Earlier this week, images of a new Billie Eilish emerged, and controversy ensued—or did it? The New York Times, in particular, is taking some heat for its “paper thin” reporting on supposed backlash to the fashion spread taken for the June 2021 issue of British Vogue, which shows the 19-year-old singer in latex, lingerie, and corsetry, as opposed to her signature baggy, androgynous apparel. “The New York Times published an article about how some people don’t like that Billie Eilish Vogue cover. And the entire thing hinges on one person (bot?) who didn’t like it,” Vice News correspondent Roberto Aram Ferdman observed, “a Twitter user with 3 followers who joined the platform in December and has only tweeted in English once.”
A search of the star’s name on social media reveals overwhelming support for the British Vogue images since their online debut, both via the magazine and Eilish herself. The photos earned Eilish two new milestones on Instagram: Her upload of the cover became the fastest post on the platform to reach 1 million likes (it took just five minutes), and she subsequently became the first Instagram user to have six posts in the platform’s top 20 most-liked posts. The cover and corresponding fashion spread were designed to spark discussion, but, overwhelmingly, fans seem to be excited by a new refraction of the Billie persona.
The singer has spent all of her teen years in the public eye, beginning with the release of her 2016 viral breakout track “Ocean Eyes” when she was just 13. And despite dying her hair from blond to teal to black with slime green roots, the singer’s look has remained relatively static: oversize, casual, streetwear-influenced, and genderless. At 19, with half a decade in the public eye and a new album to promote, it makes sense that Eilish would be eager to play with her style, and that the fan base who has grown up with her would be animated by something radically different from the star.
The photos show the artist with a halo of blond hair in soft curls wearing shades of rose and champagne. Her figure is revealed, flesh is bared, glamour is embraced. The shoot was her idea, the Vogue profile informs, with inspiration coming from pin-up model Betty Brosmer and fetish photographer Elmer Batters. “I’ve literally never done anything in this realm at all,” Eilish says in the piece, “besides when I’m alone and shit.”
The oversize clothes she’s known for have been, in part, a defense mechanism for the teenager. She’s been open about this. “I wear big, baggy clothes [so] nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath,” she said in a 2019 ad for Calvin Klein. In a video interlude that played at the kickoff of her 2020 world tour (cut short by COVID-19), she slowly unzips a hoodie and pulls a tank top over her head, while voiceover plays, challenging onlookers: “If what I wear is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I am a slut. Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it and judge me for it. Why?”
The media has unwittingly cast Eilish as a “good role model” for not baring her body and heralded her as a symbol of “body positivity” in the few instances she’s been seen on social media or by paparazzi in something as innocuous as a tank top. This frustrates Eilish, who says in the Vogue piece, “It made me really offended when people were like, ‘Good for her for feeling comfortable in her bigger skin.’ ” In reality, Eilish calls her body her “deepest insecurity” and “the initial reason for my depression.” She states bluntly in the Vogue profile that part of her interest in wearing corsets for the shoot is body-image related: “If I’m honest with you, I hate my stomach, and that’s why.” In an era of increasing body acceptance, comments like these could trigger outrage, but they instead add nuance to the conversation. Billie Eilish doesn’t love her body, not yet, but she also isn’t letting that hold her back from playing with identity expression, at least not in the ways she once did.
It should go without saying that it is unfortunate that a talented teenager cannot share her artistry without analysis of her physical form. Realizing this is an unwinnable battle, Billie Eilish took matters into her own hands. Fashion magazines are friendly places for celebrities, exchanging flattering profiles that hit all the right talking points for valuable cover stars. The styling, grooming, and poses are tasteful, despite the supposedly shocking context of Eilish in skintight underthings. Her limbs aren’t oiled up; she isn’t bent over provocatively. Her body is actually more concealed than what a contemporary swimsuit would show. These are coming-of-age photos you wouldn’t die at the thought of your dad seeing. The British Vogue photos will be legacy images for the singer, preserving the look—and her agency behind the choice—in time.