“Don’t make me not a role model because you’re turned on by me.”Billie Eilish
This month, 19-year-old singer-songwriter-pop star Billie Eilish was featured in British Vogue magazine with an internet-breaking photo series, and a stark interview covering body shame, her abuse as a minor, and the virgin-whore paradox thrust on girls from an alarmingly young age. While I find myself completely blown away by the boldness, courage, and wisdom of this inspiring woman, I am also hopeful that her adroit feminist insight at such a young age is a sign of a seismic cultural shift.
In Valentino corsets and sultry blonde curls—a notable departure from her usual baggy clothes and eccentric style—Eilish does far more than simply titillate the viewer with her obvious beauty. She is challenging us to unpack our own baggage on how our opinions of women change when we perceive them as publicly inviting sexual desire.
“Showing your body and showing your skin – or not – should not take any respect away from you.”Billie Eilish
While Eilish’s perspective stems from experiences of childhood abuse, her statements intentionally have broad implications about the way women are sexualized in society at every turn. As a sex-positive vocal coach and teacher of teenagers, her words resonated with me deeply.
Unfortunately, I encounter a lot of confusion about my work as a sex-positive, body-positive vocal coach. In fact, there is no shortage of people offering me unsolicited advice on any given day about how I should be marketing myself. The general reaction seems to be that sexuality and vocal coaching don’t mix. I should create a separate Instagram account for my modelling. I should drop CLITORIA if I ever want to work at an institution of higher learning, i.e. be taken seriously. After all, what kind of “attention” am I inviting with all this sexy stuff, anyway?
To that I ask, why do I have your attention in the first place?
Why are we so quick to demonize the very things that fascinate us?
Don’t make me not a vocal coach because you’re turned on by me! (I’m kidding… sort of.)
“Everybody’s like, ‘You can’t make a wife out of a hoe’ – and it’s like, you’re attracted to that person, though. You created that person.”Billie Eilish
Of course, the sad truth is that this dichotomy between “sexy” and “respectable” only exists for women, and only because of misogyny. If a man is seen as sexy, it only adds to his status and respectability. If he produces work of quality, we somehow have endless patience for his transgressions. But if a woman or girl demonstrates anything less than sage-like wisdom and propriety—even in handling predatory grooming at 16 years old—she needs to “learn her lesson.”
Folks, it’s time to flip the script.
In the interview, Eilish tries to make the point that there are no “two sides” to a woman in the sense that sometimes she’s “respectable” and sometimes she’s “sexual,” as if those two things don’t exist in the same moment. In my own work, this is an ethos I have always tried to emulate. I am a classically trained singer and conservatory-educated musician, and I am also a sexual being who likes to be adored and wants to normalize sex-positivity, and I also support causes like racial justice and LGBTQIA+ rights, and I also support local businesses, and I also love mentoring young students, and I also struggle with anxiety, and also I call my mother at least twice a week for help with adulting.
That’s why I don’t separate these things: I want you to see all of it together. I don’t want to be objectified for my looks, I want to project appreciation and respect for everything I am and all I have to offer. When you work with a vocal coach, you’re letting someone into your life who affects how you think and feel about yourself. So I want to be very clear about who I am, and what confidence in your own skin can do for you. I work my magic with many wands—talent, hard work, humour, sex-positivity—but only one of them appears to be a lightning rod, and that’s not on me. Some people will get it, and some won’t. Some will continue to objectify me or judge me and other women. The only important question is, will you?
But what about the children?! I agree that children should have a right to enjoy their innocence. But, I’ll tell you something: I wrote CLITORIA because a lot of young students asked me a lot of questions in lessons over the years that had nothing to do with music. I’ve shared many laughs, tears, and tirades with some incredible young people who felt powerless under social forces they had no idea how to deal with. At some point, your child will want to talk to an adult they can trust who is not you. It has been one of the greatest honours of my career and my life to help these kids in their times of confusion, distress, or worse. My musical was an appeal to adults to do better for them.
“‘You’re going to complain about being taken advantage of as a minor, but then you’re going to show your boobs?’” She tilts her head and widens her eyes in a slow charade of contemplation. Then she swivels back, points straight at me and laughs. “Yes I am, motherf**ker! I’m going to because there’s no excuse.”Billie Eilish in British Vogue, June 2021
I adore these images of Eilish figuratively rubbing her cleavage in our faces, as if to say, “I dare you to objectify me.” She is arguably the most important songwriter of her generation. Dismiss her at your own peril. However she chooses to present herself, I’m so happy that teenage girls have a pop star like Billie Eilish to empower them, and I’m so excited for the future these amazing young people will usher in.