Billie Eilist covers British Vogue

Billie Eilish Covers Vogue: Why Does Female Empowerment Require Taking Off Clothing?

Billie Eilish on the June 2021 cover of British Vogue.  Craig McDean

The June edition of British Vogue shows the usually covered 19 year old Billie Eilish posing in a latex skirt and corset. My first reaction was to want to support her as I assume she chose the look, but as I looked at the photo shoot more I started to feel sad. Who was this for? Her, or the male fantasy that we as women are trained to fulfill?

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with young women wanting to explore their sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with want to feel desirable. The issue is that we are pressured to be sexy from puberty if not sooner. To be valuable as a woman you must embody the male fantasy and girls feel this pressure far too young.

Is Billie Eilish empowering herself by posing in lingerie in a magazine or bowing to the patriarchy?

Billie says in the interview that the styling was her choice, but when society relentlessly pushes the sexualization of young girls and women that choice cannot be separated from the pressure to be desirable. Would that choice have ever been made without years of conditioning that a woman’s value lies in her ability to be attractive to men?

As she became a teen pop star Billie felt the need to protect herself from sexualization by only wearing bagging clothing, and men still poured over photos looking for a flash of skin. Her desire to protect herself made sense, as men on the internet have always been disgusting towards female teen celebrities.

Men made websites with countdown clocks until stars like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Emma Watson were legal and therefor fuckable. Paps would get on the ground to take upskirt photos, which they did on Watson’s 18th birthday. Britney Spears appeared as sexy but innocent and got asked if she was a virgin and if her breasts were real, until she wasn’t that innocent anymore and her mental health was more “entertaining.” People now go above and beyond to pretend she was in control of her image, but she never was.

After hiding her body for years it’s not hard to image why taking control in a photo shoot like this could feel liberating to Billie or any other female celebrity. Men will sexualize you even if you’re wearing baggy sweatpants, at least this way you’re in charge, at least you think you are.

There is a sad inevitability that child or teen stars will eventually appear on a magazine cover in sexy underwear, declaring that she is empowered and free. They’re grown up and serious artists now.

Isn’t it strange how female empowerment requires that women take off clothing? It’s not about what they’ve built but how they look.

The pressure to be sexy immediately upon adulthood does not start and end with pop stars, go on Instagram this spring and you’ll find 17 and 18 year old girls in sexy poses wearing their high school graduation cap and gown.

I’m so used to seeing middle school girls wearing a full face of makeup and posing suggestively that when I see a 15 year old Suri Cruise actually looking like a kid instead of a 25 year old I feel a sense of relief that shocks me. Just maybe she feels allowed to be an awkward kid instead of needing to grow up and meet male expectations, which is a blessing for her.

Strangely, for some women the response to male pressure to be sexy is to… be sexy anyways? But it’s for themselves, not for men! However, unless you’ve grown up without access to magazine, media, or the internet your idea of sexuality can’t not be influenced by the patriarchy. The choice to be sexy for yourself is not made in a vacuum, the societal conditioning is always there no matter what we tell ourselves. Giving men what they want, bodies that are sexually available, isn’t empowerment, it’s surrender. Choice feminism is really just the patriarchy in disguise.

Billie’s years of covering herself shows her awareness of this issue, and her choice to do a photo shoot in underwear shows that women can’t escape this pressure to be sexy. That the photographer in this case is a 54 year old man (Craig McDean) taking pictures of a 19 year old (still a teenager) shows that this was not just for her. In these photos Billie can only be viewed through the male gaze.

Maybe it was Billie’s idea but this choice was never really hers, it was made by a society that hammers into women that we must be sexy. Any empowerment is superficial at best.

My criticism is not of her but of our society that tells girls they have to be sexy to be valuable.

In the interview Billie says, “showing your body and showing your skin — or not — should not take any respect away from you.” And she’s right. Therein lies the issue, women are supposed to be sexy but they’re also disrespected if they’re too sexy. Be pure and virginal, but also sexually available to men, but not too slutty.

At the end of the day, Billie can’t win. She can’t cover herself forever and nor should she have to. If she wants to pose in underwear that’s her right. I hope she always feels happy and safe in her body.