By Larisha Paul
At a certain point, Billie Eilish made a decision about how she wanted to present herself to the world. Since her first release at age 14, she’s been candid about her choice to wear baggy, oversized clothing so as to not be oversexualized to the point of her body detracting from her talent. She was commended for making such a mature decision at such a young age; then, at 19, she changed her mind. Updating her image accordingly, Eilish modeled a classic Hollywood-style corset and latex skirt on the cover of British Vogue’s June 2021 issue. Both choices were validated by the same self-assurance when she made them, yet the one in which she wrangled back her autonomy was met with far more criticism.
What was quickly received as a pop artist sexualizing herself for the sake of selling records — Eilish’s sophomore album Happier Than Ever arrived July 30 — was actually just a young woman exploring her identity and coming of age. “It’s about taking that power back, showing it off and not taking advantage with it,” Eilish told British Vogue. “I’m not letting myself be owned anymore.” The catch is, like many other women in pop, she had no choice but to do so in front of millions. Regarded as the voice of Gen Z, with an Instagram following of over 88 million, Eilish has had to share herself with a public audience that feels entitled to opinions on her body while the world waits to see how she wields her newfound power of influence. But this decision was her own.
“It’s part of a broader system whereby young women’s behaviors and appearances are policed both internally and externally much worse than young men,” Dr. Abigail Gardner, author of Rock On: Women, Ageing and Popular Music, tells MTV News. “There’s something about the non-white male, where all but that particular body is policed over and over again by itself and by others because of the threat that it poses to white patriarchy.” As white male pop artists are mostly allowed the space and opportunity to grow, change, and learn as they age into and through adulthood — think Justin Bieber appropriating dreadlocks as recently as May while benefiting from having two Black artists on his latest single “Peaches” — their non-male counterparts aren’t extended the same grace. Left to navigate the entitlement of parasocial relationships and the weight of societal expectations, when are young women in pop allowed to grow up?
When Lorde revealed the artwork for her upcoming album Solar Power, which pictures the 24-year-old musician leaping over the camera in a yellow bikini bottom, similar comments were made about women in music having to commodify their bodies to sell their music. And like Eilish, pop and R&B duo Chloe x Halle’s Chloe Bailey, 23, has been embracing her body and confidence in a public-facing way, given the nature of her career, only to be shamed in return. “It’s that sense of exploration, and exploration of female desire, which is discomforting for a predominantly patriarchal society to sit comfortably with, especially if it’s not in charge of it,” Gardner says. The idea that these women could be making decisions for themselves that aren’t a direct response to any external influences causes a sense of dissonance for some as it renders their unsolicited opinions meritless.
The accusations of oversexualization surrounding Bailey, who launched her career as a child actress and musician in the early 2000s, are examples of unfortunately common responses to overt confidence shown by Black women. She had posted photos in leotards not unlike what she would be wearing onstage: skin-tight pants, mini dresses, and skirts with thigh-high slits. In a viral tweet, one Twitter user wrote: “Unpopular opinion: Chloe Bailey is forcing her sex appeal.” On an Instagram Live in February, following similar comments, a teary-eyed Bailey said, “It's really hard for me to think of myself as a sexual being or an attractive being, quite frankly. So, when I see all the uproar about my posts and stuff, I'm a bit confused. Like, I really don't understand because I've never seen myself in that way.”
“It’s her stepping out into her own as a woman and everyone telling her, ‘Stop, go back to what you were as a child, as someone with less agency –– as someone that we can tell what to do,’” says Danyel Smith, veteran journalist and host of the Spotify original podcast series Black Girl Songbook. “It’s very difficult because, at least until recently, we’ve had so few Black women in these major pop spaces that when young Black women wanted to assert their sexuality, their true personalities, their body, so often they were and are shamed for it.”
Women’s physical appearances are debated and dissected whether they choose to be covered or uncovered because, ultimately, it isn’t about choice. It’s about control. “The really young female pop stars that are out there at the moment, like Dua Lipa and Lizzo, they’re setting out different versions of how to be young, female and in control of their image,” Gardner says. Olivia Rodrigo, 18, was praised for validating even the most bitter emotions on her debut album, Sour, singing, “I know their beauty's not my lack / But it feels like that weight is on my back” on “Jealousy, Jealousy” and landing two No. 1 singles that examine heartbreak and anger. This ideology of female pop artists dictating the presentation of their mind, body, and desirability shows primarily through their music. But as their lives are made increasingly public, it’s not enough to only have control for the duration of a three-and-a-half-minute song.
