Rihanna has a habit of making headlines with her social media accounts. Whether she’s dragging Diplo for making tracks that sound like “reggae music in an airport” or sharing photos of her incredible outfits, the star often trends on Twitter for posting on Instagram. Last week, one post in particular caught the internet’s attention. Shot at Barbados’ Crop Over festival, the picture sees Rihanna looking resplendent in an intricately bejeweled bikini, a blue wig and a huge spray of green and pink feathers.
The internet reacted accordingly, penning lengthy descriptions of her outfit and her body and following them up with speculation around whether or not the post was Photoshopped. Although these posts are both unnecessary and intrusive, Rihanna has once again succeeded in drawing attention to her beloved home country; not only has she acted as an official ambassador for Barbados, she consistently draws attention to cultural events like Crop Over, whose roots date back to the 18th century when it was established as a celebration for slaves marking the end of the sugar cane crop harvest.
Despite the endless possible conversations that could have delved deep into Barbadian culture and celebrated Rihanna’s links to the vibrant, colorful country, many instead decided to move the discussion towards the topic of her body instead. It’s not a new conversation.
In June this year, blogger Chris Spagnuolo was suspended indefinitely from website Barstool Sports after writing a piece in which he body-shamed the star, making cruel jokes about her weight gain and arguing her “high key thiccness” would lead to “a world of ladies shaped like the Hindenburg.” Although an extreme example, other comments on her latest Instagram posts have echoed these comments, whereas other articles launched an extreme dissection of her body in apparent "support" of her.
An obvious disclaimer is needed here: Rihanna is not fat. Secondly, being fat and being beautiful are not mutually exclusive. Thirdly, the bodies of women are not for public consumption, yet even seemingly positive articles written about the star describe her as "thick" or "thicc," both colloquial terms coded with notions of race and sexualization. When Rihanna’s body is praised, she is sexualized; when her weight gain is critiqued, the comments are rooted in the misogynistic argument that she is losing her sex appeal.
This level of scrutiny on the bodies of famous women is nothing new. Lady Gaga has been the victim of body-shaming on various occasions throughout her career, prompting her to respond with statements encouraging fans to love themselves. Even Beyoncé, discussed in almost universal terms as a goddess amongst humans, hasn’t managed to escape the punishing standards famous women are held to — not even during pregnancy. These nasty comments mimic reality; a recent survey revealed that 94 percent of teenagers in America have been body-shamed, and that only one in seven people asked felt truly "body positive." The way we discuss famous bodies has a toxic effect on the way we discuss our own.
Women of color are also disproportionately sexualized, often as the result of age-old racist stereotypes upheld and undeniably exploited by various industries including media, fashion and pornography. A recent op-ed penned for Affinity magazine highlights the insidiousness of these implications that WoC are either hyper-sexual or hyper-submissive, as well as the deeply problematic categorization of porn into categories like "Latina," "Ebony," "Asian" and, according to this investigation, even "cuckold" and "interracial."
Furthermore, it’s indisputable that these conversations come with real consequences: a survey conducted by the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence shows that 17.9 percent of sexual violence victims are Caucasian, compared with 18.8 percent African American, 34.1 percent American Indian and 24.4 percent mixed race.
Coincidentally, this explosion in discussion around Rihanna’s body comes just as further details of Usher’s herpes scandal continue to trickle out. Quantasia Sharpton, the only named accuser, made headlines when she held a press conference explaining her involvement with the musician alongside her lawyer, but her image was quickly taken and blasted in a series of fat-phobic posts by high-profile comedian Lil Duval, who wrote: “I refuse to believe Usher fucked this,” followed by a series of laughing-face emojis. Snoop Dogg also joined in on Instagram, posting a meme accompanied by the caption: "Did he give her Hershey’s? I need answers" and a smiley emoji. Unsurprisingly, people were quick to respond with laughter and even sites like SOHH uncritically posted the meme, describing him as “savage.” Apparently, Sharpton meets some unknown perimeter of fatness which makes her deserving of these humiliating comments.
A problem with language is apparent here – we rarely make a differentiation between body positivity and fat acceptance. Rihanna may have gained a tiny amount of weight, but she is not fat; her weight gain is seen as the healthy byproduct of a new relationship or a vacation (some have explained the assumption that she is "vacationing it") whereas others have pointed out her “seriously sexy curves” (and yes, that is a real headline).
Sharpton, on the other hand, is de-sexualized to the point that even Usher has come out to say she “isn’t [his] type.” Eyewitness reports corroborate Sharpton’s story, but that’s not the point: the point is that women can’t win, especially women of color. Fat women are either humiliated and stripped of their sex appeal or held to ridiculous standards of femininity and hyper-sexualized, whereas thin women who gain a few pounds are shamed for falling short of standards of perfection or, again, hyper-sexualized. Sensing a theme?
Not only is it important to analyze why Rihanna’s weight gain has been so intensely scrutinized, it’s also worth comparing and contrasting other examples. Media outlets are quick to praise popular "plus-size" models, most of whom are white with proportions that match ideal beauty standards and measurements which rarely top a size 10. This representation still represents a step forward, but it’s an extremely relative step forward – this lack of diversity still needs to be examined and challenged. There are exceptions – Philemena Kwao, Sabina Karlsson and Precious Lee are just a few, whereas the likes of @luhshawnay and @lvernon2000 are killing it on Instagram – but there undoubtedly a kind of "body positive" aesthetic which has become palatable and co-opted by brands looking to be progressive.
Ultimately, these conversations aren’t just about Rihanna, nor are they just about Quantasia Sharpton. We need to be asking why women’s bodies are still being dissected as opposed to being celebrated. We need to be specific when talking about body positivity and fat acceptance. We need to challenge a system of racially-coded language and conversation which disproportionately sexualizes women of color because, as statistics have shown, these conversations have very real consequences.
Next up, here's why streetwear’s sexist imagery is letting the whole scene down (NSFW).