms],” she told me. “Originally, I saw it as a business opportunity but now it’s much more personal to me than that. I love being so in love with my body and feeling free enough to express it artistically.”

For many marginalized groups—sex workers, women and non-binary folks, people of colour and differently abled individuals—self-expression has everything to do with the physical. So much pressure has been put on our bodies to fit into societal norms like being thin, attractive to men and conventionally male or female. I grew up under a cloud of body shame, comparing myself to Misha Barton in The O.C. and chastising my thighs. When I discovered Tumblr, I stepped into a world where I was OK just the way I was. Becoming comfortable with the physical in turn made me comfortable sharing other parts of myself: I posted about my anxiety and depression. I posted about my love for makeup and my fear of intimacy. Tumblr allowed me to be fully vulnerable, and I built a community of friends—many of whom I still talk to today—who knew me inside and out.

Daisy O’Reilly, 25, who I met on Tumblr years ago, agrees that sharing these types of images was a form of escapism. “As a closeted queer teen suffering from body dysmorphia, I needed an outlet, far away from judgmental eyes [and] away from friends and family that didn’t understand me,” the England-based blogger says. “I always felt ashamed to express myself, but on Tumblr, I could share anything. I liked seeing bodies that looked like mine and loved seeing bodies that weren’t like mine even more—seeing images of people not portrayed in the media made me feel less alone.”

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John Savoia, 32, found solace in the solidarity he discovered on Tumblr, too. “My relationship with my body was never healthy. I have always been fat and, for a long time, wanted that fact to be hidden from the internet,” he shared. “Sharing photos of myself was difficult but the ability to share them safely allowed my body confidence to grow in small steps over the years.” Savoia first joined Tumblr when it was a young platform and, for him, the positive vibe of the network matured as its first users did. “As I grew older, so did the people I followed, and as we all matured in that space, we collectively grew more compassionate,” he says.

Tumblr’s value came from somehow managing to escape the negative noise from mainstream society that dictates what it means to be beautiful. It was a place where we could curate our own communities, create long-lasting friendships and bond over shared interests. It was perhaps the last area of social media protected from the bigoted body shaming we see all over other platforms now.

While I still struggle with negative body image and feelings of not being good enough, I can’t imagine where I’d be now without those beautiful, semi-naked years on Tumblr—my safe playground governed by nothing but self-expression and the collective desire to love ourselves just a little bit more than yesterday’s nudes.

Related:

15 Canadian Women on What It Really Means to Be Body Positive RN
What Tumblr Taught Me About My Gender Identity
Women Are Calling Out Instagram for Censoring Photos of Fat Bodies

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