Photo of Father Comforting Sick Son in the Shower Sparks Controversy

image source: heather Whitten
image source: heather Whitten

Whatever else Instagram et al would have us believe, parenting isn’t always attractive. In fact, it’s filled with messy moments, hard moments, moments when no one looks camera-ready. Photographer Heather Whitten captured just such a moment and posted the result to Facebook, sparking a debate about appropriateness and social media.

In November 2014, Whitten photographed her naked toddler in profile, sitting across the lap of his father, who’s visible from roughly the chest to the knee. Neither butt nor genitals are in view. The little boy, Fox, had been vomiting and suffering from diarrhea and fever when his father whipped off his clothes, grabbed the kid, and put them both under the shower. He acted immediately and instinctively to help his child feel better.

The longer I looked at the photo, the more I started to see the tenderness and care behind the gesture, the clear love of a man for his boy. In short, I saw exactly what Whitten wanted us to see when she put the photo on Facebook a few weeks ago. As Whitten wrote in the original post:

“I was just overwhelmed with the scene in front of me. This man. This husband and partner and father. He was so patient and so loving and so strong with our tiny son in his lap. His whispers of reassurance to Fox, that he would be OK and that Thomas would take care of him were so steady and so honest.”

Facebook agreed, then disagreed, then agreed. Although the photo garnered more than 130,000 likes and was shared over 31,000 times, the site removed it, claiming that the photo violates its rules, which prohibit photos and videos “containing drug use, graphic content or nudity.” After the photo went viral, however, Facebook reinstated it.

It’s not the first time Facebook has entered murky waters with regard to nudie parents: the site’s banning of photos of women breastfeeding led the Help Center to offer the following explanation: “We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful and we’re glad to know that it’s important for mothers to share their experiences with others on Facebook. The vast majority of these photos are compliant with our policies. Please note that the photos we review are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other Facebook members who complain about them being shared on Facebook.”

The fact is that Facebook has a right to set its policies, and evaluate media that may test or violate said policies. We as users agree to abide by those policies. Is it irritating that Facebook allows PG- and R-rated photos of celebrities and bans G-rated photos by the non-famous? Yep, absolutely. Is it even more irritating that Facebook’s policy puts the onus on its users, implying as it does that the site would be glad to keep up certain photos if no one complains? Heck, yeah.

But we have alternatives. To wit, if we feel like having a hamburger but don’t want to put on a shirt or shoes, we can use the drive-thru. Unpleasant or inconvenient as it may be, Whitten can post the photo elsewhere, such as a personal website. She can turn the photo into a card and send it out to everyone in her address book. She can get a print made and paste it into the kid’s baby book.

And therein lies another wrinkle: what about the kid? Some research suggests that children, when given the choice, would rather not be the fodder that populates their parents’ feeds. “Don’t post about me on social media,” summed up the New York Times, in its coverage about a study in which both parents and kids were asked about family rules with regard to technology.

Everything we post about our kids — from a tweet lamenting their inability to get dressed WITHOUT GOING INTO HYSTERICS (cough, not that I’d know anything about this one, cough) to a cute shot of their prom to a video of their birth — will be searchable by future paramours, college admissions counselors, and bosses, as well as the aliens who’ll no doubt be running things by the time our kids are middle-aged.

Whitten took a vulnerable, private moment and put it on display for all the world to see — and comment on, react to, complain about. She sought to highlight her husband’s deep compassion and perhaps encourage others to do the same. But she also opened herself up to trolling, and trolls took the bait, as is their wont. I sympathize, having both posted about my child on social media and used him as a character in my writing.

Little Fox is too young to complain about the photo, as is my kid, whose linguistic tics and weird eating I’ve detailed for this site. I hope that when Whitten’s boy grows up, he appreciates his father’s generous act, and doesn’t resent his mother’s creative one. I hope my son feels similarly loved and celebrated, and never, ever exploited. At the very least, I hope the aliens are nice.

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