Rihanna’s Approach to Maternity Clothes Helped Me Redefine Motherhood
Celebrating my pregnant body doesn’t mean I have to leave behind my individuality
Before the vampire, I loved wearing clothes. I saw my wardrobe as a textile collection of myself in all my various fits and moods, and each day, my task was to find the best combination of clothing to wear that would project to the world my current state. I loved getting up each morning and putting on a new outfit, the first ritual of many rituals performed throughout my day. I believed that through my clothing, I could gain a better understanding of myself so that I could move through my days with confidence and precision. The clothing I valued most were the pieces in my wardrobe tied up with meaning. Hand-me-downs from my mother, dresses and shirts that she wore when she was my age. Blouses from my grandmother that I took after she died. Thrifted things that were clearly handmade or well-worn before they found their way to me. Flannels with threadbare patches and mismatched buttons. The pair of Dr. Marten boots my mother purchased for me at my request when I was in seventh grade and that still fit. But when the vampire arrived and my identity and body slowly began to change, so did my wardrobe, and with that change came a profound sense of loss that both startled me and sent me spiraling into a new kind of sadness I was wholly unprepared for. If I could not rely on the confidence my clothing made me feel as I navigated all the changes a body goes through when it is pregnant, what was there to stop me from feeling adrift from my own mental and physical being, swinging between two planes of existence for months on end as I carried my vampire to term?
When I first suspected I was pregnant, I remember visiting my father, spending the entire day anxiously anticipating a period that would never come. I was a few days late, and I was wearing my newest favorite pair of jeans, lightwashed denim and baggy in all the right places. I remember feeling strange in them, as if I instinctively knew this was the last time I would wear them for a long time. The sadness I felt about this surprised me. To be clear, it wasn’t so much the pants I was mourning, as it was the way the pants made me feel when I had them on. This was a me that I recognized, a body and a mental state that I felt comfortable and confident inhabiting. The pants were a reflection of my inner self, and the prospect of no longer being able to wear them symbolized for me the shift from a 31 year old woman writer to a 32 year old mother, and I did not know — and still do not know — what that looked like. The vampire had been planned, and each day my period ceased to arrive felt like inching a little closer to a miracle, but the closer I inched, the clearer it became that a wall was about to be built between the me I was then and the me I would soon become.
There are a lot of things that happen to a body when it’s pregnant. It aches and it oozes and it regurgitates constantly. It changes inwardly and those changes are noticed outwardly. It becomes a pot that’s always about to boil over. It distends. For me, those initial days of pregnancy consisted of horrible bouts of vomiting and extreme tiredness that caused me to spiral into a deep, hormonal depression. Although my physical body did not yet show signs of the belly to come, my symptoms were enough to make it very clear to me that I had entered into a transitional realm where it was necessary to check my previous self at the door if I ever wanted to emerge intact on the other side. This realization terrified me, especially when it became clear that the things I had once so loved to do were no longer of any interest to me in the current moment. One of the first things to go was my relationship to my clothes. I wore and re-wore the same few pairs of leggings and tops for days, unable to muster the strength or creativity to come up with anything else.
I have always been vocal to my husband about the importance of maintaining my sense of self after having a baby. I’ve bemoaned the image of myself as a woman eclipsed by the shadow of her caregiving, and at the start of my pregnancy, I felt determined to hold on to what I essentially think of as my essence. For me, being a writer is a core part of who I am. My days revolve around words, so much so that I am unsure of the person I would be if my relationship to my work and to my books ceased to exist. Once, when I worked in a bookstore, I was talking to a coworker about another one of our booksellers who had recently had a baby. I said they were planning on returning to work after their maternity leave, and my coworker looked at me and said, They always say that. It works for a short while, but eventually they leave. At the time, I didn’t believe them, but in the end, they were right. Motherhood has a way of shifting things, of changing all your future plans.
By the time I entered my second trimester, I was surprised and relieved to find that I was beginning to recognize parts of myself that I feared I had lost to the onslaught of the first four months. The vampire was doing well, and I was happy to feel like a person again. However, now I was starting to develop a belly, so I made the decision to commit myself to cultivating a maternity wardrobe that helped uplift me in the same way my pre-vampire wardrobe did. My logic was that if I could maintain a sense of normalcy through the clothing I wore, perhaps this would help me to cope with the drastic changes my body was beginning to show, anchoring me somehow to a sense of self, however small, that kept me from feeling completely disconnected and adrift.
