The Politics of Rihanna’s Pregnancy Style

Ever since she announced her pregnancy in late January via Instagram and an artfully staged paparazzi shot of her and her partner, ASAP Rocky, strolling beneath the Riverside Drive viaduct, Rihanna’s maternity style has been marked more by what she has not worn than what she has.

She has not worn tent dresses. She has not worn maternity jeans. In fact, she has barely worn much clothing at all.

Instead she has bared her naked belly at seemingly every turn: in green draped fringe and ombré pants at a Fenty beauty event; in a bra, sheer blue top unbuttoned over her bump and low-slung gray jeans at the Super Bowl; in dragon-bedecked black pants, a vinyl bandeau and a crystal headdress at a Gucci show; in a sheer baby-doll dress over a lacy bra and panties at Dior; and, most recently, in a sheer organza Valentino turtleneck over a sequin skirt and bandeau at Jay-Z’s Oscar after-party.

In the annals of public pregnancy, there has never been a display quite like it.

Not surprisingly, the general reaction among celebrity watch sites has been a breathless swoon. “Rihanna Keeps Wearing the Hottest Maternity Looks Ever,” HighSnobiety crowed. “Rihanna Is Single-handedly Giving ‘Maternity Style’ a Rebrand,” Glamour U.K. sang.

They’re right, of course. But, really, the style choices are just the beginning. In dressing to confront the world with the physical reality of her pregnancy so consistently, Rihanna has gone way past just making a fashion statement. She’s making a “totally transgressive and highly political statement,” said Liza Tsaliki, a professor of media studies and popular culture at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece.

It’s just all couched in the familiar trope of the “celebrity bump watch.” Sneaky, right?

The result is a dizzying swirl of contemporary phenomena, including: (1) celebrity culture, in which we increasingly take our consumer and behavioral cues from boldface names; (2) what Ms. Tsaliki calls “the aestheticization of the body and the monitoring of women’s waistlines”; and (3) modern politics.

All of which take this particular pregnancy dress story far beyond mere “get the look” role modeling. (They also explain why this particular “get-the-look” role modeling has been so disproportionately exciting for so many.)

After all, said Renée Ann Cramer, the deputy provost of Drake University and author of “Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump,” this is a time when “many people on the far right and even the mainstream right are promoting policies that challenge the continuing autonomy of women-identifying people over their bodies, lives and decision-making capacity.”

By dressing to showcase her pregnant belly, and in a way that has nothing to do with traditional maternity wear, Rihanna is modeling an entirely opposite reality. “She’s saying, ‘I’m a person still, and I’m my person.’” Ms. Cramer said. That she can be “autonomous, powerful and herself, even while carrying a life.” She’s connecting the right to dress how you like with all sorts of other, more constitutional rights.

It’s a pretty radical move.

The pregnant body, after all, has been celebrated, policed, hidden away and considered problematic for centuries.

In ancient times, pregnancy was venerated and exhibited, seen as a physical embodiment of women’s connection to mother earth, but by the Middle Ages and medieval Christendom, Ms. Tsaliki said, it had been transformed into a shameful state, one connected not so much to the sacred as the profane.

It had become a symbol of our base desires and a sign of female instability and lack of control and thus something best kept behind closed doors and (literally) under wraps. At least until the child emerged and the woman was transformed into a paragon of pure maternal selflessness.

It was an evolution revealed in “Portraying Pregnancy,” a 2020 exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London that demonstrated how, since the 16th century, “the response to the unsettling physical reminder of mortality and sexuality engendered by pregnant bodies changed.” Or so wrote Helen Charman in a review of the show in the international art magazine Apollo.

It revealed, she said, how paintings and other art forms moved from showing pregnant bodies “as affirmations of paternalistic structures of inheritance and power” to trying to pretend they didn’t actually exist (or the condition of being pregnant didn’t) to putting pregnancy front and center as an increasingly idealized state.

That began in 1952, when Lucille Ball became pregnant during the filming of “I Love Lucy” and famously forced her producers to write her impossible-to-ignore condition into the script, and onto everyone’s screens (though they still couldn’t use the actual word “pregnant”), as dramatized in the recent film “Being the Ricardos.”

That in turn gave way to the tent dress compromise. (Remember Princess Diana’s ruffled smocks and sailor dresses during her pregnancies in the early and mid-1980s?) At least until Demi Moore shocked the world by posing naked and heavily pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, inaugurating the age of the pregnancy art portrait.

And that period extended through such belly-baring covers as Cindy Crawford, naked and pregnant on W; Britney Spears, naked and pregnant for Harper’s Bazaar in 2006; and Serena Williams, naked and pregnant on Vanity Fair in 2017. That phase reached its apogee with Beyoncé’s 2017 photo shoot/announcement that she was pregnant with twins, a heavily art-directed series of pictures that seemed to encompass such references as Botticelli’s Venus and a renaissance Madonna.

As the pregnant body became valorized for its life-giving potential, it increasingly became “a place of safe transgression,” Ms. Cramer said. And that meant, she noted, that it’s one of the few times women can “safely disrupt some norms.”

Progressive though they may seem, however, as Ms. Charman wrote in Apollo of such images, they nevertheless “conform to the glossy conventions.”

Not so Rihanna. She has made confronting her pregnancy part of her every day. Or maybe more pertinently, our every day. “I was expecting the announcement,” Ms. Cramer said — perhaps even a few other, carefully calculated appearances. “But there has been no return to covering up.”

Though it’s possible that this is a totally unconscious choice — maybe her skin is so sensitive that it’s uncomfortable to have anything on her belly — Rihanna herself has a history of consciously using her own physicality and profile to force reconsideration of old prejudices and social conventions about female agency and beauty. Most obviously in her Savage X Fenty lingerie brand, currently valued at around $3 billion.

Indeed, her current approach may have been foreshadowed by her choice to have Slick Woods, at nine months pregnant, model in her first Savage X Fenty show in 2018 wearing only pasties and lacy lingerie. Famously, Ms. Woods went into labor on the runway, later posting “I’m here to say I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT WHENEVER I WANT AND SO CAN YOU.” (There were some additional words in there to emphasize her point, but they cannot be printed in this newspaper.)

Change the date and those lines could easily be the motto of Rihanna’s maternity wear. She did characterize her own pregnancy style as “rebellious.”

Now the question, said Ms. Cramer, is whether “an overt celebration of embodied power through pregnancy can make a difference.” Can the “performance of a powerful pregnancy by a wealthy woman at the top of her game filter down” to change how all pregnancies are perceived?

If so, Rihanna will have done a lot more than influence how pregnant women dress. She’ll have influenced how we think about the rights of women. Pregnant or not.