Breaking the internet these days is fairly commonplace. Kim Kardashian’s famous derriere and other selfies hold records for achieving this feat. However, music sensation Billie Eilish sent the internet into meltdown this week with the release of her British Vogue cover. The world was beyond shook by such a great mystery unravelled.
Posing in a designer corset, with a “classic, old-timey pin-up” look, the now-blonde Eilish planned her “coming out” down to the letter, a radical pivot from her signature baggy clothes and intense neon look.
The cover, which received a million likes on Instagram in a record-breaking six minutes and became the third most-liked post on the platform, ever, within two days, was just a launchpad. Eilish’s intentions were far deeper, more personal and widely inspirational.
She wanted the world to look at its reflection and see that it was not all Instagramable. Certainly not when the music industry and media continue to hypersexualise, objectify and commodify young women with great impunity.
In Hollywood, marketing teams dictate career arcs for young female stars, which often involve showing off their bodies, and their journeys into adulthood are never their own. Turning 18 is said to be the worst thing in the industry as female stars are then considered “legal” and free to be exploited without worry.
Eilish, however, raged against the machine, and created a movement that fuelled a body-positivity narrative. Owning the decision to pose on the cover of Vogue, the singer, in her accompanying interview, reflected on her decision to embrace her sexuality on her terms, in her chosen time.
While millions were singing her praises, a flood of others were slut-shaming her to the point where online battles raged between fans and detractors.
In a moment of brilliant foreshadowing, Eilish said: “Suddenly you’re a hypocrite if you want to show your skin, and you’re easy and you’re a slut and you’re a whore. If I am, then I’m proud. Me and all the girls are hoes, and f**k it, y’know? Let’s turn it around and be empowered in that. Showing your body and showing your skin – or not – should not take any respect away from you.”
The cover also kicked off Eilish’s new single “Your Power”, which confronts abusers who exploit underage girls. This was a burning issue for Eilish, who was also a victim of abuse as a child.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, what your life is, your situation, who you surround yourself with, how strong you are, how smart you are,” she said. “You can always be taken advantage of. That’s a big problem in the world of domestic abuse or statutory rape.”
Eilish’s comments have sparked renewed conversation about the hypersexualisation of minors in the music industry, with critics citing examples such as Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
These singers, who started as Disney stars, were forced to make the “child to woman” transition under the glare of the media and ended up having very public breakdowns.
Cyrus, who battled substance abuse demons, said it was only in the past year that she had got to grips with the impact of the constant scrutiny and criticism of her body and appearance that she endured as a child star.
“I think I knew who I was meant to be, but I’m sure there’s something in there. Some trauma of feeling so criticised, I think, for what I felt was pretty average teenage exploration,’ she said.
Cyrus added that at one point, she was being sexualised at just 16.
Spears was given a song to sing, 'I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman', written by two grown men, when she was a teenager. What exactly was the message there? In ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, she was styled as a sexy schoolgirl and at 17, Rolling Stone magazine saw fit to portray her in her underwear writhing on silk sheets.
In South Africa, we had the likes of Lebo Mathosa, who started off as a teenage sensation with Boom Shaka in the 90s. She was also a hypersexualised star from a young age – and her life trajectory was tragic.
As there is a long list of examples of women who have suffered this kind of abuse, there is a growing list of celebrities who are fighting against it – Taylor Swift and Zendaya are among the most vocal.
Billie Eilish stands out among them. She reinforces the message that women own their sexuality and should never have to make excuses for it, or be put in a position where they have to defend it.
She is a shining example of how women can take control of their own narrative in a world ripe for change.