The objectification of Billie Eilish: Hypersexualization of teen star reveals the dark side of fame
A Gen Y kid, Eilish is well aware of how female stars are sexualized and this is why she shrouded herself in baggy clothes and an androgynous look to protect herself
Madonna was 26 when 'Like a Virgin' released — a grown woman who played the 'sex sells' card to cement her brand. It was a power statement designed to shock the establishment and create (what was then) taboo sexual iconography around the female body. In the boundary-breaking excesses of the 1980s, it was a smart marketing move.
Cut to 1999. Britney Spears, at only 18, paired interviews about how she was a virgin with hypersexualized videos, starting with her in a fetishistic Catholic schoolgirl uniform. Spears kickstarted an era where 'jailbait' — young girls, just out of their teens — were systematically sexualized to sell albums.
The hip hop industry, of course, has a long history of objectifying women in videos that led to artists like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B using this objectification to beef up their appeal among the genre's audience. Combined with the Spears effect, it became de rigueur for young female pop artists to show skin, titillate, and perform dance routines that mimicked strip club routines. Hypersexualization became an instant ticket to fame with artists like Miley Cyrus 'breaking bad' with raunchy performances to transition into her 'adult' career after being the public eye as a child artist.
But even as female artists go 'mainstream', reaching out to a larger demographic than their earlier tween and pre-teen audience, by sexing it up, the hypersexualization trope has become a prison in and of itself for female musicians. Now, every female pop artist is expected to put their body up for display to sell records and stay relevant. It is all part of the "biz". As a result, seasoned artists like Sia and Lady Gaga have brought in performative elements to their appearances and shows to blunt the impact of this hunger for sexualization by offering distracting spectacles.
It is in the current toxic music industry that profits from sexualized images of "just legal" young pop stars that Billie Eilish debuted with the track 'Ocean Eyes' when she was just 14. A child of the internet and a Gen Y kid, Eilish is well aware of how female stars are sexualized, even when they are young. So, she consciously shrouded herself in baggy clothes and a distinctly androgynous look to protect herself. In an interview with Gayle King for CBS, Billie admitted that like a lot of teens, she first started covering up when she was 14 because of her relationship with her body. "Me and my body's relationship has been the most toxic relationship you could even imagine," she explained. "The way that I dress has made that relationship so much better. It's less about 'My body is ugly, I don't want you to see it'. It's more about, 'I'm not comfortable wearing this, I'm comfortable wearing this.'"
She opened up more in the #MyCalvins 'I Speak My Truth' campaign, saying: "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 see what's underneath... you know? Nobody can be like 'oh, she's slim thick. She's not slim thick. She got a flat ass. She's got a fat ass.' No one can say any of that because they don't know."
Her fears are real. Earlier in 2019, when she stepped out in a white tank top that showed her cleavage, there was a barrage of lewd comments about her chest. In an interview, she raged about the Catch 22 situation she was in.
"My boobs were trending on Twitter! At number one! What is that?! Every outlet wrote about my boobs!" As she turns 18, Billie has been contemplating a change of style as she steps into adulthood. In the interview, she said: "I'm gonna be a woman. I wanna show my body. What if I wanna make a video where I wanna look desirable? Not a porno! But I know it would be a huge thing. I know people will say, 'I've lost all respect for her.' I can't win!"
And this is precisely the problem. Madonna had a choice when she crooned 'Like a Virgin' about setting up a narrative that she owned fully and profited from and at an age when she could be comfortable being sexy. But in the current environment of sexualizing young girls, Billie is inherently vulnerable as a female artist. She has no control over the narrative that will be built around her no matter how popular an artist she is or how much talent she has.
A taste of things to come is the reaction to her vacay pics in a bikini doing absolutely normal activities. But since her body has not been on view, these images have led to headlines objectifying her and a barrage of trolls on social media commenting on her body. There is toxic-level scrutiny of female bodies in the current pop culture scene, including young stars, which is utterly horrifying. It is why there is a spike of self-hating and body shaming among Gen Z girls who go on to have "toxic" relationships with their bodies just like Eilish. Isn't it time we course-corrected?