Rihanna is a "bad gal." This, we know. Some of us love it. Some of us shame her for being so "raunchy" on social media and not embracing that she is a role model. We love her "I don't care" attitude, her penchant for sticking out her middle finger to criticism, and most of all, her utter refusal to play by anyone's rule of what she, a young Black woman, should or shouldn't be.
But this week, I was forced to reflect on my admiration of RiRi. Backstory: As I scrolled down my Instagram feed and saw a photo of her Lui Magazine cover—pierced nipples, oily abs made by the heavens (or Photoshop—love it either way) and amazing tan lines—I just kept it moving. The running monologue in my head was, 'Oh, there's a pic of RiRi's nipples. She's clearly never breastfed (I'm an envious mom). Okay, nothing here. Keep scrolling.'
Hours later a fellow editor brought it to my attention that Instagram had reportedly asked Rihanna to either delete the photo or they would shut down her account. Then it hit me. Yes, that was nudity. Yes, Rihanna has millions of under aged fans who eagerly await her social media updates. Yes, she's a role model (whether she identifies as one or not). Yes, the photo could be inappropriate to some. What's the matter with me?
'So, do we give Rihanna a pass?' my fellow editor asked. It's a question I had never considered. Well, do we? Do I?
Had any other famous Black woman of her stature posted a photo of herself with boobs (and nipple action) on the cover of a men's magazine (French, in this case), the chances of a million think pieces and #BlackTwitter hashtags by the time you could spall B-a-r-b-a-d-o-s are fairly high. And yet since Rihanna's done it, there's been little, to no backlash. Even commenters on feminist sites like Jezebel have been fairly cool about the matter and more concerned with her perfectly tanned torso and amazing bod. "I know one thing: if I looked like her naked, I would never put clothes on," wrote one commenter. "Why can't we have covers like this in the "good ol" USA? She looks beautiful and if naked bodies were more of a norm here this wouldn't be a big deal," wrote another.
Are we totally over being outraged by Rihanna? Have we gotten to the point where we let her exist in that bubble of eccentric celebrities who continually push boundaries?
The fan in me is happy we're allowing her to be herself. She's young, she's an artist, and she'll make decisions some people wouldn't agree with—who didn't when they were 26? So, I'm taking off my judgey hat and daring to straddle the fence because I don't have the answers. But now I'm curious, do we give Rihanna a pass?
Share you thoughts below. And be civil, because the #RihannaNavy is always on the lookout.
Yolanda Sangweni (@yolizama) is the entertainment editor of ESSENCE.com.