Singing about body image is a pop taboo. These stars are breaking it.
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, July 25, 2024

Singing about body image is a pop taboo. These stars are breaking it.
Billie Eilish, Charli XCX and Lorde are among a group of young women who are revealing, in their music, the pressure they have felt to look thin. (Petra Börner/The New York Times)

by Lindsay Zoladz

NEW YORK, NY.- Taken together, the first two song titles on Billie Eilish’s third album, “Hit Me Hard and Soft,” form a provocative pair: “Skinny” and “Lunch.”

“People say I look happy/Just because I got skinny,” Eilish sings on the opener, her melancholic croon accompanied by a single, murky guitar. “But the old me is still me and maybe the real me,” she adds, “and I think she’s pretty.”

That lyric is a gut punch. It’s also indicative of a subtle shift among the current generation of female pop stars, who have recently been acknowledging — often in stark, striking and possibly triggering language — the pressure they have felt to look thin.

Taylor Swift, who first opened up about her past struggles with disordered eating in a powerful sequence in her 2020 documentary, “Miss Americana,” sings about it on her 2022 track “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” a compassionate ode to her younger self: “I hosted parties and starved my body, like I’d be saved by the perfect kiss.” Last month, in a guest appearance on the remix of Charli XCX’s “Girl, So Confusing,” Lorde confessed that fluctuations in her weight had led her to stay out of the public eye. “For the last couple years, I’ve been at war in my body,” she sings, heartbreakingly. “I tried to starve myself thinner, and then I gained all the weight back.”

For several years, conversations about weight in mainstream pop have centered around an artist bold enough to speak up about it and absorb the stinging backlash: Lizzo. In her lyrics, on social media, and in her shapewear line, the singer and rapper has played up self-love, becoming a face of the body positivity movement. Earlier this year, however, she told The New York Times that she had “evolved into body neutrality.” “I’m not going to lie and say I love my body every day,” she said.

Part of the vitriol Lizzo has faced is rooted in racism, and it is impossible to divorce a dialogue about body image from race, and the different ways Black, brown and white bodies are dissected, denigrated and idolized. Latto recently spoke out about how online criticism led her to have plastic surgery at 21 to enhance her buttocks. Last year the rapper, who is biracial, said, “When I didn’t have my surgery, they’re like, ‘Oh, she shaped like her white side.’” SZA, speaking to Elle about her own, similar, procedure (which she sang about on her hit 2022 album, “SOS”), said, “I didn’t succumb to industry pressure. I succumbed to my own eyes in the mirror.”

Still, thin always seems to transcend all other beauty standards. In “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé,” which charted the superstar’s preparation for her acclaimed Coachella set, Beyoncé detailed how she restricted her diet to hurriedly lose the weight she’d gained while pregnant with her twins: “I’m hungry,” she said.

For the young singers now toeing up to one of pop music’s last true taboos — singing about eating disorders and body dysmorphia — the pressure to be thin can be overwhelming. On its face, this is a musical moment of unapologetic feminine power and shattered norms. But it is simultaneously a time of especially punishing beauty standards, heightened by the rise of image-forward social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Over the past two years, as diabetes drugs like Ozempic have become a powerful weight-loss tool, scores of celebrities and influencers have posted photos of themselves looking noticeably slimmer.

This new class of artists is certainly not the first to approach the subject. In 2018, Florence + the Machine released the bracing song “Hunger,” in which frontwoman Florence Welch gave voice to her past battles with addiction and an eating disorder. Silverchair’s 1999 alt-rock hit “Ana’s Song (Open Fire)” was a potent reminder that people of all genders struggle with disordered eating. Even Swift herself broached the topic on her 2006 self-titled debut, though she’s said the song “Tied Together With a Smile” was about a high school classmate.

Perhaps the most vivid earlier example is Sonic Youth’s 1990 single “Tunic (Song for Karen),” which Kim Gordon wrote from the perspective of Karen Carpenter, who died at 32 of complications from anorexia nervosa. “I feel like I’m disappearing, getting smaller every day,” Gordon sang, with remarkable empathy, putting words to what Carpenter was never able to express in song. “But I look in your eyes, and I’m bigger in every way.”

These songs have been exceptions. A broader stigma around discussing disordered eating — and fears of discussing it in imperfect language — has led to a stifling culture of silence.

