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A collage of pregnant Rihanna in the same cutout dress in green, blue, pink and yellow
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Every Pregnant Person Deserves To Feel As Free As Rihanna Looks

But the maternity wear industry has always been, and still is, so far behind.

by Michelle Cyca

Celebrity pregnancies are seldom interesting, unless you take particular pleasure in anticipating what effortfully quirky name the baby will receive. So it was a rare jolt of genuine public enthusiasm that accompanied the news of Rihanna’s pregnancy in January, heightened by the simultaneous debut of her first sublime pregnancy look: a vintage bubblegum-pink Chanel puffer, unbuttoned to show off a jewel-festooned belly. “I’m hoping that we were able to redefine what’s considered ‘decent’ for pregnant women,” she told Vogue, appearing on its May 2022 cover in a lacy Alaïa catsuit. “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?”

The outfits are, without question, celebratory: each one so unexpected and glamorous that fans have almost forgotten that they’re still waiting on her next album. And while wearing leather microshorts is not everyone’s idea of a good time, pregnant or not, it’s captivating to see someone deviate so joyfully from expectations. Every time my Instagram feed serves me another glorious Rihanna post, I wonder: why is it so rare to see a pregnant woman having fun with clothes, and looking hot as hell while she does it?

It’s captivating to see someone deviate so joyfully from expectations.

Rihanna is not an accessible fashion role model for most of us, and not just because I wouldn’t even know where to buy this electric blue jumpsuit. (If you have a lead, please DM me.) But she is proving, one outfit at a time, that pregnancy can be a time for reveling in your physical transformation without losing your identity. Even if you don’t want to dress like Rihanna while pregnant, we should be free to dress like ourselves.

For those of us without access to Rihanna’s stylist, this is harder than it sounds. Buying clothes while pregnant is a bleak experience. You might be able to put it off for a few months, but once the rubber-band trick stops holding your jeans up, you have to find something that fits.

The brand names — Storq, Hatch, a Pea in the Pod, PinkBlush — reflect the aesthetics, which are either overwhelmingly girly and infantilizing or shapeless linen garments in tasteful, muted hues. Given that 86% of American women have kids — representing a sizeable majority of consumers who need to dress their pregnant bodies at some point — it feels like the industry is deliberately f*cking with us. Why, in 2022, are the options still so limited? Why have the prevailing aesthetics of pregnancy, and our cultural attitudes towards it, evolved so little?

I mean, Angelina Jolie used to wear a vial of her ex-husband’s blood around her neck, but while pregnant she wore the same boring, flowy maxi dresses as everyone else.

Even Angelina Jolie (seen here at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008) deserved better.ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images

Mass-market pregnancy wear only dates back to 1904, when Lane Bryant produced a dress with an elastic waistband and accordion-pleated skirt for a pregnant client, designed to accommodate but minimize her growing belly. Until that point, women made do with their baggiest dresses, wearing maternity corsets for as long as possible to conceal their pregnancies. Bryant’s dress was practical in an era where pregnancy was deemed vaguely obscene (New York papers wouldn’t let Bryant place ads for her maternity line), and pregnant women were pressured to stop working and stay home.

Minimizing a pregnant belly also minimizes the risk of being fired or sidelined, and unfortunately many people still have to hide their pregnancies for these reasons. And despite the passing of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, which prevents discrimination against pregnant employees, pregnant people are still routinely denied jobs, professional advancement, and necessary accommodations. These risks continue to influence the way people dress their pregnant bodies; a friend of mine concealed her second pregnancy at work until she was seven months along, with the help of oversized sweaters and baggy dresses, waiting until a long-overdue pay increase was confirmed.

These narrow options reflect our similarly limited ideas about how pregnant people are supposed to behave, and who they are supposed to become.

In the 1970s, fashion began to make room for people who wanted to show off their pregnancy instead of hiding it. Lady Madonna Maternity Wear (RIP), beloved by celebrities like Diana Ross and Mia Farrow, was the spiritual ancestor of Rihanna’s pregnancy style, offering black Lycra dresses with mesh belly cut-outs (!) way back in 1971. Before launching Juicy Couture, Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy pioneered maternity jeans in 1988 with their first venture, Travis Jeans for the Baby in You, famously worn by Melanie Griffith. And in the 1990s, pregnant celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Jada Pinkett-Smith wore tight dresses that showed off their pregnancies, though they stuck to muted colors and long hemlines.

Jada Pinkett-Smith at the Grammys in 1998.Steve Azzara/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

Even today, it’s hard to find form-fitting clothing that isn’t modest enough for a Catholic school dress code: no crop tops, low necklines, or anything else that you might have worn pre-pregnancy. There are, however, plenty of flutter sleeves, frills, and bows, as if contemporary brands are still making mood boards from Princess Diana’s pregnancy looks.

These narrow options reflect our similarly limited ideas about how pregnant people are supposed to behave, and who they are supposed to become. Society still expects mothers to put aside their own needs (sexual, emotional, professional) to focus on their kids.

Uninspired by what she called the “lycra and leggings” options available, Kaleigh Jorgenson, a 35-year-old cider maker living in British Columbia’s wine region, went off-book when got pregnant. “Billowy cotton dresses, some beautiful linen overalls, giant T-shirts, and knit elastic waist joggers sized up got me through my first pregnancy,” said Jorgenson, who had her first daughter in 2020 and is expecting her second this summer. “It’s also a great time to accessorize. Giant earrings, a big necklace, pops of color. To me adornment is celebration and praising our bodies for the monumental undertaking of creating a human is a beautiful mindset to be in.” Eschewing conventional maternity wear doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your pregnancy through fashion — even without access to Rihanna’s stylist.

