The Flip Side of Rihanna’s Fat-Shaming Comments
At first, I was pissed to hear my bopo queen engage in self-criticism in her Vogue makeup tutorial—but then I realized Ri being comfortable and laughing in her insecurities is the exact remedy we need
I waited until I was home from work to open up Rihanna’s “10-Minute Guide to Bad Gal Makeup” video for Vogue. I call this my RiRi Viewing Ritual: no distractions, no work, just Rihanna. I refuse to be distracted from what promised to be a DaVinci Code-level enlightening makeup tutorial. But less than one minute in, during her cute blooper reel, the love of my life looks to the camera and laughs, “No, I look fat.”
Pause. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Play.
She then continues to throw on makeup from her Fenty Beauty line, perfectly applying her Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear foundation (obviously). I get excited as she whips out her Match Stix Matte Skinsticks because, TBH, I have no idea how to use them. And then another bomb drops: “I learned how to contour when I gained weight, believe it or not. That’s when it comes in real handy; those fat days,” she says to the camera flippantly.
At one point in the tutorial, she instructs her fans on how to “chisel out their necks,” a.k.a., apply Fenty products to contour away a double chin—a step even I, a former makeup artist, think is over-the-top. Whatever excitement I’d had was replaced with disappointment; the kind of severe letdown that comes after finding out that your favourite childhood superhero is just a sweaty, underpaid dude in a costume. Another one of my faves bites the dust, I thought. I went to bed pissed off, cursing the fact that “Bad Gal” status now felt reserved just for skinny gals. But of course, I couldn’t fall asleep right away. I was too busy taking a body positive inventory of Rihanna’s previous statements: was it not She who clapped back at body shamers who told her she was making fat trendy (in a bad way)? Was it not She who said she’d been blessed with a fluctuating body type? I couldn’t understand how my bopo hero, the queen of no f-cks given, could actually be contributing to fat phobia.
What I find so troubling about Rihanna’s language in the Vogue video was its familiarity. I’m 27-years-old and so into body positivity I have it in my Tinder profile, and these are things I still catch myself saying when I look in the mirror. While getting ready to go dancing, my pals and I trade self-deprecating comments à la Mean Girls without a second thought, as if commiserating over our shared body shame will bring us closer. So to realize that even people like RiRi—who is extremely body positive just in the way she lives her life—are still conditioned to immediately criticize their own reflections, almost like a reflex? That’s just discouraging.
I knew I couldn’t be the only person who felt strongly about this. After all, I only surround myself by people who worship Rihanna (I’m joking… but this is not a total exaggeration). So, I reached out to my friends and found Sulafa Silim, who was also somewhat disappointed in the video. “I have worked hard to disconnect from seeing ‘fat’ as a negative but rather, just as fact,” the 34-year-old founder of Dawa Apothecary, a Toronto-based health and wellness social club for women of colour, said. “But let’s be realistic—everywhere in the world, being fat is synonymous with being lazy, indulgent and an overeater, so it goes against the idea of how I felt or thought Rihanna operated.”
We both found Rihanna’s language surprising because it seemed contrary to her typically laissez-faire ’tude. But Silim went on to make a good point: “I guess the flip side is that it is good to see even those who ‘do themselves’ are impacted by what the world deems as unattractive.” And it’s true. Despite me falsely believing that Rihanna wears some sort of bulletproof suit of armour, she still grew up in the same world as I did, which means she learned that fat is a feeling, not a descriptor. “The joke or the question is when did fat become a feeling,” Silim said. “Because in truth, if it was a feeling, I would align it with joy and happiness.”
That’s when I realized that maybe my feelings about this video had almost nothing to do with Rihanna, and everything to do with the messed-up, fat phobic culture we live in. If I’ve learned one thing in the past year of #MeToo and Time’s Up, it’s that placing more blame on women doesn’t do diddly squat—criticizing women for navigating a society that has taught them to be a certain way isn’t productive.
So, I don’t fault Rihanna. I love her and will continue to love her until the day I pass away (my dying words will be, “Fenty forever!” sort of like Mel Gibson in Braveheart). But I’ve learned a big lesson here: when I’m critical of the way women talk about themselves, I’m no better than the people who put us down. “If the idea we are supporting other women and understand the plight of women, we should have empathy for those who are in the business of high scrutiny,” Silim said.
I do want to live in a world where looking fat isn’t seen as the worst thing in the entire universe. And at the end of the day, Rihanna’s words have meaning. We live in a generally fat-phobic society, one that gobbles up Kim Kardashian’s cellulite and any less-than-perfect body, which teaches us that it’s vital to dislike ourselves; that being confident means being vain; and worse, that our emotional survival depends on calling ourselves fat or ugly before anyone else can. We wear our body shame like body armour—because really, no hate is stronger or more pervasive than the ways we can dislike ourselves.
But there’s power in owning our insecurities and not being afraid to air out how we feel, even if it’s in front of seven million and counting viewers, and even if you are Rihanna. Maybe seeing a celebrated woman like Queen Ri, comfortable and laughing in her insecurities and then just continuing on with her makeup routine, is the remedy we all need.