When Eilish, now 22, rose to stratospheric fame in her teens, she seemed to emerge anticipating, and preemptively deflecting, the lecherous scrutiny that is always directed at a young, female pop star’s body. Onstage and off she appeared effortlessly cool in baggy clothes, and when a candid paparazzi photo of her in a tank top caused a stir on the internet — she was still just 18 — Eilish responded with a spoken-word manifesto on her second album titled “Not My Responsibility.” “Would you like me to be smaller?” she asked those hungry eyes in a menacing mutter. “Weaker? Softer?”

Eilish came of age in the era of cheery body positivity (and, of course, vehement, reactionary body shaming), and this defiant confidence might make her seem like the perfect poster girl for the movement. But in interviews, Eilish has admitted that she has struggled greatly with her relationship to her body. In 2021, she said she took diet pills and began disordered eating patterns when she was just 12. She has indicated that she has come a long way since then, but like anyone, she still has low moments. In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, she identified as “somebody with extreme body issues and dysmorphia that I’ve had my entire life.”

Eilish’s lyrics hint at this darker undercurrent. “Home alone, trying not to eat,” she sang on “Male Fantasy,” the forlorn ballad that closed out her 2021 album, “Happier Than Ever.” The language of food restriction comes up again on her current single, “Lunch,” although this time she uses it as a metaphor for clandestine desire. “Been trying not to overeat,” she winks at the girl who, as she puts it on the chorus, she wants to devour. “But you look so sweet.”

The danger of “thinspo” (or “thinspiration,” online content encouraging unhealthy goals) always looms large, and as with any controversial topic, the line between representation and endorsement can be blurry, leading to polarized conversations and heated emotions. Consider the uproar that ensued in October 2022, when Swift released the video for her smash “Anti-Hero.” Directed by the singer herself, the clip included a much-discussed shot in which she steps on a scale that displays the curt judgment of her internal demons rather than a number: “Fat.”

The blowback came quickly. In a viral tweet, therapist Shira Rose criticized Swift’s way of depicting “her body image struggles,” concluding, “Fat people don’t need to have it reiterated yet again that it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to look like us.” Swift subsequently deleted that shot from the video, though without offering further comment or explanation. The backlash to the “Anti-Hero” scale felt like a missed opportunity to have a deeper discussion about the ways in which women — and particularly white, nondisabled women — who struggle with eating disorders can still perpetuate fatphobia, even in the course of their recovery. But the topic felt radioactive, everyone backed into their corners and the taboo remained.

Over the past year, though — and especially right now, as Eilish’s summery “Lunch” emanates from the airwaves — some of the most prominent female pop stars are tiptoeing up to it, using slightly different, and perhaps hitherto forbidden, language to sing about succumbing to disordered eating.

“I started to skip lunch, stopped eating cake on birthdays,” Olivia Rodrigo sings on “Pretty Isn’t Pretty” from her 2023 album, “Guts.” (She told a Times writer that this imagery was inspired by her observations at a party she’d attended, calling contemporary beauty standards an “inexhaustible beast.”)

On “Rewind,” a track from Charli XCX’s raw and resonant “Brat,” the British pop singer dreams of going “back in time to when I wasn’t insecure/To when I didn’t overanalyze my face shape.” Even monetary success hasn’t silenced her self-scrutiny, she admits: “Nowadays I only eat at the good restaurants/But honestly, I’m always thinking about my weight.”

Charli’s candor may have paved the way for Lorde, who has never sung about body image anxiety as directly or devastatingly as she does on the recent remix. Her words are particularly striking coming after her poised 2021 album “Solar Power,” on which she portrayed herself as someone who had opted out of the toxic influence of social media and was living blissfully off the grid. “You’d always say, ‘let’s go out,’ and then I’d cancel last minute,” she sings to Charli. “I was so lost in my head and scared to be in your pictures.”

It is always tempting to buy into an uplifting narrative of linear progress, and in many important ways, the mainstreaming of the body positivity movement has moved our culture into a more welcoming, discerning and size-inclusive place. We have come a long way since the “heroin-chic” supermodels of the 1990s or even the pop snark of the late 2000s, when a size 4 Jessica Simpson could make national news for — gasp — wearing high-waisted jeans.

But revelations from some of the most successful female pop stars of our time are proving there’s far more work to be done. And as Eilish puts it in “Skinny,” social media’s appetite will never truly be satiable: “The internet is hungry for the meanest kind of funny,” she sings. “And somebody’s gotta feed it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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