If you have a pulse and an internet connection, you’ve surely seen it by now: last night at the 2014 CFDA Awards, Rihanna wore a sheer Adam Selman gown, exposing her breasts (and behind) beneath a translucent sheen of glittering Swarovski crystals. Yes, the dress was was daring and risky, and people still seem to be struggling to get their heartbeats back down to a normal level. But the bigger shock is just that — the fact that people are still shocked by Rihanna, still aghast at an exposed bosom, still adhering to these strange Puritan standards of censorship that we should have shucked off four centuries ago.
In part, the dress was a clever form of protest. Rihanna’s Instagram account, @badgalriri, was suspended last month after she posted images from a topless shoot for the French magazine Lui. Instagram insisted the suspension was in error, telling E! News, “This account was mistakenly caught in one of our automated systems and very briefly disabled.” As the legend goes, Rihanna then deleted her account altogether, spawning #bringbackbadgalriri hashtags and a slew of fake accounts.
Instagram’s Terms of Service are notoriously strict, expressly forbidding “nude, partially nude… pornographic or sexually suggestive photos.” Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington was temporarily banned from the app after sharing a line drawing of a topless woman. Scout Willis saw her Instagram account shut down after posting a photo of a jacket with two topless women on it. In a protest she called “Free the Nipple,” she walked the streets of New York City sans shirt, “pointing out that what is legal by New York state law is not allowed on Instagram.” Willis explained her stance in a piece for xoJane, writing that “women are regularly kicked off Instagram for posting photos with any portion of the areola exposed, while photos sans nipple — degrading as they may be — remain unchallenged.” Sharp and hilarious Sports Illustrated model Chrissy Teigen also enjoys challenging Instagram’s ridiculous rules — she posts nude shots and taunts the site until they remove them.
So Rihanna’s choice to highlight her bare breasts with 216,000 crystals on an extremely Instagrammable night — a night she was being honored with the CFDA’s Fashion Icon Award, no less — was not only on purpose, but a brilliant strategy. She ensured that thousands of users would commit the same atrocity (posting her nipples) that got her banned in the first place, and she also took another step in what is bound to be an incredibly long journey towards removing the stigma attached to the female breast.
The issue, though, extends further than mere nips. Any time a woman chooses to expose her body on her own terms, the mainstream media conversation splits into two: on the positive side, she can be flaunting what she’s got (but only if she fits conventional ideas of what’s attractive; insert Lena Dunham counterarguments here). But on the negative side, she’s just another slut who’s desperate for attention. Either way, she’s marked as the kind of woman who does this sort of thing. We need to make it acceptable for any woman who want to celebrate her body to feel comfortable doing so. People like Rihanna and — bear with me — Kim Kardashian are leading the charge.
Increasingly, these two and others are defying standards governing both women’s bodies and their sexual expression through fashion events, where it’s OK to experiment, and social media, where you can post whatever you want. At the 2013 Met Gala, a very pregnant Kim wore a jaw-dropping flower-print Givenchy gown, complete with long sleeves that turned into gloves, and a high neck. She shamelessly celebrated her size and its beauty, landing on Best and Worst Dressed lists alike.
After she gave birth to daughter North and worked her ass off (JK, it’s still there, thankfully) to lose the weight, she posted a now-famous butt selfie in a white thong leotard on her Instagram, which drew over 1.1 million likes. Yes, the shot is “revealing,” but she was well within her rights to post it: she was proud of herself, she thought she looked good, and damn it, she wanted to share. Somehow, instead of taking their usual routes and calling her an attention whore, celebrity gossip sites like Us Weekly let Kim have this moment of celebration, and turned the article’s focus to her diet instead. We were talking about her body on her terms. Today, with Rihanna, we’re doing the same.
Of course, Rihanna has always chosen to let her body speak a little louder and be a little bolder than others. In last night’s speech introducing Rihanna’s Fashion Icon Award, Vogue’s prim and proper Editor Anna Wintour said, “Incredible style can help take a talented young woman from a small island to the world stage, and along the way spark a lot of conversation about elegance and empowerment.” Rihanna did look elegant, and empowering — she has a commanding presence, and her choice to show exactly the parts of herself that she wanted to show, in the exact way that she wanted to, is the visual proof of that empowerment. And no prude app or scandalized public can stop her — or any other woman who feels like celebrating herself and fashion.
Which brings me to the last reason we shouldn’t be surprised by that mesh masterpiece: we’ve known the nipple would be en vogue this spring since last fall’s runways! But the real world always takes a little longer to catch up to the catwalk.