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Why I feel so conflicted about Billie Eilish’s Vogue cover shoot

‘I love these photos and I loved this shoot. Do whatever you want whenever you want,’ the 19-year-old star wrote on Instagram. That’s a great message — but we should also be honest about the context

Jennifer Stavros
New York
Thursday 06 May 2021 18:09 BST
Eilish appeared on the fashion magazine’s cover with newly dyed blonde hair, in lingerie
Eilish appeared on the fashion magazine’s cover with newly dyed blonde hair, in lingerie (Billie Eilish)
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Billie Eilish graced her first British Vogue cover this week. It sparked a number of varied reactions — some of which Eilish herself certainly couldn’t have predicted. 

Few of us have forgotten the Britney Spears documentary Framing Britney Spears earlier this year, nor the #FreeBritney movement that helped spawn it. A slew of investigative features, both in print and onscreen, followed Framing, and each portrayed an industry obsessed with getting young women undressed for the cameras. Pop stars and actors spoke out about being pressured to look a certain way from their teenage years onwards. Matilda actor Mara Wilson penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “The lies Hollywood tells about little girls” in response to the Spears documentary, writing: “I never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress,” she wrote. “This was all intentional: My parents thought I would be safer that way. But it didn’t work. People had been asking me, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ in interviews since I was six. Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute.”

Growing up in the Britney Spears era — or perhaps more accurately, the era of the men surrounding Spears — my teenage years were defined by a push toward hypersexuality. Young girls were expected to be “all grown up” and to photoshoots that proved it. Though it is of a different era and somewhat of a different style, the Eilish photoshoot proves we haven’t escaped that era entirely.

Yet, as much as the mother I am might take pause with this confronting new version of Eilish, it would be intellectually dishonest not to remind myself of how things were when I was an alternative-dressing awkward teenager. Getting comfortable in our own skin is a battle, and Eilish is not immune from it. Indeed, she is growing up in the limelight, so that struggle may well be amplified. She is expected to do her growing up and to do it fast, to settle on a “look” and stick with it, and to know exactly who she is. At the end of the day, she’s just a 19-year-old.

When I was a teen, I also found myself enamored with pinups — which is why the pinup-style Eilish shoot spoke to me on a number of levels. There is something about the pinup look that still feels satisfyingly alternative to the quirky teen but also feels a bit more, well, grown-up. It also comes with a slew of undeniable validation points. There is, of course, a huge difference between how people react to you when you’re dressed in an old-fashioned, glamorous style evoking Marilyn Monroe and when you’re dressed alternatively, in the codified uniform of a rebelling teen. It isn’t just about being sexual; it’s about being taken seriously as an adult is a world that keeps telling you you’re a child.

Folks have to remember that Eilish covered her body entirely for a long time. She wore hoodies and fashions which specifically did not show skin. She did not rush to take her clothes off, even if the pressure was there (and we can’t, of course, know or guarantee that it was). On her Instagram, she addressed the controversy surrounding her Vogue shoot directly, writing: “I love these pictures and I loved doing this shoot. Do whatever you want whenever you want. F**k everything else.” I’d say that’s fair enough.

The shedding of these forms of drapery were more than just clothes. They were milestones in Eilish’s journey. Are we seeing her final form now? I doubt it. There’s evidence that she’s going through a lot of changes right now and interrogating a lot of her previous positions: The shoot revealed her thigh tattoo, for instance, one that she had previously mentioned but told the public they would “never see”.

It is interesting to consider what might have happened had Eilish been a young woman of color in the same situation. When young duo Chloe and Halle Bailey graced the cover of Cosmo last year, they were covered up (though photos inside the magazine showed them in swimwear.) It is important to note that young Black women especially have to handle social perceptions of them as much more adult — and more sexualized — than their white counterparts. Magazines may feel comfortable putting a lingerie-clad Billie Eilish up front, but less common are mainstream publications which will do the same with Black women. 

Eilish’s cover is a strange space where “taboo” meets conventional. It’s an uncomfortable space when it should be a comfortable coming-of-age space. If you, like me, find yourself conflicted by it, I urge you to ask yourself: Why might this cover engender feelings of frustration? Why might it engender feelings of joy? Can we bring ourselves to entertain both, with the context of both industry ideals and the personal, individual journey of one very talented 19-year-old woman?As a mom who grew up flipping between both of these styles, I urge folks to use this moment for some difficult and honest conversations. Was this cover a safe move for Eilish during this time of growing up? Was her choice to go in another direction entirely her own? Could it possibly have been a bit of both or none of it at all? 

This is Eilish’s journey and we are just here to watch how it unfolds. Let’s elevate our young women and not tear them apart for navigating such difficult territory. And let’s not forget that we were once all awkward teens figuring out how we wanted to express ourselves too.

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