Last week, in an interview with The Cut about her style, Rihanna addressed her recent weight gain. The media has been speculating about her new, curvier figure all summer, and everyone I know has been praising her for “getting thick.” When she addressed it last week, Rihanna simply said she “has had the pleasure of a fluctuating body type,” and that she makes her style choices based on what looks best at any given time.
Even though Rihanna’s response went viral, her body positive attitude is not uncommon for a black woman, at least according to the 50 States of Women survey conducted by Glamour and L’Oreal Paris in August 2017. Among the 2,000 participants, a reported 59% of black women described themselves as beautiful, compared with 32% of Hispanic women and 25% of white women. More black women also agreed with the statement, “I am happy the way that I am,” when they looked in the mirror.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D, who studies the intersection of race and self-esteem, has an idea as to why: “Growing up, black women are taught you’re strong, you’re beautiful, you’re smart, you’re enough — and that mindset is passed down from generation to generation as a defense mechanism against discrimination,” she told Glamour. “The more confident you are, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with racism.”
When I read the survey, I remember feeling like we’d won a prize. Despite the fact that black women are often told we’re too much for mainstream society: too loud, too pushy, too angry — I like to think we’ve always known that we are just right as we are. In a society that puts us down for being as tough as we need to be to survive it, I believe confidence is evidence of our success.
The survey also came at an interesting time for me, as I was currently in the middle of my own body image revolution. Every summer, for as long as I can remember, I’ve gained weight and agonized over it. This summer was no different. When I realized I’d put on ten pounds, I immediately started thinking of ways to lose it: exercise, count calories, eat salad. This time, however, nothing worked. There was no wiggle room. I couldn’t cut another calorie from my day without starving and I couldn’t cut another item from my diet without feeling like I was truly missing out on life. I wanted to lose weight, but I wanted balance, too.
Even though black culture celebrates my hips, my thighs and even my stomach chub, and even though I have friends who praise my curves and affirm me often, I grew up in a neighborhood and went to schools where very few of the residents or students looked like me. Sometimes I was viewed as beautiful and sometimes I wasn’t. For a long time, my self-esteem rose and fell with those opinions. My spot among the 59% was often up for grabs.
“Maybe you should just accept your body the way it is,” my sister told told me when I asked her, exasperated, for advice this past summer. I was so frustrated that I finally decided to listen. Within a few months, I began to see my obsession with my weight as not only unhealthy and hurtful, but delusional. As I learned to speak to and treat myself better, I literally began to see myself differently. When the Glamour survey was released not long after, I felt like the data counted me as a new member of the most confident group of women. I felt like I’d made it.
But last week, Rihanna’s comments put me on notice. Even though I’m doing better at accepting my body, and loving it because it’s my home, I don’t think I’ve ever called bouncing between sizes a pleasure. Sure, there are days when I feel unstoppable, when I’d dare someone to tell me I’m not the best thing on two legs. But there are also days when I pinch the pudge that pokes over my jeans, or frown at the dimples on my thighs. There are days when it takes me hours to find something I feel comfortable leaving the house in, days when I have literally stopped.
So even if, after all this time, I’m finally learning to accept myself, Rihanna’s statement made me realize there’s a difference between self-acceptance and self-love. There’s a difference between believing that you’re beautiful because people tell you that you are and knowing you’re beautiful no matter what people say. There’s a difference between accepting a body that gains weight every summer and taking pleasure in the versatility of such a body.
“[O]ne day I can literally fit into something that is bodycon, and then the next day — the next week — I need something oversized,” Rihanna told The Cut, with no hint of irritation or resign. Her self-esteem is stunning, not because she is gorgeous and successful and sassy, not because she has every right to be confident, but because it doesn’t waver depending on the comments she hears.
To some, it may seem counterintuitive that black women, who have been historically insulted, excluded and diminished, could be the most confident. But to me, it’s not at all. When you know you don’t fit into narrow “mainstream” beauty standards, when you know that the clothes on shelves won’t fit your figure, when you know that you’re not “the girl next door” and you never will be, you are tasked with developing your sense of confidence and establishing your own style, regardless of the mainstream public opinion.
Rihanna’s comment made me realize I want to be that sort of confident. I want to see myself in the same light that 59% of women in the black community do, too. But I don’t want to just believe that my body is beautiful because someone told me it is or because a survey confirmed I should think it. I need to know I am beautiful, in every way, because I can’t wait for America to stop being racist to start feeling good about myself. And I need to be secure in my body so that other young girls can be, too. If confidence is a journey, self-love feels like a good place to start.
Feature image by Josiah Kamau/BuzzFoto via Getty Images.