Billie Eilish’s Vogue cover carries an important message on body image, shaming and personal autonomy – but who is ready to listen?
Widely recognised as the “voice of a generation,” pop icon Billie Eilish’s music is an astonishing procession of plaudits. Not only is she the youngest artist to write a James Bond song, but she is also the youngest winner of the Grammy for Album of the Year (an accolade formerly held by Taylor Swift.) Her work is an explosion of raw talent, with her gentle vocals juxtaposing the haunting lyrics poignantly capturing themes such as love, loss, depression and self-image. Yet, despite her impeccable aptitude for songwriting, all people seem to focus on, as of late, is her body image.
When she underwent a radical change in style, swapping her usual baggy attire to a more form-fitting corset, public responses were similarly divergent. Whilst her fan base has flooded her Instagram page with lots of flattering comments, others adopted a more disapproving stance.
In usual melodramatic fashion, some twitter users started littering hate comments left right and centre: ‘I think Billie Eilish’s management knew that deliberately concealing her body in those baggy clothes for all that time, and then doing a dramatic reveal leaving almost nothing to the imagination would generate a lot of discussion and keep her relevant.”
One particularly body-shaming comment became the heading of a Daily Mail post: ‘proof that money can make you change your values, another sell out.’ Brazen headlines encouraging damaging or hateful ideologies doesn’t come as a surprise from this particular newspaper. Yet, what’s more shocking, degrading comments surrounding body image are considered so commonplace that they are rarely challenged.
Even before her cover was released, Eilish predicted her photos would spark controversy. In her May 2 British Vogue interview, she explained how she expected critics to say, “If you’re about body positivity, why would you wear a corset? Why wouldn’t you show your actual body?” If promoting a positive self-image mandates dressing in more revealing clothing, doesn’t that paradoxically remove any sort of personal autonomy?
The essence of body positivity is challenging a culture of stereotypical and often unrealistic body expectations. As such, everyone can feel comfortable to express themselves how they want without fear of adversity. Billie Eilish’s cover was a manifestation of this; advocating individuality and the freedom to dress how you want without having to please anybody else. In her own words: “It’s all about what makes you feel good. If you want to get surgery, go get surgery. If you want to wear a dress that somebody thinks that you look too big wearing, f**k it – if you feel like you look good, you look good.”
Previously, Eilish has spoken about how, even when underage, she was frequently subjected to sexualisation and objectification on social media. One twitter user shared a picture of Billie Eilish in a tank top, and said she was ‘THICK.’ She was only 17 at the time. When asked about it in an interview with Elle magazine, Eilish recalled how her ‘boobs were trending on Twitter!’. Following on from this, the magazine commented how ‘even CNN wrote a story about Eilish’s boobs.’
This sexualisation of a minor was again perpetuated in the Daily Mail’s (now changed) headline, claiming she was “vowing to hide her body,” thus implying expressing herself is sinful. Maybe she was hiding her body because she was…a child? Such deplorable attitudes towards a young girl on both social media and mainstream news outlets is indicative of a more serious issue. Eilish’s choice of oversized clothes was a deliberate attempt to avoid judgement and was an outward rejection of this type of sexualisation. The mere fact that Eilish felt the need to hide her body to avoid this sexualisation when she was just a teenager, demonstrates something deeply troubling about our society.
Yet, Billie Eilish isn’t the only young celebrity to have been subjected to sexualisation whilst growing up. An article by Refinery29 revealed just how ubiquitous this was when referencing Natalie Portman’s experience. At the 2018 Women’s March, Portman recalled how men would talk about her breasts before she was even a teenager. Additionally, actress Emma Watson gave a speech to the United Nations in 2014 describing how she was sexualised at age 14 during the fame of the Harry Potter films.
The fetishising of young girls entering adulthood is a worrying issue that needs to be properly addressed. When you’re in your teenage years you should be allowed to freely experiment with style and express yourself how you want. Exploring one’s body is part of growing up, it should not be shameful; but that appears to be the narrative the mainstream media keep pushing for.
Vogue discussed how “the celebration of her in opposition to more scantily dressed pop girls concealed a nasty, misogynist (sometimes racist) subtext.” The standard seems to be: if you cover up your body, you’re worthy of respect, yet if you don’t cover up, you’re degraded. Eilish herself can support this in her own statement to Vogue: “Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore.”
This continues to be the discourse surrounding Billie Eilish’s body image…and it’s quite worrying.
If there’s one thing we can take from Billie Eilish’s Vogue cover, it’s that your body is no-one else’s business. No-one, especially a teenager, should feel pressured to conform to a projected ideal style or size (as defined by social and mainstream media). Even those in the limelight deserve autonomy over their body and as much privacy as they like regarding it.
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