Like Kaleigh, I skipped the maternity section and went to my favorite consignment shops to find affordable options that didn’t make me feel like a Stepford wife. I bought stretchy dresses (crucially, without ruching) that emphasized my phenomenal pregnancy tits; elastic-waist trousers that fit under my belly; pink corduroy overalls a size bigger than my usual. I wore them for months after my baby was born, and then passed them along to a friend; those pink overalls have clothed five different pregnant bodies by now.

It’s also worth being critical of the entire concept of maternity wear, beyond the questionable aesthetics. Considering Americans throw away 80 pounds of clothing each year, we should all question the value of a clothing item with a nine-month lifespan. And given that our bodies will fluctuate in size an average of 31 times, it would be great to see more items that can be altered or adjusted to fit a changing body. But those who want to purchase something designed specifically for pregnancy should have options that validate their identities beyond the prescriptive label of “mom.”

“It feels like I literally have nothing to wear that shows who I am and how I'm experiencing pregnancy and preparing for parenthood.”

This is not only limiting for those who, like Rihanna, don’t want to hide their sexy; it’s also challenging for trans and nonbinary parents who don’t identify as feminine. Even the most wanted, easiest pregnancy threatens to subsume your identity — ask anyone who has been referred to as “mama” by total strangers. Looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger looking back, wearing clothes you’d never choose before getting pregnant, is even more disorienting.

“The thing I've struggled with the most has been social dysphoria,” said Chloë, who is nonbinary and expecting their first child in a few months. “So less to do with how I feel in my body than how people treat me, like being referred to as a mother. The toughest part about seeing only feminine clothing available for people who are pregnant has been that it feels like a constant reminder of that social dysphoria. It feels like I literally have nothing to wear that shows who I am and how I'm experiencing pregnancy and preparing for parenthood.”

Their favorite item is a pair of elastic-waist burgundy pants from the men’s section, which makes Chloë feel “100% like myself.” But other items — like a butch button-up that fits their growing stomach — have proven impossible to find. Like everyone else I spoke with about pregnancy fashion, they were also struck by the inaccessible prices, which made finding affirming clothing even more challenging. “I do notice this experience has been easier for me as a straight-sized nonbinary person who feels comfortable in some feminine clothing,” Chloë added. “Having to wear my leggings and dresses periodically hasn't been as tough on my psyche as it might be for other nonbinary folks.”

Gavin, a transmasculine nonbinary parent to a 6-month-old, spent much of their early pregnancy in pandemic lockdown, which meant they could wear sweatpants and T-shirts. But even as their pregnancy progressed, Gavin avoided shopping. “One, it tends to be really expensive for something you can only wear for a few months, and two, I wasn’t finding anything I liked anyway,” they explained. “Understanding maternity wear is really not for people like me — it made the idea of shopping even less desirable.”

Jen McLellan, a certified childbirth educator and founder of Plus Size Birth, also found herself excluded when she was pregnant with her son in 2010. She hasn’t seen the industry evolve much since. “Forty percent of women of childbearing age are classified as obese. We’re talking about the average American woman,” she told me over the phone. “But many retailers only go up to 2XL or 3XL, and those sizes are only available online. Even when clothing companies expand into larger sizes, they rarely show models of size wearing those clothes.” McLellan recalls visiting Motherhood Maternity, “where they have one sad little rack at the back [for plus-size clothes], and you do your walk of shame over there to find these limited options. It just feels so crummy, at a time that should be really exciting.”

Fashion can seem frivolous, but it isn’t insignificant: it’s a way of accessing comfort and delight, and a form of expression that conveys you are to the wider world.

McLellan’s website has become a destination for plus-size parents looking for information on healthy pregnancies, giving birth, and, yes, finding plus-size pregnancy clothing. “I’ve spent so much time curating these lists,” she explains. “And I do have options that go up to 6XL or 7XL. But many of those items aren’t actually maternity wear. That’s fine for some people, but others really want that belly band on their jeans — it helps them feel pregnant! When maternity jeans end at 3XL, we’re excluding so many people who want to celebrate their pregnancies.”

“I think that trickles down into the bias that plus-size people face in health care,” she continues. “When you don’t see yourself represented, and when you can’t even find clothes for your body, it really feels like this experience isn’t for you, or that you can’t have a healthy outcome. And that’s so far from the truth!”

Maternity wear is a $7 billion global industry; surely there must be room in there for clothing that affirms the multifaceted identities of pregnant people. McLellan believes that change is coming, at least for plus-size folks, driven by #plussizepregnancy communities on TikTok and Instagram that demonstrate that there is a demand for stylish, inclusive options. “We don’t just want to wear black leggings and horizontal stripes!” she jokes.

Fashion can seem frivolous, but it isn’t insignificant: it’s a way of accessing comfort and delight, and a form of expression that conveys you are to the wider world. Being denied that opportunity, particularly at a time when you’re expected to make so many other sacrifices, is needlessly punishing. Why should becoming a parent require you to give up your identity and your crop tops?

Whether in mesh Valentino or a hot pink, ostrich feather-trimmed minidress, Rihanna is embracing the physical transformation of pregnancy without erasing herself in the process. “At first I expected some magical change,” she said in Vogue, “but really I remain who I am.” All pregnant people should be free to do the same.

Michelle is a writer, editor, and magazine publisher. Her words have appeared in the Vancouver Sun, SAD Mag, Chatelaine, Vancouver Magazine, MONTECRISTO, and other publications. She lives with her husband, daughter, and weird cat in Vancouver, Canada.