To come of age as a woman, too often, is to learn that your body speaks for you.
Maybe it starts with a holiday—you show up at Thanksgiving and a relative tenderly asks if you’re “OK” because you’ve gained weight without realizing it. Maybe it’s a headline touting the way some hot celebrity is “flaunting” a curve or “showcasing” their tight ass by simply existing in corporeal form. Or maybe you just read another story gushing about how happy and healthy a celebrity looks—now that she’s lost 30 pounds.
Regardless of how one discovers it, the lesson remains the same: Women’s bodies do not belong to us, but to those who will use them to make assumptions about our wellbeing, our character, our dispositions. It’s a dilemma that befalls all of us. More addicting than crossword puzzles or sudoku, women’s flesh and bones become physical ciphers to be parsed and commodified by whoever sees fit. And as illustrated by Megan Thee Stallion’s New York Times op-ed and video, the issue becomes twofold for women of color.
Billie Eilish knows this better than anyone. From the start of her career the singer has swathed her body in baggy clothes—a sartorial choice often framed as a form of defiance. In a short film earlier this year titled “Not My Responsibility,” she narrated footage of herself shedding layers of clothing with spoken word.
“You have opinions—about my opinions, about my music, about my clothes, about my body,” Eilish says in the video, which she debuted on tour earlier this year. “Some people hate what I wear, some people praise it, some people use it to shame others, some people use it to shame me, but I feel you watching—always—and nothing I do goes unseen. So while I feel your stares, your disapproval or your sigh of relief, if I lived by them, I’d never be able to move.”
But the public’s fixation on Eilish’s body remains relentless—as evidenced by the fact that her choice earlier this week to go outside in a camisole and shorts has somehow become news. (Again.) People apparently incapable of cultivating legitimate hobbies have ridiculed her. (As one vile Twitter user wrote, “in 10 months Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30’s wine mom body.”) Meanwhile tabloids like the Daily Mail—which frequently commodifies women’s bodies in exchange for traffic—used her “uncharacteristically casual attire” as an excuse to give the public what it really wanted all along: photos of Eilish in tight-fitting clothes. Page Six went a creepy step further, running a gallery of images titled, “Every time Billie Eilish ditched her baggy outfits for tight clothes.”
These reactions prove Eilish’s point: No matter what she does, the obsession never stops. (“My boobs were trending on Twitter!” she told Elle last year after another photo of her in “casual attire” went viral when she was still 17 years old. “At number one! What is that?! Every outlet wrote about my boobs!”)
Eilish has already reacted to the public’s latest freak-out over her existence as a physical being as well. On Tuesday, she posted a still from her short video on Instagram, captioning it, “do you really wanna go back in time?”
It’s encouraging to see that Eilish seems pretty unbothered by all this. But it’s equally enraging to realize that a singer who only last winter turned 18 has been forced to confront these issues so often—and that even as she reclaims the discussion around her body and fashion choices, the public keeps having the same stupid, predictable discussions.
Although Eilish’s baggy brand has been characterized as rebellion, it began as something more commonplace: insecurity.
Speaking with Dazed this spring, Eilish explained the origins of her style with characteristic bluntness: “The only reason I did it was ’cos I hated my body.”
Eilish told the magazine that at some points, she’s avoided looking at her own body for long periods of time—a kind of disassociation familiar to many, including her young fans. “There was a point last year where I was naked and I didn’t recognize my body ’cos I hadn’t seen it in a while,” she said. “I would see it sometimes and be like, ‘Whose body is that?’”
These days, Eilish said, her body image has somewhat improved. (“It’s not that I like (my body) now, I just think I’m a bit more OK with it,” she said.) But now, she noted, people’s harsh reactions whenever she branches out from her usual attire leave her in something of a Catch-22. “Like, dude. I can’t win,” she said. “I can-not win.”
“Eilish told the magazine that at some points, she’s avoided looking at her own body for long periods of time—a kind of disassociation familiar to many, including her young fans.”
It doesn’t help that Eilish’s style has often been discussed with an undercurrent of slut-shaming toward other artists. Speaking last year with Pharrell Williams for V Magazine, Eilish noted that she’s been praised by some for avoiding traditionally feminine clothing—and, by extension, rejecting the sexual provocativeness embraced by some of her pop contemporaries. She doesn’t like that at all, either.
“I wear what I want to wear,” Eilish said. “But of course, everyone sees it as, ‘She’s saying no to being sexualized,’ and, ‘She’s saying no to being the stereotypical female.’”
“It’s a weird thing because I know a lot of what I hear is a positive or people trying to be positive about how I dress; how I am never really out there wearing nothing, or wearing dresses,” Eilish continued. “I’ve heard that. [Even] from my parents, [the] positive [comments] about how I dress have this slut-shaming element. Like, ‘I am so glad that you are dressing like a boy, so that other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts.’ That’s basically what it sounds like to me. And I can’t [overstate how] strongly I do not appreciate that, at all.”
“Like, ‘I am so glad that you are dressing like a boy, so that other girls can dress like boys, so that they aren’t sluts.’ That’s basically what it sounds like to me. And I can’t [overstate how] strongly I do not appreciate that, at all.”
“I have always supported and fucked with and just loved when a woman or a man or anyone in the world feels comfortable in their skin, their body, to show just whatever they want,” Eilish concluded. “I don’t like that there’s this weird new world of supporting me by shaming people that [may not] want to [dress like me].”
As Eilish made clear, her fashion choices should not be used to define or judge others. But that would require the public to treat her body as her own, rather than as a symbolic commodity of the public domain. And as our apparent inability to see a photo of her in a camisole and move on without comment has underscored, this is not the case.
So far in her career Eilish has managed to do her thing without worrying too much about what critics and idiots online might say. Hopefully she holds on to that sense of self-possession. But it’s a strength she never should have needed to develop in the first place. At some point, it would be nice if we could all just learn, absorb, and embrace a simple truth: Unless it’s your body, you really don’t need to comment. You don’t need to form an opinion. It’s not your concern. It’s none of your fucking business.
In the meantime, let us all be grateful for this green-haired singer’s dedication to dressing however the hell she wants—even when twerps on the internet don’t know what to do with it.
“Sometimes I dress like a boy,” Eilish told British GQ this summer. “Sometimes I dress like a swaggy girl. And sometimes I feel trapped by this persona that I have created, because sometimes I think people view me not as a woman.”
That, she said, was what her tour video was meant to combat. “It is me saying: look, there is a body underneath these clothes and you don’t get to see it. Isn’t that a shame? But my body is mine and yours is yours. Our own bodies are kind of the only real things which are truly ours. I get to see it and get to show it when I want to.”