Content warning: This story contains language that pertains to sexual assault.
“If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut,” Billie Eilish proclaimed to an audience of entranced fans. “Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it. Why?”
While no other 19-year-old has won seven Grammys, nearly every teenage girl is all too familiar with Billie’s sentiment. It doesn’t matter whether you have 200 Instagram followers or 87 million; pervasive judgment based on appearance is inescapable.
Since the age of 16, Billie Eilish has starred in the public eye. Her haunting yet ethereal voice in her first single,“Ocean Eyes,” captivated audiences and instantly earned her a spot on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for 11 weeks. Since then, Billie has risen to the peak of fame, recording 28 singles, releasing three albums and speaking candidly about mental health. She amassed a net worth of over $50 million, accepted a 2019 Women of the Year award and won countless awards for her music.
Billie Eilish became a household name around the world before she could drive. Yet, the first articles that come up when I Googled her a few weeks ago were titled “Billie Eilish Slams Sexist and Gross News Headline” and “Billie Eilish Claps Back At Critics Who Slammed Her Recent Transformation.” These headlines initiated a long list of other articles about the singer’s defenses against slut and body shamers.
Initially, Billie’s brand centered around her physical appearance as much as her music. She rejected patriarchal pressures to look in a typically feminine way. The natural blonde often sported a choppy, neon-dyed haircut. While other female artists attended the 2020 Grammys in designer-brand, figure-hugging gowns, Billie dressed in what can only be described as an expensive-looking tracksuit that could’ve been a hand-me-down from a former Italian mobster.
Don’t get me wrong: she rocked the look and her fan base adored it. But the get-up was never meant to elicit a reaction from the public. Billie revealed in numerous interviews that she was never trying to make a statement with her attire; she was simply trying to shield her body from the world’s prying eyes.
The internet took her loose clothing as an open invitation to speculate about what Billie might be protecting under her layers of XXL sweatshirts. Creeps hiding behind fake usernames did so in the most vulgar ways imaginable.
On December 18, 2020 — Billie’s 19th birthday — a random person going by the name of Hepatitis released a track titled “Happy Birthday Billie Eilish” on YouTube and Spotify. The song graphically explained the perverted actions Hepatitis wanted to force on Billie now that she was over the age of 18. The repulsive lyrics included, but weren’t limited to:
“You’re 18, now send me nude pics.”
“I see your tits, how ‘bout you have my kids?”
Before YouTube removed the track for violating the streaming platform’s policies against sexual content, listeners streamed the song over 64,000 times.
After the physically nauseating episode, Billie recognized that despite her efforts to divert attention from her looks, the public’s fixation with her appearance would always precede the gravity of her accomplishments and the depth of her character. With that in mind, she took advantage of the obsession with her body and used the attention to make a statement.
On April 29, Billie Eilish released “Your Power,” a delicate yet cutting single that she described as an “open letter to people who take advantage.” The song breaks from the techno, grungy style of her previous album — “When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go” — with a stripped-down ballad featuring a mellow, melodic guitar and stunning vocals.
The track’s depth was personal to the singer. In an interview with Vogue days after the song’s release, Billie revealed that she, like countless other young women, was a victim of sexual abuse.
That same day, Billie stunned the world by posting images from a jaw-dropping photoshoot with Vogue on her Instagram account.
The pop star with baggy clothes and shaggy neon hair was gone, and in her place was a Marilyn Monroe-esque blonde bombshell dressed in corsets and lingerie that fit like a glove. The photos exuded confidence; it was an inspiring look for the young singer who has spoken at length about her struggles with self-appreciation.
Of course, the internet saw a woman finding her confidence and decided to tear her apart. Fans and haters alike had plenty to say about her new look. Members of her fanbase claimed that she “sold out” and lost the unique edge that they believed gave the singer her appeal. Other commentators said they “lost all respect for her.” As always, there were also slut shamers who couldn’t stand to watch a woman show her body as a means of empowerment.
The media and internet fetishized, disrespected and abused Billie’s body before she even let the world see it. A woman’s clothes have no correlation to sexual assault. The only people who have control over assaults are the people who commit them. Billie’s song release, interview and photoshoot amplified this message — their collective timing was no coincidence.
There is power in defying social norms, and there is power in conforming. There is power in silently fighting your battles, and there is power in speaking out. There is power in honoring your boundaries, and there is power in stepping out of your comfort zone. That is Billie’s message.
That is her power.