At first, this goal seemed easy enough to achieve. But when my mother and I went out looking for maternity clothes, we discovered two things. The first being that most stores no longer actually sell maternity clothing in the actual store — a fact that feels a bit appalling because how are you supposed to know what size you need for your aggressively changing body when there is no way for you to try anything on? — and second, everything, and I mean everything that was available for pregnant people online all mimicked the same exact style. I am sure there are pregnant people out there who are absolutely overjoyed at the options available to them for maternity wear, and to them I say, I’m happy for you. I, however, am not one of those people, and I suspect that a large number of pregnant people — most likely belonging to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities — feel the same way, too. As I scoured the internet for maternity wear, I found that the dominant trend for clothing seemed to reflect a type of pregnancy and a type of mothering akin to a freshly bathed, white, skinny, blonde woman about to walk naked into a dreamy field at sunrise to birth her babe alone in the presence of God and nature all while wearing a flower chain in her perfect, professionally curled hair. It should go without saying that this woman is absolutely not me.
Looking at these different maternity lines was nauseating. I felt like I was observing, single-handedly, the erasure of a woman’s sense of self before having a baby. Nothing about the clothing being offered was interesting to me. The color pallet was always black, grey, navy, and a mix of light pastels. Patterns were non-existent unless floral, and almost every woman modeling the clothing was white and skinny, projecting the image of a perfect mother-to-be with her hand placed lovingly atop her perfect, tiny baby bump. This image absolutely did not reflect my Japanese and German body that had recently gained a decent amount of pandemic weight even before the vampire and was not looking forward to wearing a floor length, tiered, ruffle sundress that looked fabulous on the website models but would look like nothing less than a tablecloth covering a watermelon on my 5’ 2” frame. I felt like I was going insane. Perhaps the biggest problem with looking at website after website selling nothing but pastel maternity dresses and rompers was that at some point, I eventually started to wonder if this really was what I should be wearing. There really was no doubt that the women in the photographs did look well dressed and put together in their pregnancies. Maybe I could become just like them if I bought a linen romper or striped shirt with elaborate peplum meant to both tastefully cover and accentuate my growing stomach. Maybe in doing so, I would discover the secret to both enjoying my pregnancy and becoming a mother. But each time I would think about giving in to the advertising, a little voice in my head would be screaming at me to stop and think again. Carefully, I asked myself, “Is this what I want my wardrobe, my visual representation of my approach to motherhood and to myself entering into motherhood, to be?” The answer was always a resounding “No.”
These images of a pregnant mother were not negotiable in that they only seemed to reflect a woman who is chaste in her clothing choices — which must mean she is also chaste in her lifestyle choices —without any sexuality or sense of self. So often in our society the way a person dresses is often one of the first things we use to judge their character, and so the blandness of the maternity clothes for sale only served to display society’s vision of the ideal mother as selfless, perfect, and ready for anything. What freaked me out most about this was how the maternity clothes on these sites were so one note in their styles that it was hard, at least for me, not to think of them as just another way to push a woman away from who she might have been before the baby, redirecting her to the new role of mother, as if the only way to ensure that women choosing to become mothers did not stray from the path of The Well- Behaved Mother was to strip them of any identifying characteristics by way of their clothing. It’s as if the blandness of the maternity clothes turns the pregnant body into a clean slate where the woman becomes a tabula rasa, washed of her interests and personality so that she may devote herself and her body entirely to the raising of her children.
It was also disturbing that the models were rarely representative of BIPOC or LGBTQ+ mothers, and even on the rare occasion that some of the models were Black or Asian, the main focus always seemed to be on white women. This sort of visual gatekeeping coupled with the purity of the clothing seemed to throw into question just who was most likely to achieve the coveted label of Good Mother. Big name maternity clothing brands all seemed to be suggesting that in order to cultivate that perfect, pregnancy glow not only did you have to portray an image of softness and comfort, but you also had to be a white woman, leaving out a very large portion of the population that does not identify as one or the other or both.
Coming to these realizations was horrifying for me, and each time I found myself searching for new tops to wear over my ever-expanding belly, I became filled with an untamed rage. How was I supposed to dress myself during the rest of this pregnancy, if the only things available to me made me feel like an extra on Little House on the Prairie? And even more frustrating, how was I supposed to maintain my own sense of self if the expectation was that all I could be after giving birth was a mother and nothing more? It turns out, the answer to both of these questions was Rihanna.
Rihanna has been a fashion icon ever since she came onto the music scene nearly twenty years ago. She’s wowed us with her looks throughout her entire career, and she’s created some of the most interesting fashion labels to grace the runways. Her lingerie label Savage X Fenty beautifully incorporates and includes lingerie created for people of all sizes and skin tones. Inclusivity and self-expression are important to Rihanna, so when photos of her pregnancy began to circulate on social media, it was no surprise that her clothing completely redefined maternity wear. The first photo to appear on her Instagram pictured her in a long, hot pink puffer coat and tastefully ripped jeans. The coat is unbuttoned just enough to reveal her growing belly, and strands of jeweled necklaces fall across it like royalty. In short, she looks amazing. Yes, her body has clearly been undergoing some changes, but her style and her sexiness are still 100% intact. She is the Rihanna we know, just pregnant, and she instantly became my role model.
