Billie Eilish, Lorde and More Are Singing Out About Body Image

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 pre-emptively 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.”

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