Rihanna has done it again. The pop star and boundary-shattering fashion queen has gifted us once again with a style choice so stunning that the pictures of her in said ensemble floored all who gazed upon them when they hit the internet earlier this week.
Jaws have not all dropped in a positive manner, however, as Rihanna’s ensemble has been an extremely polarizing topic…again. What RiRi has on (or doesn’t), is a well-worn debate topic at this point, and it’s latest iteration is courtesy of Presently, it’s this traditional costume for Barbados Crop Over.
I’ve curated my social media circles well, so when the latest images were disseminated, I saw lots of celebration and outright cheering of how damn fine she looks, as well as some politely phrased thirst from those who are attracted to her and realize that there’s nothing wrong with a woman owning her sexuality and manifesting that in wearing revealing clothes if she chooses to.
Those of us who are of West Indian heritage are familiar with Crop Over, as well as Trinidad’s Carnival and Toronto’s Carnival, and we recognize the ornate and revealing costumes, wings, and headpieces as simply what the fashionable reveler dons for such an occasion. Those of us familiar with the divine Ms. Fenty’s Instagram know that she takes partying seriously, never more evident than in her yearly Crop Over participation, where she slays annually.
This year’s costume might have topped the lot, though they’ve all been stunners. Unfortunately, following hot on the heels of the general consensus of YAAAASSSSSSSSS from myself and like-minded individuals, came the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching Morality Bunch to judge, question, and pester.
I’m of 100% Island blood, and Bajan on my mother’s side, like Rihanna herself. Cultural ignorance of our festivals is definitely to blame for some of the poo-poo Party Crashers, and I can understand people having questions about the event and context if they’re completely unfamiliar and just presented with a picture.
But we know that’s not the case for most.
On a very basic level, much of the proselytizing is fueled by basic cognitive dissonance. Our brains are hardwired to process information when we take it in by matching it to information and experiences we already have stored in our memory banks. When the information we’re given doesn’t match what we thought it would, or we’re given new information that contradicts what we’re processing, we sometimes react poorly.
Cognitive dissonance is confusing and frustrating for the most patient of us, and the less so often lash out against that which they do not understand. And unfortunately, sexist, patriarchal and antiquated notions are still the core understanding of female nudity and sexuality.
A woman who willingly exposes her flesh is still too easily viewed as “loose,” or “slutty.” Those of us who are comfortable learning and opening our minds laid down those burdens long ago, but the pearl clutchers won’t entertain the notion that their old rules could be wrong, or—and this is the really tricky part for some of the moralizers—perhaps their ideas about dress codes are right for themselves and their lives, and we should all be free to live our best lives according to rules that are right for each of us. And it’s OK if they’re different.
Oppressive purity culture abounds across racial and cultural boundaries, but on top of the sexist implications of constantly telling women to cover up, black women’s bodies have suffered historic hypersexualization that still plagues us today.
Saartjie Baartman was snatched from Africa to be put on display in England’s human zoos and have her nearly-nude body ogled by white people stunned at the sight of a posterior and genitalia that were genetically larger than theirs.
As little girls, we’re labeled “fast” when our bodies do what they’re biologically set up to do, innocently maturing through puberty and casting us as malicious Jezebels in the eyes of those of us who don’t allow little black girls to be carefree.
Add celebrity into the mix, and we’re hit with a poisonous cocktail of self-righteousness, fame culture, and plain old fear. The disparity in the way black celebrity women’s bodies are received in performance and in the public eye is the reason why Beyoncé’s feminism is constantly being questioned by mainstream media, by the same folks who freely label her a “whore” based on her wearing a leotard on stage while performing with her husband.
It’s why Nicki Minaj can make similar, salient points to that end in publicly questioning her “Anaconda” video not being nominated for MTV’s VMAs in the highest-tier categories, and be spoken over by Taylor Swift, whose feminism and wholesomeness are accepted as fact regardless of what she wears, or the fact that we publicly know of quite a few men with whom she has been intimate.
I’m not slut-shaming Ms. Swift. I want us all to be free to have as much or as little sex as we would like to, and what I’d like to point out that Ms. Swift herself has chosen to make these relationships public, and to use them in some cases as inspiration for her art, to the impressive benefit of her career.
That’s her agency at work, which is the missing link in the understanding of so many moralizers and slut-shamers. Whether it’s as important as the battle to decriminalize sex work or as lighthearted as a twerk Vine, our capacity to do these things and make these choices of our own volition is disregarded or deemed untrue.
So when Rihanna is literally parading around in a revealing costume, those of us cheering on her beauty and agency are asked with breathless outrage, “Is this the role model we want for our daughters?!” “Why does she have to show so much skin?!?”
She doesn’t “have to.” Sadly, it’s inconceivable to some that a woman could wear something revealing because she chooses to, and not specifically for your approval or arousal. It’s inconceivable that a black woman could make her own choices about her body, since that choice has been historically taken away from us. In the ultimate cognitive dissonance, however, the vocal prudes engage in the lowest form of casual victim blaming as opposed to examining the blight of our hypersexualization in the first place.
In one of the more deplorable hit pieces on Rihanna in recent years, one writer disparages her for displaying “the sort of fashion sense on stage that surely invites rape at worst, disrespect at least.”
Instead of working to stop rapists, to teach our boys not to rape, and to dispel such vile notions that our garments cause it, they want to blame an outfit and demonize the woman in it.
I was dressed very modestly when I was raped, in a below-the-knee pencil skirt that I can still hear being torn from my body. So there’s that.
Rihanna does not seem to be lobbying for your admiration, so why not dress yourself and your children in the way you deem most appropriate for your life and keep it pushing? If Rihanna is your child’s role model and you’re not happy about it, who let that happen? And how powerful a voice could you be for ending our rampant subjugation if you recognized that Nicki Minaj’s bare-ish bottom is not the cause of our societal ills, nor should she be relegated to some untouchable status because of the way seeing her body parts makes you feel.
The existence of some women and young girls who do traffic in nudity and overt sexuality as a balm for criminally low self-esteem (or worse) simply cannot preclude the REALITY that that’s not everyone’s story. Preaching respectability politics instead of accountability is a losing proposition. If you can’t imagine that a woman can work a pole and be a good mother and be intelligent and believe in God, then the problem is with you.
And to keep it really real, sometimes the problem you have with our bodies is that you’re angry at your own. You see a sister shining and lash out because your body doesn’t look the way you want it to look or do the things you want it to do. I see you, and I celebrate your beauty even as you do not. Whatever your body looks like, you can use it in your own way, even if the ways in which you do so differ from my personal choices, even if you do so in the public eye.
If you’re so upset by certain images, maybe focus on living your own life to the fullest, in your own way.
You know, kind of like Rihanna does.