Should feminists lay off Rihanna?

The pop star gets criticised for her hypersexual persona - and for returning to the man who abused her. But before you attack her choices, work out what you'd do if someone you actually knew was making the same mistakes.

I've got some advice for Rihanna. However, in a stunning reversal of columnist mores (not so stunning that I won't still say things like "stunning reversal", mind), I'm going to advise myself first: don't tell celebrities what they should or shouldn't do. However much they seem like a paradigm for all society, however much you fear that their role model status means their actions will be imprinted on our gosling-like young, however much you think that what they're doing is simply a straight-up terrible idea – just shush.

In Rihanna's case, keeping your counsel gets especially hard because she ticks all three of those boxes so hard that the boxes are just raggedy Biro-stained rips in a disintegrating piece of paper. If you want someone who embodies the eerie duality of female power and powerlessness, there's Rihanna – giving off every sign of hypersexual self-possession, while also being a carefully packaged entertainment industry product, singing words written by other people. If you want a role model, Rihanna's River Island clothing collection shows she's the kind of girl other girls follow.

And if you want terrible ideas . . . oh Rihanna. Since March 2009, when details were released of her assault by then-boyfriend (subsequently ex-boyfriend, now current boyfriend) Chris Brown, there's been an awkward tussle within the feminist camp over what Rihanna means. At first it looked like she might be a celebrity survivor, but she never embraced that role. After that, there were moves to hold her up as just a girl doing her own damn thing. But then came the hard-to-stomach reconciliation with Brown.

Some accused her of contributing to violence against women: when a famous woman sticks with an abusive partner, the argument goes, that tells non-famous women that they too should endure the beatings in the name of love. Meanwhile, Camille Paglia anointed her Diana 2.0, and mused on RiRi's archetypal victimhood in a long, thinky and basically revolting essay. Scandal-sheet matter aside, Rihanna incites all this interest because she's a brilliant pop star. She's beautiful, of course. She gets the best material pop has to offer, too, masterfully shaped by the greatest producers around.

But there are a lot of pretty girls with great songs and crack production teams: Rihanna has something more, a tug or a strain in her voice that survives the brutal smoothing of the autotune process. There's something disarmingly intimate in her singing: you always know it's her when you hear her on a record. If you haven't had a tiny raw-throated sob while singing along to We Found Love's abject declaration of affection, or felt your hips twitch obscenely to S&M, then pop music's probably wasted on you. I like Rihanna a lot. I don't listen to her records very much now, though, because I've got a six-year-old daughter, and I'm very keen to avoid the RiRification of my offspring.

This isn't because I've got very advanced standards of decency: owing to a particularly poor patch of parenting, my daughter knows all the words on Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday, and does a cracking version of Roman's Revenge when she really wants to mortify me. I don't expect Rihanna to be a role model, either. For one thing, if anyone's messing that job up, it's me (see above); for another, she's spent her whole adult life being ragingly famous and professionally hot, and nobody under that kind of bizarre duress can ever be asked to show other people how to act.

But what Rihanna is criticised for most is probably the most ordinary thing about her: people often do return to abusive relationships, and there's no reason why being famous should make you better able to escape. In interviews, Rihanna is adamant that Brown has changed, and Christ knows I hope she's right. But the unpleasant details that slip out – Brown telling a nightclub audience how to show your "bad bitch" that you "own that pussy", or Rihanna saying that Brown is her "best friend" in an interview for Elle – feel depressingly rote.

Violence, possessiveness, isolation: these are common themes of intimate partner abuse. Observing Rihanna's career feels a little like being the photojournalist on the extraordinary Time magazine domestic violence article, except I am definitely, definitely not doing anything to help.

So this is my advice to myself, and anyone else tempted to chip in, however good your intentions: stop gawping, start understanding how agonisingly complex abusive relationships are. And before you tell some far-off 25-year-old what to do, work out what you'd do if someone you actually knew was making the same mistakes.

Chris Brown and Rihanna. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear