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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Billie Eilish and the exhaustion of being a young woman in the public eye

Olivia McQuaid explains why backlash over the singer's Vogue cover is just another example of systemic sexism.

Since Billie Eilish burst onto the pop music scene in 2016 with Ocean Eyes, her voice has reverberated around many a bedroom, club, and festival, cementing her as one of the defining female voices of our generation. She is the youngest person and second in history to win all four major awards at the Grammys. She has won two Guinness World Records and sang a Bond theme song aged just 18. The list is endless, making it irrefutable to say that Eilish is one of, if not, the, most accomplished young female music artists of our generation. So when her British Vogue cover broke this week, I anticipated comments about her accolades, about the candid conversation she has engaged in surrounding her Tourette’s Syndrome, and excitement for her sophomore album, Happier Than Ever,  which is set to be released this coming July.

Yet social media was whipped into heated debate about her outfit choice. 

Eilish’s entire interview her thoughts, her words, her feelings was swept under the rug, overshadowed by her ‘new look’ which many people felt invited them to discuss, and, as is the wonderful way of social media, rip apart (“She finally sold her soul, don’t expect her to go back to baggy stuff now!… proof that money can make you change your values,” wrote one Twitter user). A unique sense of fashion defined Eilish’s look as she came of age in the public sphere, with much of the media attention surrounding her focused on her taste for baggy clothing; it is understandable that this new look would generate a buzz, almost appearing as a milestone on her journey into adulthood a taste of the new Billie to come. However, the whirling discussion of Eilish’s decision to pose in corsets and lingerie for Vogue has completely saturated the internet in the past week. Many comments exuded anger, branding her a sell-out, even threatening to boycott her music.

Eilish was, until last year, when she turned 18, a child. Her decision to cover up was to protect herself from the hounding and over-sexualisation of young people, particularly young women, in the media. You only need to take one look at a tabloid newspaper and this will become clear as day. Upon wearing a tank top years ago, pictures of her chest went viral, with disgusting, predatory comments circulating about a teenage girl. A child. So she continued to cover up, explaining in a Calvin Klein campaign: “I never want the world to know everything about me. I mean, that’s why I wear big baggy clothes: Nobody can have an opinion, because they haven’t seen what’s underneath, you know?”.

Even then, she was attacked for her ‘weird’ dress sense, ridiculed and mocked; scrutinised for avoiding scrutiny itself.

Women do not owe you sex appeal, in the same way they do not owe you modesty. They owe you nothing. She was evidently not coerced into this shoot, and responded to the backlash on Instagram commenting “I love these pictures and I loved doing this shoot”. And while women in the public sphere should never feel pressured into taking off their clothes for a photoshoot, so what if they do choose to? Choice is the key word Eilish chose to cover up, and she can choose at any point to cover up again.

The whole fiasco reminded me of the age old saying: ‘you can’t do right for doing wrong’ young women cannot avoid scrutiny, no matter what they do. And it is exhausting. It is exhausting to be told that your humanities course is ‘girly’ and therefore ‘easy’, it is exhausting to be told you only got onto your STEM degree because ‘you’re a girl’. It is exhausting to be a prude if you cover up, but a slut if you don’t. It is exhausting to see yet another bright, brilliant, talented woman heckled for her clothing choice and for her achievements to be neglected for the sake of commenting on how much leg or chest she may have decided to show.

Enough is enough, I am exhausted of this very exhaustion. And so I embrace Eilish’s own words:  “Do whatever you want, whenever you want. F**k everything else.”

Artwork by Aleksandra Pluta.

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