How Rihanna's halftime performance became a 'revolutionary' statement about women and mothers

Reactions to Rihanna's Super Bowl performance speak to the expectations placed on women and mothers. (Photo: Getty Images)
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A few minutes into Rihanna's Super Bowl halftime performance, the speculation, mostly tentatively and carefully posed, started. Is she ... ? Could she really be ...? ... pregnant? Then, moments after the Fenty Beauty founder wrapped her first singing gig since 2018, reviews were released, ranging from a certified banger, praising her high-flying choreography and medley of hits, to people calling the performance "low energy" and "lackluster."

But what was hinted at with belly rubs and camera angles was confirmed by her representatives minutes after the lights went dark and football resumed. Rihanna, who is 9 months postpartum, is expecting her second child.

The commentary during Rihanna's act, after — yet before her pregnancy was announced — and then what was said in the wake of official word that she's expecting, tells us a lot about how society talks about bodies and motherhood. And Rihanna herself, putting in the work (work, work, work, work) was a statement too, with one expert suggesting that the mogul provided a "revolutionary" display of a woman showing up as she is.

"The reason that has really ignited something in people is because they're seeing something that hasn't necessarily been done before. ... We don't even know what it looks like to see somebody honor their capacity," Raena Boston, founder of The Working Momtras and Chamber of Mothers, tells Yahoo Life. "We have ideas of how pregnant and postpartum people should be."

The 34-year-old entertainer shattered these expectations.

Rihanna's physical appearance, of course, played a big role in that as people made presumptions about how her body might look as she arrived on the world's biggest stage after giving birth to her first child with boyfriend A$AP Rocky in May 2022.

"Is she going to show that she's gotten her body back? Or is the statement going to be that, you know, this is my body and it is what it is?" Boston says of questions that surrounded the performance.

The singer didn't adhere to either of those expectations when she took the stage in a powerful all red Loewe ensemble that fell both loose and tight along her silhouette. A fitted bodysuit with a glossy leather breastplate emphasized her shape, while a boiler suit and a long Alaia puffer coat worn overtop kept her covered up. Salomon sneakers and minimal dance moves allowed Rihanna to appear comfortable and in control of her body. Her nonchalance paired with a fairly visible bump incited people to search for an explanation before the show had even ended.

"Rihanna" and "pregnant" became two of the top trending mentions on Twitter within minutes, while people pointedly asked, "Is Rihanna pregnant???" Responses varied from those questioning the possibility of another pregnancy after the singer gave birth 9 months ago, to others pointing out that she might not have "gotten rid of her baby weight."

Early reactions on social media illustrated the demand placed on women and their bodies, as well as how they are consumed. Others showed how nuanced conversations about body shaming, particularly when it comes to women, made some reluctant to call attention to what they were observing about Rihanna's appearance or to make an assumption about her being pregnant. Multiple women on TikTok shared their instinct to shut conversations about the singer's body down as soon as they heard rumblings of speculation in their respective living rooms.

"Given that she is still newly postpartum and just the general belief that we shouldn't be commenting on people's bodies, everyone was hesitant to say anything [about her possibly being pregnant] until it was confirmed," Cameron Rogers, a content creator and podcaster who shares her own experiences with pregnancy and motherhood, tells Yahoo Life. She notes that the singer's body "became a larger part of people's experiences given that she used this performance to announce she was pregnant by showing her bump."

Ultimately, the attention paid to her physique seemingly overshadowed many elements of the performance, as people used the state of her body as a means to assess her stage presence and talent.

"Before everybody knew she was pregnant, it was low energy, it was underwhelming," Boston says of initial reactions. "And then it was like, 'Oh, my God, Rihanna did this thing while pregnant.'"

The New York Times said that Rihanna showed up "lightly enthused, a little exhausted," while The New Yorker called her halftime performance "as muted and stripped down as a Super Bowl performance can be." Many were expecting more spectacle from her as she hasn't been on stage in so long, while others were surprised that she honored her commitment to do the show despite finding out she was pregnant. (She shared that she was three months postpartum when she was asked to do the show.)

Boston, however, says there's more to be said about Rihanna taking the stage as is.

"People deserve to show up how they want to show up in any given day, particularly women," Boston explains. "You could feel [Rihanna] being herself more than anything and not needing to be anything else in order to be worthy and I think that that's revolutionary because we're constantly telling moms, women — to the detriment of our mental health — that you need to be somebody else, you need to be achieving more, you need to be thinner, you need to bounce back, you need to snap back, you need to, you know, space your children in a certain way."

And although that commentary has still found its way into the larger conversation now surrounding Rihanna's professional and personal life, her unbothered attitude speaks volumes.

"We don't even know what it looks like for a mom to just show up fully as herself, confident and that being enough," Boston says. "Rihanna really exhibited agency with her choice and that agency is something that moms are wanting and needing. She's just being herself."

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