You know how in Boy Meets World, Mr. Feeny is Cory’s teacher for, like, his entire life? It starts off sweet and subtle — Feeny teaches young Cory little childhood lessons here and there. He sticks around through Cory’s middle school years and offers advice Cory doesn’t even know he needs yet. Then Cory gets to high school and it’s kind of weird that Feeny’s still around — this isn’t really how the public education system works and also like, who is teaching the other middle schoolers now? Cory tries to stray from Feeny’s influence for a little while, but ultimately comes back around and continues to appreciate and learn from Feeny through college and even into his adult like.
For me, that teacher is Rihanna.
Like Cory, I didn’t understand the influence my teacher had over me early on, in 2005, when a 9-year-old Erin heard “Pon de Replay” for the first time. But by the time I was 11, “Umbrella” had taught me everything I needed to know about maintaining strong friendships. Rihanna exemplified the impossible complexity of abusive relationships — the strength and courage it takes to leave an abuser, the confusion and guilt of wanting to stay, the grief that comes with losing someone you love in spite of everything — before I knew I would need to learn those lessons for myself. In high school, Rihanna released Talk That Talk and I tried to stray (a.k.a. I ditched all my favorite pop music for indie/alternative — dumb), but I ultimately came back around when “Stay” came out.
Now, 12 years after my first Rihanna lesson (I guess I’m a senior at Fenty University), it’s clear that this woman still has so damn much to teach me.
The most recent lesson came in the midst of a body image crisis, the likes of which I haven’t seen since ninth grade.
I knew I had gained some weight during my time in Tokyo — I had reintroduced red meat into my diet and my body definitely noticed. But it wasn’t until I tried on my Halloween costume (70s flower child) that the panic set in. My whole costume revolved around my very favorite jeans: a pair of embroidered bell-bottoms from Spell & the Gypsy Collective, which have been my feel-good pants since I snagged them from a Buffalo Exchange. They’ve always fit me perfectly, and suddenly I couldn’t fit them over my new carnivore thighs.
Call me dramatic, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse about myself. I texted my group chat in all caps to let them know about my crisis, immediately went for a run and vowed not to eat anything that wasn’t 100% plant-based for the foreseeable future.
But then, the next day, I was sitting at work (hungry), catching up on some reading while I waited for a source to call back. I finally read that Rihanna interview with The Cut that everyone’s been talking about recently.
“I actually have had the pleasure of a fluctuating body type, where one day I can literally fit into something that is bodycon, and then the next day — the next week — I need something oversized,” she told The Cut. “I really pay attention every day when I go into the closet about what’s working for my body that morning.”
I had never thought of body changes as a “pleasure” before. I liked my body the way it was and every subtle change shocked me when I looked in the mirror, even if the people around me didn’t notice. But once I started thinking about it, I realized I felt genuinely healthier and stronger. And honestly? My butt looks way better in jeans now (the ones that still fit, that is). The extra pounds came with little bits of body joy: better-fitting bras, healthy legs in heels and the option to pull off looks I couldn’t fill out when my body was a little thinner.
In Season 7, Episode 17 of Boy Meets World, Mr. Feeny tells Topanga, “Unfortunately we live in a society where they tell us we have to look a certain way, so we’re all under pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations.”
But in “Jump,” Rihanna said, “Think I give a damn? Boy, don’t you know who I am?” which is a significantly more helpful mantra.
I don’t know if one Rihanna interview can solve years of body image issues, but it’s at least given me a lot to think about — the goal of any great lesson. Tomorrow night, I’m going to stuff my thighs into those jeans and not stress over the fact that they look thicker than I’m used to. I’m not going to avoid Halloween candy. I’m going to spend the next couple months wearing the hell out of dresses I can finally fill out. And when I get home and readjust to my normal diet and lifestyle in the States, if my weight fluctuates again, that’ll be okay too.