Lizzo has every right to be extra—dancing and cackling her way through her rising popularity, cheekily carrying a dainty Jacquemus-inspired purse on the red carpet, and flashing her thong through a circular cut-out in her t-shirt dress at a Minnesota Timberwolves game. The singer and rapper’s latest move, at an NBA game no less, has naturally led to backlash from random people on the internet over the revealing nature of the outfit, with some underlying annoyance aimed at her growing mainstream appeal.
On Instagram, Lizzo compared her sartorial choice to Rihanna’s now-iconic see-through Swarovski crystal gown, which also featured a very visible thong that Rihanna similarly flaunted to photographers. Many have pointed out that Lizzo is not only being slut shamed but fat shamed—as a fat woman, her body is under significant scrutiny, interpreted as doubly offensive since it doesn’t fit into notions of conventional Hollywood beauty. But it’s worth pointing out that Rihanna also received a degree of backlash for her many revealing outfits, mainly because she is a black woman visible on the global stage. Lizzo, who has now crossed into mainstream hyper-visibility, has to deal with the hypercritical gaze that both her fatness and black female identity draw onto her image.
As a celebrity, standing for something can place you in the line of fire—your backbone can be misinterpreted for infallibility or even grassroots activism when, in reality, you may just be fighting for your own self-preservation in a cruel, vampiric industry. Lizzo, for her part, does make a point of empowering fat women, specifically. Not only her media presence, but her music itself is a celebration of fatness, dramatic flourish, musicality, and joy. And since the music itself falls into popular genres, from pop to rap to rock, that message has spread far.
Lizzo, though she is a black woman whose music resonates with many black people, is also a mainstay of white suburban karaoke. And, today, when white suburban people believe your music belongs to them, there is an accompanying expectation of (a degree of) propriety. From Taylor Swift to Katy Perry to Ariana Grande, white pop stars of the 2010s typically perfected their images for their younger audiences. They may play up their sex appeal strategically, but they also tend to present as playfully innocent, covered up in the right places, never to cross into “Dirrty”-era Christina Aguilera territory. That lasciviousness is usually reserved for black women in rap and R&B, from which Aguilera drew her inspiration both musically and visually. Today, artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Ciara, and Doja Cat present assertive visions of black female sexiness.
Of course, there are black women artists who cover up, from Missy Elliott to Tierra Whack to Janelle Monae, but sexuality is still very much a part of their work if not strictly their images. Even Beyoncé, arguably the most popular living musical artist, centers a kind of free-flowing sexuality in her work, though it is in the context of marriage. The single “Drunk in Love” is the prime example of Beyoncé allowing her image to be undeniably sexual, scandalous, and not at all for your 14-year-old. You could not imagine Swift, who presents an English rom-com version of attraction in her music and accompanying videos, following suit.
In the context of her rapidly growing fame, Lizzo is straddling two arenas that are now dominated by capitalism: female empowerment, so to speak, and sex. To be clear, black female sexuality and artistry reach beyond the cynicism of capital and are scrutinized for that very reason. The mythology and stereotypes that have surrounded the black female body since slavery affect how black female artists are observed and written about by mainly white critics and fans today; but the desire for black women to express themselves artistically and sexually hasn’t diminished as a result. While Lizzo is surely aware of how her body is scrutinized, judged, and criticized depending on how she decides to dress and present it, she is still going to get on stage and twerk in her thong. And one hopes that her stance on the sexiness of her fat, black body is what will keep her from being subsumed into a highly marketable, white-friendly image.