“They were telling us to sing about being independent women and to sing about being stronger. We saw them being successful. We were sold their girl power,” Shelby Chargin, founder of inclusivity-based nonprofit Girls Behind the Rock Show, says of women in pop. “Then, all of a sudden, we came to this realization that not even they have control, so how do I have control?” It’s a harrowing realization intensified as the news cycle follows Britney Spears through her legal battle to end the conservatorship she was placed under 13 years ago. Now 39, the pop luminary has had to tour and release music for years while her day-to-day life, including decisions about her finances and health, have been controlled by a team appointed to her without consent. She has only recently been able to publicly speak on the conservatorship, calling it “abusive.”
“With Britney, what we watched was her fighting to be an adult. She was fighting for privacy and freedom, and it literally got her jailed, essentially,” Chargin says. “Becoming a woman in pop is much more about taking the narrative than what anybody else says. You are the only person who can own that.” For modern pop stars, regaining authority of how they choose to be presented is largely aided by social media platforms where they can craft a carefully curated public-facing image. While pop artists have more power in this sense, the one-sided relationships built by fans through these interactions can be harmful in their own right as fandoms attempt to establish ownership.
“The exposure that we have to seeing an Instagram live or always having access to them on Twitter strengthens that ownership factor more because you feel like you know them in real life,” says 22-year-old Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat fan Ekene Ifedi. “That’s mixing with classic misogyny and classic misogynoir and making this really caustic form of being a fan of something.” Recently, Eilish was accused of queerbaiting after sharing the slumber party-themed “Lost Cause” music video. Subsequently, fans flooded the comments of her Instagram posts demanding clarification of her sexuality.
“Her close bond with us makes some of them think they’re close with her and have the right to know everything about her when at the end of the day, she’s just a celebrity,” says Eilish fan Tiana Smith, 18. “She's just a teenager. She's trying out a lot of new things. She has the same right to change and grow as every other human does.” Still, some fans threatened to unstan the singer, ripping her posters from their walls and selling their tickets to her tour.
“People want to remember you in the way that they found you and for the reason they connected with you,” says journalist Ray Sang. “You grow up, and the things that initially connected with you start to change and send everyone into panic mode.” It’s an age-old pop phenomenon: Young female artists have an era of drastic change as an indicator that they’ve grown up. For 21-year-old Christina Aguilera, it was the sexual liberation of Stripped lead by “Dirrrty”; 19-year-old Rihanna saw an edgier rebranding with Good Girl Gone Bad, while Ariana Grande shifted the narrative at 23 on Dangerous Woman. As women in pop with largely impressionable and young audiences, they tread the line of making clear statements about their maturity without going too far. Even when they’re allowed to grow up, there’s an expectation of a right and wrong way to do so.
“We’ve developed these systems in media cultures where we have this escalator of pop idols and pop icons and role models,” Gardner explains. “And they go up this specific step that they’re supposed to go up. And then, like Miley Cyrus, they fall off and then they get onto a wrecking ball and it all goes horribly wrong.” In the case of Cyrus, her Bangerz era functioned as a complete severing of all ties with Disney, where her audience first came to know her. The singer, then 20, was criticized for lifting from Black culture during the album’s promotional cycle but even more so for twerking on 36-year-old Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs. As artists are held accountable for their actions, it's essential that the gender dynamics expecting women to naturally be more mature not block this from happening equally.
Women in pop are often expected to ease into adulthood more gradually and gracefully than men, with little to no missteps along the way. Usually, it happens through multiple album eras because it’s less noticeable. This was the route taken by Taylor Swift, who didn’t use profanity in her music until her eighth album, Folklore. Swift is currently in the process of re-recording her first six albums to gain ownership over her master recordings, asserting control in her own way. Now in her thirties, the singer is revisiting the music she wrote and recorded as a young teenager, starkly laying out the transformations she’s undergone in the time since. “I have to understand the maturity and changes that Taylor has gone through since she was literally singing these songs when she was 15,” says Swift fan Ava Hinz, 18, who initially found herself drawn to the youth and familiarity of the original recordings. “The fact that I wanted her to be younger and chose that over admiring her growth and what she’s learned over the years made me take a step back.”
As music fans learn to update their own perceptions of their favorite artists, with an understanding that young women in pop bear no obligation to remain static for the sake of their audience as they grow up, the power in how these women are received is transitioned back to them. “I think where we go from here is we look at young women as transient human beings and not objects to be manipulated and puppeteered,” Chargin says. “They have to be supported and cultivated.” They have to be in control.