I have followed Rihanna through her pregnancy alongside my own, and I have never been more amazed at a person’s dedication to fashion in the face of pregnancy. Each outfit she has been pictured wearing has been even more fabulous than the one before it. Her stomach is almost always on view, and nothing about her clothing screams “matronly” or “prairie chic.” There is a sense of style here, a woman with tastes and desires and emotions that want to be expressed through the clothing that she wears. In some ways even, her growing belly acts as an accessory to her already-heightened sense of powerful feminism that she has consistently cultivated and expressed throughout her career. My favorite of her outfits is probably the Dior dress she wore sans the dress’s original lining so that her entire pregnant body could be seen through a lacy frock making her look nothing short of a goddess. Recently, she told Vogue, “My body is doing incredible things right now, and I’m not going to be ashamed of that. This time should feel celebratory. Because why should you be hiding your pregnancy?”
But Rihanna is doing more for maternity clothing and pregnant people in general than just celebrating the pregnant body. She is allowing space for us to continue to dress like ourselves, to express our full personalities through our clothing like we did before our bodies started changing. Before her pregnancy, Rihanna has always been labeled as sexy, and for good reason. She has captivated the fashion industry with her bold styles and sensual clothing choices — two things that are generally absent from pretty much every line of maternity wear available today.
Right from the start of her pregnancy though, Rihanna rejected the typical maternity fashions and simply continued to dress as she always has. Naturally, some people on the internet were incensed — aren’t mothers supposed to be proper and decent? — but most people fell in love with her bold approach to pregnancy clothes because it also offered up a bold approach to motherhood. Here was a Black woman who was refusing to give in to the extremely white-centric idea of motherhood and maternity wear readily available to pregnant people, and she was doing it with millions of people watching her. Her choice to be a sexy mother-to-be — one who doesn’t shy away from bold colors and lace and elaborate patterns and form fitting clothes— felt so radical to me on my search for maternity wear that it began to feel deeply political. It was as if her clothing choices were single handedly redefining motherhood to incorporate more than just that perfect yet inaccurate image of whiteness, purity, and virtue, a choice that feels both necessary and radical during this moment in history where pregnancy and the right to one’s own body are dangerously close to being forced backwards in time.
In choosing to maintain her personal sense of style throughout her pregnancy, Rihanna also makes room for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals to come up with their own personal maternity styles that allow them to express their true selves instead of having to choose between neutrally bland shirts and pants or pastel and light denim a-line dresses that make a person look like they are going to a country wedding. She is saying it is okay to not take on the traits of a socially acceptable mom who throws everything about themselves away so that they become nothing more than a sounding board for their children’s lives. She is saying it is okay to still be sexy, original, and maybe, even, a little bit bad. Clothing is just one creative way for a mother to express themselves, and by making the choice to use her wardrobe as a way for self- expression, she gives permission for all creative outlets to be included in the story of motherhood.
After seeing Rihanna pregnant for the first time, I realized that I didn’t have to be the blank slate popular maternity brands like Hatch and A Pea in the Pod wanted me to be. I was free to push the boundaries of what a mother, perhaps even a good mother, could wear in preparation for the arrival of her child. Of course, I am not Rihanna, and I do not have access to the designers and stylists that she does who would be able to help me achieve the look I’m going for with such ease, but just knowing that someone out there was pushing back against the legions of horrible light denim overalls and ruched maternity shirts that are either black and white striped or say horrifying things on them like, “Daddy Did it!” was enough for me. So much of a pregnant person’s time before the arrival of the baby is spent wondering about how they will be as a parent. If you are experiencing your first pregnancy, these thoughts are often wild and inescapable. I have women in my life who I can look to as role models for the kind of mom that I would like to be, but there really is no way for me to fully understand what is about to happen once the vampire is born. I’ve read books and attended classes, and though I feel slightly more prepared for my vampire’s birth than I initially did, I am still very uncertain about what I will look like as a mother and a writer, both.
Rihanna’s approach to maternity clothes has given me confidence that I just might be able to retain certain parts of my former self that I enjoyed, and that I don’t necessarily have to lose them all to the task of mothering. I can still wear my Bauhaus t-shirts with those Dr. Marten boots. I can still attend concerts and watch horror movies and write essays and read books. Yes, my life is going to change, and my time and my priorities will be rearranged significantly, but I do not have to become a tabula rasa. I do not have to give up all that I was before the vampire in order to make room for the vampire in my life. Instead, the vampire will become a part of my life, learning and exploring and sharing in the things we both find interesting, him discovering the world for the first time, and me rediscovering it again through new eyes. I’m not entirely sure what my type of motherhood looks like just yet. Until the vampire is born, I’m just going to have to wait to figure that out. But one thing is for sure, I do know what outfit I’ll be wearing when I do it.