The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
At the Opening Gala for the Academy Museum of Motion pictures,18-year-old singer and actor Olivia Rodrigo walked the red carpet in a sleek black Yves Saint Laurent gown. The low-cut neckline curved around and below her cleavage, sparking criticism and debate on whether the dress was age-appropriate.
On this June’s cover of British Vogue, 19-year-old singer and songwriter Billie Eilish broke away from her dark aesthetic to wear a pale pink corset.“Proof that money can make you change your values and sell out,” someone tweeted in response.
The internet has gone wild discussing these fashion choices, but the discourse isn’t about clothing. The public’s reaction to the dresses are reflective of our society’s feelings of young women’s sexualities and autonomies.
What made these outfits so noteworthy is that these two teen celebrities, who were underage when skyrocketing to fame, have previously dressed in less revealing ways. Eilish in particular was known for wearing oversized, baggy clothing as a “security blanket” to protect her adolescent body from scrutiny and sexualization. Many praised this decision, but many also speculated on what her body looked like underneath; even without Eilish showing herself, people sexualized her. Still, she stood her ground and for many years, no one saw her body; this made her choice to wear a corset all the more surprising. Rodrigo, too, is known for her spunky, grungy, and youthful style. Now both are trapped in the Madonna-whore complex: they are either seen as pure virgins or sexually transgressive beings with no in between.
Once young women in Hollywood begin dressing in a revealing way, the public sees that as full permission to sexualize them and minimize them solely to their physicality. It is assumed that these women are performing their sexualities for the viewers’ enjoyment and not from a place of empowered self-respect and self-enjoyment. Indeed, the media’s sexualization of a woman often erases all other aspects of her personhood. Perhaps that is what we are worried about when we see Rodrigo and Eilish in these outfits: that we will lose these strong-willed, seemingly independent young women to sexual exploitation. They are aware of this: “Who am I if not exploited?” Rodrigo sings angrily on “brutal,” the opening track of her album SOUR. Sexuality is powerful, but the media and the public have shown time and time again that it isn’t comfortable with women wielding that power. In response, they attack it.
In a discourse about teenage girls, it is crucial to listen to that same demographic. I spoke to college girls recently about how they felt about Rodrigo’s Saint Laurent dress.
“I think claiming that this dress was too ‘mature’ or that the fashion world is sexualizing a young girl is so ironic,” said Zoe Hussain, a freshman at Lang majoring in Journalism + Design. “We’re still just looking at women’s bodies as something to sexualize in the first place.” In other words, it isn’t inherently sexual to dress in revealing clothing; we as viewers make the decision to sexualize it. We could just as easily choose to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of Rodrigo’s dress without immediately sexualizing the body underneath.
Lily Hoffman, a freshman at Lang majoring in History, disagrees. “While I think there’s nothing wrong with women dressing the way they want, I think the dress is a little inappropriate considering that she literally just turned 18,” she said. “She and I were born in the same year but if I showed up wearing that (17) it would be inappropriate, but when Olivia does it (eight months older) it’s fine.”
Many other women voiced their confusion around the switch that seems to flip when a girl turns 18. Legally, Rodrigo and Eilish are now adults, but turning a new age does not automatically bring new wisdom or capabilities. They are still treated like children, but suddenly viewed as adults.
“When you think about her only being 18, and how creepy people on the internet are, it makes me uncomfortable,” said Daphne Sevilla, also a freshman at Lang with an undecided major. “Not necessarily because of her, but just because we all know that people out there are getting off on this.”
Teen girls embracing their sexuality is a double-edged sword. Women, famous or not, often encourage each other to love their bodies and dress how they like, while simultaneously wanting to protect each other from inevitable and uncomfortable objectification. I wonder how this discourse would differ if we could remove the male gaze entirely.
“I just hope she’s comfortable and wasn’t super pressured into it by stylists or anything…I wonder how it works,” said Corwynne Peterson, 18, currently in a gap year. There is little transparency surrounding the exact collaborations between artists and their stylists, leading to confusion over who chooses clothing. Rodrigo’s stylist, Chenelle Delgadillo, told Women’s Wear Daily in August that “if she [Rodrigo] isn’t comfortable or doesn’t like it, we don’t even waste her time.” It is impossible to know for sure whether this is true, but one hopes that Rodrigo is the deciding voice in what she puts on her body.
However, in her essay “Britney Spears Was Never In Control” for The Cut, Tavi Gevinson argues that in a position of immense fame and attention, it is practically impossible for young people to make their own decisions detached from others’ desires. Gevinson, a fashion and magazine editor, writer and actress, who also became famous at a young age, wrote, “I could not reconcile my awareness of my power—and all the safety it promised—with the idea that I was also vulnerable in any way.” Gevinson now regrets some of the decisions she made as a teenager about how to present herself; she has since realized there were invisible expectations on her at the time.
As onlookers of these teen girl celebrities, we feel stuck—if we say that they do not have control over their decisions, we are bad feminists who doubt their autonomy. If we say that they are in complete control, we could be willingly ignoring their exploitation. I wholeheartedly believe in the intellectual and emotional strength of teenage girls. Yet we are not immune to exploitation, which I have seen in friends succumbing to pressure from boys to send nude pictures and, just maybe, in Rodrigo’s and Eilish’s wearing revealing clothes. It is impossible to know for sure the motivation of these decisions.
Millennials and Gen-Zers look to celebrities’ online presences for how to behave and curate our own lives online and offline—including what clothes we wear. Perhaps this is why many are instinctively critical and worried when women like Rodrigo and Eilish post pictures in more revealing clothing: We wonder, is that the expectation for us? Do I need to embrace my sexuality publicly for praise and attention? Young women have such complicated relationships with our ever-changing bodies that it is understandable to have mixed feelings about posting revealing photos.
Reflecting on some of the photos that I posted but have since deleted, I realize that they didn’t represent who I was, but how I wanted others to see me. I merely mimicked similar poses and styles that I saw in my feed as a way of trying to fit in and be seen as cool. I knew from a young age that sexuality brought me attention, even if it made me uncomfortable. But attention is social currency. If I, a decidedly not-famous teenage girl, feel that pressure and inauthenticity on my own page, I can only imagine the amplified pressure that Rodrigo and Eilish feel.
Still, Rodrigo and Eilish exude authenticity in their fashion choices and, more importantly, in their music. They are young, but they have strong senses of self that shine through in their lyrics. Eilish is known for trusting her instincts and leading all of her projects herself. Her recent album Happier Than Ever directly addresses many of the issues she faces as a young female celebrity. Rodrigo’s first album, SOUR, is intimate, honest and full of grief, anger, insecurity, jealousy—and she proudly owns all of these emotions. These women refuse to be boxed in by perceived limitations due to their age or visual aesthetic.
Perhaps that is another reason we fear their new outfits: we get nervous when celebrities reinvent themselves. We fear they may lose the spark that we loved in their previous chapter, or we are not ready to let go. Our society as a whole has a puritanical fear of beloved young women becoming sexually active and therefore “tainted.”
But celebrities are human and change is inevitable—especially as young women mature and navigate their sexuality. “That’s a really terrifying thought, to think that I’m not allowed to make any mistakes, because I think that’s how you grow as a person…that’s just life,” Rodrigo told Teen Vogue this October. She is right: change and growth should be embraced for all the new emotional experiences they bring.
Ultimately, like all teenage girls and true artists, Rodrigo and Eilish just want to be seen and understood for who they are. And everyone is more than the clothes that they wear.