The first time I was introduced to Rihanna's nipples was in April 2014. She was on the cover of the French magazine Lui, laid back with a drink in hand, a tattoo of the goddess Isis spreading her wings beneath Rih's suntan-oiled bare breasts, the right one erect with a barbell ring. It was the most striking magazine cover I had ever seen. I still pull that photo up on my laptop every now and then, eerily transfixed by the way the singer seems to be staring at me as if daring me to ask why she would pose topless.
Only two months later, the nipples of Lui were entirely forgotten by popular culture. But not by Rihanna, who, that June, sauntered into the CFDA Awards in New York to accept her Style Icon honor in an invisible gown covered with Swarovski crystals — a glittering number with mesh that did not even attempt to cover her nipples. I had never seen anything like it on a celebrity red carpet; conventionally, nipples and glamour don't go hand in hand, yet once again, Rihanna had managed to defy convention. The entire internet dropped jaws with a collective gasp — and then bowed down in awe. It was only a few hours before this GIF became visual shorthand for girls like me who needed to add some celebratory punctuation into their conversations:
Whenever Robyn Fenty's nipples have made a public appearance over the years, they've always arrived with little fanfare. Since the beginning of her career, she's often been photographed in sheer tops coming out of restaurants, lounging courtside at basketball games, perched front row at Paris Fashion Week, even in last year’s videos “Work” and “Needed Me,” her breasts almost nearly exposed. In every image that has circulated, she has made it very, very clear that she does not give one single fuck about the politics of exposure. Unlike Amber Rose's recent "Bring Back The Bush" effort (which, no shade — do your thing, Amber girl!), Rihanna has been more quiet with her trailblazing. When Vogue asked if she was part of the #FreetheNipple movement founded by director Lina Esco, the Bad Gal demurred: "I have always freed the nipple. It was never to get attention. The bra just fucked up my sheer shirt."
"I have always freed the nipple. It was never to get attention."
On Friday — amidst ridiculous media frenzy over her very slight recent weight gain — the singer decided once more to flaunt her body, her way. Strutting through Miami alongside DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller in the music video for "Wild Thoughts" in a see-through off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, Rihanna croons, "I know you wanna see me nakey nakey nakey." Later in the clip, she rocks a turquoise chiffon dress that skims her nipple ring as she rolls around on a bed. Every time she glances at the camera, I see those same eyes taunting me yet again, challenging me to consider why I should even notice a body part that men show the world all of the time. (And to top it all off, the stomach-revealing crop top and curve-hugging Balenciaga pants feel like one big middle finger to her weight-gain critics.)
Perhaps for the Barbados native, going partially or completely topless really isn't something to pat yourself on the back for. After all, we Americans tend to make a much bigger deal out of nudity than other cultures; it's quite possible it's just a state that feels natural to her, not a grand statement for feminism or body positivity. Or that she's serving us a little French-style je ne sais quoi, exposing herself slightly while also remaining mysterious. Still, Rihanna's ease in her body, clothed or not, has always been both enviable and empowering. Every time she boldly brings out her girls, it's like she's granting permission to all of the women who have been told their nipples are two little secrets meant to be concealed.
In our culture, even an unintentionally aroused nipple — standing at attention thanks to a breeze or sudden brush of fabric — is deemed shameful or provocative. But the way Rihanna casually displays hers is a reminder that nipples don't have to be a symbol for sex — or they can be. It's up to us. Whether they're a pierced accessory intended to ooze sex appeal or just so happen to be visible through a tank top at a basketball game, Rihanna has shown us by example that our nipples are simply just that — nipples, something to either allow to exist or be proud of, not ashamed of. And they are body parts that we can own however we damn well please.
On vacation with my boyfriend recently, I began to complain about my strapless bra (every large-chested girl's worst enemy) before we even left the hotel room. His suggestion was simple: Just take it off! I started to open my mouth to protest. I couldn't possibly walk outside in a dress — with no bra! I have DD's! These twins need support, and they're of the size that if I'm not wearing anything at all, it will be immediately obvious to anyone with eyes.
But then, in that way that only a tropical location seems to have the power to do, I found myself relaxing. I mean, why did I need a bra, anyway? I was on vacation! Plus, my boyfriend has a way of making me feel spontaneous — as well as sexy and comfortable in my body. So, off came the bra.
Standing in front of the mirror, I examined the way my outfit looked sans brassiere. It was a little disorienting to see the outline of my nipples through my dress, to see them resting a little bit lower than they were when I had the bra on. And then, suddenly, I thought of that GIF. Rihanna, sashaying proudly in her Swarovski gown, boobs as liberated as she was. And just like that, I threw on my heels, stood up straight, and walked out the door, nipples leading the way.
Would I have ever had that same inhibition if I hadn't seen a woman I admire do it before me, in front of millions of people? I'm not sure. But I do know that that night, my nipples enjoyed the freedom. And so did I.