When body scrutiny is the point
We were all thinking the same thing: Is she…?
When Rihanna took the floating stage at the 2023 Super Bowl in an all-red Loewe ensemble, her jacket was unzipped to directly beneath her rounded stomach. She wore a molded breastplate over her chest. The outfit was deliberately calibrated to bring attention to her midsection. Rihanna is a master of image-craft and aesthetics who was performing for an audience of many millions; this sartorial choice was not an accident.
Everyone wondered if she was pregnant. You wondered. Your group chat wondered. Some bold soul at your Super Bowl party had to be the first one to raise the point — because we all know it’s impolite at best to ask if someone’s pregnant if you don’t know for sure.
As Twitter lit up with the question, plenty of people chimed in with that reminder and others: It’s wrong to speculate about what’s going on with someone’s body. We have to stop scrutinizing women’s bodies. Enough with the idea that people should “snap back” after giving birth — she had her first baby nine months ago!
But this isn’t your coworker Diane walking around your office we’re talking about. Yes, please don’t ask her if she’s pregnant. Here we’re discussing a world-class stage performer who has been making statements with her body and through fashion for many years. She announced her first pregnancy while wearing another puffy, boldly colored coat:
She also spent much of her first pregnancy using clothing to highlight her changing body; as Input says, she was “encouraging a new generation of expecting mothers to style around their belly, not over it.”
In general we should keep our thoughts about other people’s bodies to ourselves and consider why we scrutinize other people’s bodies so meticulously at all. But performers like Rihanna, in their roles as boundary-pushers and rule-breakers, create exceptions. It became clear her first time around that she wants eyes and attention on her pregnant belly, she wants to generate discussion about the majesty of her body, pregnant or not. When it comes to a major celebrity on the most-watched stage of the year wearing a form-fitting jumpsuit over the rounded belly she rubbed at the beginning of the song, speculation and scrutiny is the point. Rihanna generated a brief Twitter crash as thousands of people fought about whether it was OK to ask if she was pregnant, then announced she is pregnant. She knows what she’s doing.
Even if she wasn’t pregnant, her outfit choice would have been making a statement, as writer Terri Huggins points out:
It’s true, the postpartum “snap back” or “bounce back” places enormous pressure on people to get their pre-pregnancy body “back.” That’s something that might never happen and doesn’t have to, despite our culture’s insidious mandates. How Rihanna looks now could just be how Rihanna looks now. But when someone who’s reinventing the concept of maternity style and winning Emmys for her fashion show visuals wears a belly-centric outfit, she’s saying something. If that statement wasn’t, “I’m pregnant,” it would be, “I have this belly now. Look at it and know that it’s OK for me — and you — to have it.”
That’s worth talking about. It makes sense that we’d be tempted to discuss someone’s body when they have a history of using their body and the clothing they put on their body to generate discussion. Rihanna the pregnant person is not the same as Diane from your office the pregnant person where the imagery and presentation of pregnancy are concerned, because as I’ve written, almost nothing celebrities do is grounded in the same reality as everyday people.
Celebrities are able to use their bodies, faces, and fashion to send messages, make statements, and tell stories because they have every resource at their disposal and enormous platforms. The idea that we should never make someone else’s body our business doesn’t always apply to performers who are in the actual business of using their own bodies to sell us things both literal and symbolic. In this one particular case — which does not speak for all cases, as much as we like to think in 2023 that we can make blanket rules that apply to everything and everyone — speculating about and scrutinizing her body is fair.
And as we now know from her confirmation of her pregnancy, it’s what she wanted all along.