In 1998, the accompanying visual for a former Disney star’s debut single was released. In it, she was styled in a schoolgirl skirt and cardigan, knee socks and chunky loafers, her hair was in pigtails and her button-up shirt knotted to expose a toned torso. Britney Spears was 17.
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“Baby One More Time” was named Total Request Live‘s most iconic video ever. Six months later, Spears appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in her childhood bedroom, lying on satin sheets surrounded by stuffed animals in her underwear, extending “a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa.” We were supposed to find it sexy, sure, but almost because she was young. Here was a real, hot, underage girl, appearing, for once, on MTV, instead of in porn films. Britney Spears was the embodiment of what we wanted but couldn’t have.
The “Baby One More Time” outfit was Spears’ idea. So innocent was the teen sensation (innocence she then tantalizingly refuted in “Oops!…I Did It Again”) that she couldn’t fully comprehend the sexual implication of her sartorial decision. “And I said, ‘Why don’t we have knee-highs and tie the shirts up to give it a little attitude?’—so it wouldn’t be boring and cheesy.”
Two years after “Baby One More Time” dropped, Billie Eilish was born. You know what happened next. Since the age of 15, Eilish has been on a steady upswing—now poised to become indie-pop’s primary princess. She is the culmination of Spears and all the female music stars who came after her; those lamenting over-sexualization, dressing to avoid the male gaze, and ripping chicken cutlets from girls’ bras because, well, they’re much more evolved than the girls who actually try. ‘Well there’s a million other girls who do it just like you / Looking as innocent as possible to get to who,’ sung the front-woman of chart-topping emo-pop band Paramore’s on 2007’s “Misery Business,” before concluding: ‘Well I refuse, I refuse, I refuse!’ Hayley Williams was 18.
Eilish, now 17, is neither Williams nor Spears, but also both of them. She burst onto the mainstream scene with “Belly Ache,” a dark exploration into her alter-ego that’s capable of terrible things. For its video, Eilish dons yellow overalls, a yellow turtleneck, and yellow raincoat. She wears Spears’ good-girl-next-door makeup, she has Williams’ unnaturally-hued hair. Her feet are in Converse Chuck Taylors.
“Billie is one of the few American artists who can do a good song without showing the ass in every song,” reads “Bellyache’s” top-rated comment, approved by over 8,000 people.
“Is Billie Eilish the one who dresses like Fat Joe?” A friend recently asked me, referencing the New York rapper’s oversized clothing. Well, yes, basically. Eilish’s affinity for dress-length T-shirts, hoodies, and loose sweatpants as an artist uniform seemed so bizarre she had to explain it. And she did. As one of Calvin Klein’s many music ambassadors, Eilish articulated the choice in a recent “I Speak My Truth In #MyCalvins” campaign.
“Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath,” Billie said in the ad about hiding her body with baggy clothes. “Nobody can be like, ‘She’s slim-thick,’ ‘She’s not slim-thick,’ ‘She’s got a flat ass,’ ‘She’s got a fat ass.’ No one can say any of that because they don’t know.”
Except, unfortunately, avoiding objectification by shrouding her body in swathes of fabric was always going to be an unsustainable option. In the smart-phone era everyone is a paparazzo—even your friends—and it’s very difficult to adhere to one brand, 100 percent of the time. And Billie Eilish slipped up: she unzipped her hoodie to expose a white, ribbed singlet. Not a baggy tank, just a regular ol’ singlet. And, predictably, it began.
Immediately, fans jumped to the singer’s defense: “It’s sad that women honestly have to announce they don’t want to be sexualized and even wear certain clothing not to be but there’s still creeps who will go ahead and STILL do so—smh,” wrote one.
She made it clear on the Calvin klein commercial, she does wear oversized clothes so no one will sexualize her because no one knows how her body looks like, so no one can talk about it
— akaboneco (@blackrviana) June 23, 2019
After Spears, the public became so aware of the music industry machine (as much as we turn an intentional blind eye to what is often an artist’s total lack of creative control), it seems foreign that—like Spears in the early days of her career, 20 years prior—Eilish’s look is her own, purposeful construction. A member of Generation Z, Eilish evidently was raised witnessing society’s heavy-handed critique of female superstars—appraisal that often whittled down their worth to weight and shape—only to come into her own just as the body positive movement was taking full-flight. As of 2019, Ashley Graham has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The Kardashian hourglass hit Vogue. Models fought back. Rihanna got “thick.” Curvy became cool, or rather, vocalizing that curvy wasn’t cool was decidedly UN-cool. Slowly but surely there was a shift—so much so that even sportswear giants have embraced size diversity for their mannequins. And Billie Eilish, well, she can be a pop star without the belly-baring outfits.
But that still doesn’t mean Billie Eilish and Britney Spears are all that different. Eilish is still a 17-year-old girl on the precipice of becoming one of the biggest pop stars the world has seen. The primary distinction is that through her phone screen, Billie Eilish had already seen the world; Billie Eilish had seen Britney Spears, and consequently, Billie Eilish decided to wear baggy clothes. Because Britney Spears had a body, Billie Eilish hides hers…because we made her—so, hopefully, we don’t break her.