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Why Billie Eilish Taking Off Her Shirt Is a Powerful Statement on Women in Music Today
What Billie Eilish wears has been as much a subject of fascination as her music since she uploaded the napalm-soaked ballad “ocean eyes” to Soundcloud back in 2015. Draped in oversized t-shirts paired with baggy basketball shorts and sweats, she was a new kind of popstar, one willing and able to buck the music machine’s notorious penchant for sexualizing their young—often underage, at least during their early careers—female talent. (Think Britney, Lana, Rihanna, not to mention the many, many generations that preceded them.)
As the singer’s profile has risen, the only change to her wardrobe has been towards more prestige logos as Fendi, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, who have all rushed to make her custom shawls, ponchos, and cloaks. But the revolution was, for the most part, unintentional for Eilish—at least at the start of her career. The 18-year-old has maintained that the way she dresses is simply that, the way she likes the dress. But increased scrutiny has awakened her to the reality that all women eventually stare down: to act, at all, in defiance of or in conformity to the general standards, is inherently political.
Now, after several years spent on the receiving end of compliments, insults, think pieces, interview questions and Instagram comments, Eilish is ready to make speaking out against the double-standard part of her work. She brought the conversation to the stage at her tour kickoff in Miami in a pre-recorded video that sees her disrobe from a heavy sweatshirt down to a bra while railing—in her classic monotone delivery—against unfair social strictures.
Wrapped in Gucci, Eilish holds up proof of her 2019 Grammy’s sweep.
Rachel LunaGetty Images
The evolution has been slow-building. In a Calvin Klein ad from last year, Eilish proudly declared that, in terms of her body, “Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath. Nobody can be like, ‘she’s slim-thick,’ ‘she’s not slim-thick,’ ‘she’s got a flat ass,’ ‘she’s got a fat ass.’ No one can say any of that because they don’t know.”
People still had opinions.
Not just on her body, but on her approach to showing it off, or keeping it hidden. Last September, she captioned an Instagram of her wearing a graffiti-printed T-shirt and sweatpants from her collaboration with streetwear brand Freak City, with the retort she receives the most: “if only I dressed normal I’d be so much hotter yea yea come up with a better comment I’m tired of that one,” she wrote, sarcastically.
In a 2019 interview with Elle, she recalled the day last summer when she left the tour bus wearing a tank top. “My boobs were trending on Twitter!” she remembered. “At number one! What is that?! Every outlet wrote about my boobs!” She was still a minor at the time and, as the piece also notes, even CNN wrote a story about her boobs.
The compliments she received, she felt, were also backhanded. In a V Magazine interview with Pharrell Williams last summer she remarked, “[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.”
She echoed the sentiment to Elle, as well. “The point is not: Hey, let’s go slut-shame all these girls for not dressing like Billie Eilish,” she said. “It makes me mad. I have to wear a big shirt for you not to feel uncomfortable about my boobs!”
On Monday night in Miami, prior to performing “all the good girls go to hell,” off last year’s behemoth When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? LP, at the opening of her Where Do We Go? World Tour, she appeared in a video interlude where she discussed the double standard she can’t escape. “You have opinions,” her intoning began, “about my opinion, about my music, about my clothes, about my body.” Onscreen, she began removing layers of clothing. “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.”
Her voiceover continued: “The body I was born with, is it not what you wanted? If what I wear is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I am a slut … If I wear more, if I wear less, who decides what that makes me? What that means? Is my value based only on your perception? Or is your opinion of me not my responsibility?”
Reading it, and seeing the fan videos, feels transgressive, rebellious. But Eilish has fervently maintained that she’s not a provocateur. In that same V Magazine interview, she explained, “I don’t say, ‘Oh, I am going to wear baggy clothes because it’s baggy clothes.’ It’s never like that. It’s more, just, I wear what I want to wear. But of course, everyone sees it as, ‘She’s saying no to being sexualized,’ and, ‘She’s saying no to being the stereotypical female.'”
“Maybe people see me as a rule-breaker because they themselves feel like they have to follow rules, and here I am not doing it,” she surmised, speaking to Vogue, earlier this year. “That’s great, if I can make someone feel more free to do what they actually want to do instead of what they are expected to do. But for me, I never realized that I was expected to do anything. I guess that’s what is actually going on—that I never knew there was a thing I had to follow. Nobody told me that shit, so I did what I wanted.”
There’s a hope that comes in realizing she’s telling the truth. You see, it’s only open rebellion to those of us who came before her, those who lived through the maddening, worrying Is Britney Spears a Virgin? press cycle. (Which occurred, yes, while the star was very much still a teenager.) Those of us who knew that for Lana Del Rey to launch her macabre lyrics into the mainstream, she had to dress them up in bombshell trappings. Those of us non-popstars who have simply had to exist as a woman in pursuit of, well, anything.
You wonder, from time to time, if we’ve progressed at all. For me, Eilish and her fans (who screamed in support of her at the Miami show) are proof that the culture has moved. The album sales, Grammys, and 60 million Instagram followers are proof of this, too. Eilish’s revolution is the new norm, her fans already know this. For them, a baggie Tee is a baggie Tee. They’ll take their popstars however they choose to come.
Madison Vain is a writer and editor living in New York, covering music, books, TV, and movies; prior to Esquire, she worked at Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.