Not every female body is meant for exposure, and anti-teenybopper Billie Eilish is waving the black flag for women who refuse to let their body image define their art. Seen uniformly wearing oversized clothing, in a recent interview with Vogue Australia, Eilish dodged temptation of fitting into hypersexualized standards by using her individual style as a “security blanket,” but her source of protection was torn when an image of her went viral on Twitter. In the image, Eilish is seen wearing a hoodie with a bra-exposing white tank top beneath, and perverted opportunists jumped at the chance to degrade the 17-year-old singer. “Billie Eilish is THICC [sic]” read the most notable (now-deleted) tweet, but responders were quick to shut down the remark, noting the singer’s age and purpose of wearing figure-hiding attire.
Prior to being distastefully harassed on social media, Eilish became a spokesperson for Calvin Klein in the brand’s “I Speak My Truth in #MYCALVINS” campaign. During her melancholy 30-second clip for the brand, Eilish glumly lays in a tub, vocalizing her thoughts on solitude and not wanting to be entirely visible. “That’s why I wear big, baggy clothes. Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen,” she said, before joking about whether people would regard her as slim-thick.
Eilish isn’t the first to be consumed by audiences who have gotten cozy with misogyny, but she’s the latest addition to a legion of female singers who have exchanged scantily clad outfits for baggy, androgynous wear. While the balancing act between femininity and style comfortability is often scrutinized, newer female artists are taking control of their self-image following the long trend of non-compliance to the industry’s tradition of misogyny.
Singer and first-time mother Kehlani has been vocal about her pansexuality instead of conforming to bisexual or straight regulations. While occasionally sensual in her music and appearance, Kehlani is also known for loose-fitting clothes and relaxedness that exudes her Bay Area cool. In June, she fittingly developed her own line of unisex clothing, TSNMI, featuring an array of brightly colored hoodies, T-shirts, baby onesies and even gender-fluid jewelry.
Becoming a breakout star after supporting Kehlani during the SweetSexySavage World Tour, Ella Mai has also been privy to oversized digs prior to the release of her self-titled debut album. Before signing to producer Mustard’s 10 Summers Records, Mai often recorded Instagram clips of herself singing renditions of popular songs completely from the neck up, careful not to put her body in the spotlight. If anything, her curly tresses are the main point of focus, as Mai exclusively wears body-concealing outfits and light makeup to exude a girl-next-door naturalness. At the 2019 Grammy Awards, before winning Best R&B Song for “Boo’d Up”, Mai hit the red carpet in a sweeping, voluminous gown that exposed only the singer’s bare arms.
However, before the English-born singer became the belle of the ball, viewers scoffed at her music video for single “Shot Clock,” in which Mai looks noticeably uncomfortable, avoiding eye contact with her male counterpart. Observing Mai’s stiffness in the video, social media attempted to out the singer, using her attire and neutral lyrical content as clues to speculate Mai’s lesbian sexual identity. Mai had no response to the allegations, instead continuing to promote her debut album until receiving a Grammy. At the awards ceremony, Mai was honored by an impromptu cover of “Boo’d Up” by Alicia Keys, who was once no stranger to having her sexuality called into question based upon her appearance.
The metamorphosis of Alicia Keys was a remarkable transition since her starting point in the early 2000s. Regularly adorning braided hair, Keys later succumbed to pressure regarding her sexuality, transitioning into wearing curve-hugging pieces and unleashing sleeker hair, following her first two albums. Almost two decades have passed, and while she’s fully enveloped in her womanhood no matter what she wears, Keys has recently led a no-makeup movement making a decision from within to toss beauty products.
Fellow 2019 Grammy Winner H.E.R. walked away with two trophies for Best R&B Album (H.E.R.) and Best Song (“Best Part”) while wearing a neon-green jumpsuit that practically swallowed her whole. H.E.R. (whose acronym means “having everything revealed”) made a name for herself by hiding her appearance entirely through sunglasses, covering her mouth in pictures with a single hand and intentionally blurred Instagram posts. Choosing to have her identity hidden for some time after releasing her debut album in 2017, H.E.R. vowed anonymity, letting her music speak for itself by only wearing sunglasses and oversized, veiling outfits.
As an undeclared precedent for female rebellion in pop music, Janelle Monáe provided the launchpad for nonconformist identity, especially during her black-and-white suited “android” heyday. With tightly coiffed hair, oxford shoes and a penchant for consistently breaking out in energetic jigs that even James Brown would be proud of, Monáe assumed the role as Cindi Mayweather during her Metropolis album series. Mayweather was a fictional android, displaced upon meeting human Anthony Greendown, and the album saga follows their eternal quest to find both love and freedom. Monáe’s personal fashion followed the storyline closely, as she wore suits to represent Mayweather’s servitude accompanied by orchestrated music that was best suited for theatrical execution. In time, Monáe shed her layers on The Electric Lady, straddling the lines of sexual fluidity on the explorative “Q.U.E.E.N” and literally revealed her body increasingly with the soul-baring Dirty Computer. Discarding the Cindi Mayweather front — and Anthony Greendown as her partner — Monáe fully embraced her pansexuality and body image, revealing herself for herself
With these women as the standard, tides have shifted in terms of sexual objectification and how female artists allow themselves to be represented. If self-exposure determines public consumption, it should be consented, without women being involuntarily reduced to objects of desire. As hypersexualization is virtually unnecessary for active listenership, female artists of this era have pushed the basis of their careers upon their music almost wholly — baggy clothes and all.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is an Ohio-raised culture writer and bookworm. A graduate of The Ohio State University, Jaelani’s work has appeared in Billboard, Complex, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue, amongst others. She is currently Executive Editor of biannual publication Tidal Magazine.