There’s no good way to talk about an 18-year-old woman’s body. She’s too young to drink legally, and yet it’s somehow permissible to start the time-honored tradition of picking her apart.
This week, paparazzi photos of Billie Eilish were published, in which she’s wearing clothes significantly more form-fitting than anything she’s worn onstage or at awards shows. Inevitably, people on Twitter decided it was important to dissect it, including one person who tweeted, “in 10 months Billie Eilish has developed a mid-30’s wine mom body.”
The photos of her body are perfectly mundane, just her in a tight tank top and some Yeezy-style oatmeal-colored shorts. There’s nothing salacious or grotesque about them, but that hasn’t stopped a number of people from tweeting cruel criticisms of how she looks, as if they were all waiting with bated breath for a reason to cut Eilish down. (Though it’s unclear whether the consensus initially was that Eilish is some hideous monster, or if that was just the ramblings of a few distempered men on the internet.)
Regardless, in an attempt to defend Eilish — a sincere attempt, often from other young women — a new narrative is being formed around her body. Now, it’s about Eilish’s “bravery” in having a body atypical for celebrities because she’s seemingly not a size 0. It’s a common refrain anytime a woman in the public eye is seen eating in public, having hips in public, or having rolls in public. Adele being plus-size — or, later, not being plus-size — is a source of inspiration. Beyoncé talking about her FUPA is a comfort, as if she’s just as normal as the rest of us because of it. (She’s not, but dare to dream.)
Mindy Kaling has spoken at length about the backhanded compliments she gets about being confident “despite” her size. “They’re like, ‘It’s so refreshing that Mindy feels comfortable to let herself go and be a fat sea monster,’” she told Jimmy Kimmel in 2014. Earlier this year, comedian Nicole Byer released a book called #VERYFAT #VERYBRAVE: The Fat Girl’s Guide to Being #Brave and Not a Dejected, Melancholy, Down-in-the-Dumps Weeping Fat Girl in a Bikini. (It includes helpful suggestions of things a fat girl can do in a bikini, including “wave at a plane” and “yell at a child.”)
Eilish’s goal isn’t celebration of her body, but rather to ignore it entirely and make her audience focus on her voice.
The goal of this kind of noxious positivity is to make clear that not being thin — either intentionally or not — is just as worthy of celebration as thinness has been since basically forever. But this is a false equivalence; we praise thinness because we think it tells us something about someone’s worth, their inherent beauty, their value as a person. The issue isn’t so much celebrating one type of body over another, but rather celebrating a body for its bravery, as if there’s something impressive about existing in the world even though your body doesn’t conform to narrow standards of beauty. Refusing beauty norms, or merely falling outside of them, isn’t that brave; it’s just an inevitability since those standards are increasingly harder to attain. Arguably, every woman in the world is brave in that regard because none of us are meeting every characteristic of perfection, whether we want to or not.
Eilish has been vocal in the past about why she wears clothes “800 sizes bigger” than she actually is. “It kind of gives nobody the opportunity to judge what your body looks like. I don’t want to give anyone the excuse of judging,” she told Vogue Australia in 2019. “Anything you look at, you judge.”
In May, Eilish released a short film (that she also used while on tour), titled Not My Responsibility. In it, she slowly undresses while talking about perceptions around her body. “If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman. If I shed the layers, I’m a slut,” she says. “Though you’ve never seen my body, you still judge it, and judge me for it. Why?” As a young woman in the music industry, Eilish is not only fully aware of how her body can be marketed to sell records and concert tickets, but how it can also be turned against her if it’s not small enough, not shaped the right way, too much in some ways and not enough in others.
It’s no wonder she hides in enormous suits, baggy sweats, oversized T-shirts; when she does show her body, she’s mobbed by an audience who thinks they have the right to an entire news cycle’s worth of opinions about it. Eilish’s goal isn’t celebration of her body, but rather to ignore it entirely and make her audience focus on her voice, look at her eyes, pay attention to the visuals she uses in music videos and stage performances.
She’s not using her body in the same way as someone like Lizzo, who puts her body on display to subvert the notions of what “beauty” is and who gets to dictate the terms. When Lizzo appeared in this year’s Savage X Fenty show, dancing in front of a mirror in an electric blue lingerie set, the point was to think about her body and who she was showing it off to — it was also about self-love, no matter what the world has to say about your shape or size.
But that, of course, doesn’t suggest Lizzo is “brave” for refusing to hate herself, for refusing to diet, for refusing to shrink. Being considered brave for living in a particular type of body suggests that that body, whatever shape and size, is somehow always functioning at a disadvantage, as if Eilish is weakened by her very average-looking arms and normal-circumference torso. There isn’t anything brave about Eilish having the body of an adult woman, no more brave than it is for someone to have brown hair or green eyes. Calling someone brave for merely existing in the body they have doesn’t take power away from thinness, and it doesn’t create any kind of equilibrium in culture. There might be no bravery involved, just genetics.
On Instagram, after the photos of her went viral, Eilish reposted the influencer Chizi Duru’s TikTok about body image. “Guts are normal. Boobs sag, especially after breastfeeding. Instagram isn’t real,” Duru says. The language isn’t about celebration or bravery, audacity or fearlessness. The truth about Eilish’s body in those paparazzi photos — the truth about most women and their bodies — is really boring: It’s just a body, and you get the one you get. It has no moral value on its own. Insisting upon being alive and comfortable isn’t ballsy — it’s just a far better option than self-loathing.●