Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, and the pressure – and shaming – of celebrity women changing their image

·6 min read

Billie Eilish is being criticized for changing the way she looks – again.

Eilish, the 19-year-old record-breaking Grammy winner, was known over the past few years for a signature style: black hair with lime green roots and loose, boxy clothing that hid her body. So when she took a sharp turn debuting blonde hair a more skin-baring ensemble in a cover shoot for British Vogue's June 2021 issue (and again with her June 2 music video for "Lost Cause"), the internet was rife with commentary.

Eilish and other female stars face an unspoken pressure, experts say, to stay current through reinventing themselves a million times.

As recent negative headlines and critical social media commentary would suggest, she, along with other major celebrity women including Taylor Swift, Lizzo, Khloe Kardashian and more, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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"Good for her for changing (her appearance) — she should be able to do what she wants with it," says Meghan Gillen, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington, who studies developmental psychology and body image.

Aside from having obvious autonomy over her own body, experts say the reason for Eilish changing up her look is valid for a few reasons. She turned 19 in December – from a developmental standpoint, she's right on track. Around the age of 18, Gillen says, people reach a stage of life referred to as "emerging adulthood," which often brings about the shedding of childhood identities and finding new ways to showcase appearance.

"Her identity shift really aligns with the literature on identity during that time," Gillen says. "People do these kinds of things all the time: They go off to college, start dressing differently or get a new group of friends."

She adds: "If people are going to speak out and be critical of it, that's a shame that women have to contend with that. I'm sure she feels pressure to stay fresh and relevant and to change her appearance because I'm sure that does gather some attention, which is good for publicity."

Flip-flop or self-expression?: Why women stars reinvent their images

This publicity pressure, which often falls specifically to female artists, is a notable obstacle. Eilish's image change is in part tied to her second studio album, "Happier Than Ever," due July 30. Dressing for different career eras is something Swift knows well, too – she has transformed her sound and image from a country starlet to a trendy pop princess to her most recent indie vibe.

“We do exist in this society where women in entertainment are discarded in an elephant graveyard at 35," Swift, 31, said in her 2020 documentary, "Miss Americana." "Everyone is a shiny new toy for, like, two years. The female artists have reinvented themselves 20 times more than the male artists. They have to or else you’re out of a job. Constantly having to reinvent, constantly finding new facets of yourself that people find to be shiny.”

But still, Swift, Eilish and Madonna are among the stars best known for adopting new styles while also facing criticism for not sticking to their previous brands.

"I really believe Madonna has christened herself the queen of reinvention," says branding expert Liz Goodgold. "Her brand is change. … She will embrace all sorts of styles of music and styles of clothes to remain relevant. She is always building buzz."

Some naysayers view that buzz in a negative light or as grasping for attention, but experts in the fashion world view reinvention as a form of creativity. StyleCaster fashion and lifestyle editor Bella Gerard notes that "just as seasonal shifts bring about fresh trends, new albums call for new aesthetics."

"Many feel that multiple different aesthetic eras cannot all be genuine to one person’s true self, so they assume female pop stars are changing purely to fit the times, and not as a means of self-expression," Gerard tells USA TODAY. "Some people might go as far as arguing that staying the same over time is a sign of a male star’s commitment to identity."

But she notes it makes sense that, just as regular folks may dress different at various stages of their life, artists would change their mind about what image to put out into the world.

"To me, a change-up every few years is a genuine way of letting fans know where the star is at," Gerard adds. "We shouldn’t be surprised when someone’s wardrobe reflects a new era in their life."

These are pressures and objectification that male stars such as Drake or Justin Bieber don't face to the same extent – there's no ticking clock reminding them to switch up their look every album cycle (save for maybe a new hairstyle) for fear of audiences losing interest. Ed Sheeran has been putting out hits for 10 years and we've rarely, if ever, seen him perform in anything other than a t-shirt, hoodie or flannel.

"It's not something you can blame the female celebrities for," Gillen says. "This is a real pressure and it's something that they may feel like they need to do to keep their career going. It's something that's coming from the wider culture that women have to do this to keep up professionally and on social media."

Singer Ed Sheeran has had a similar style for his whole career
Singer Ed Sheeran has had a similar style for his whole career

'Just another double standard': The endless scrutiny of women's bodies

This objectification, the idea that women's bodies are made up of parts to be scrutinized, leads to a viscous cycle of comparisons against our culture's standards of beauty, which are often "young, thin, white, blonde," Gillen says. The cycle pushes women's images and bodies to the forefront of conversation, whether or not they've invited it.

Consider Lizzo, who has spoken out against comments suggesting her weight is synonymous with being unhealthy. Not only has research disproven this, but when the singer started sharing healthy lifestyle videos on TikTok, it still wasn't enough to shut down critics. Kardashian opened up about how years of comments calling her "fat" and "ugly" sister in her family led to her hyper-sensitivity about how she represents her image to the world.

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More: The picture Khloe Kardashian didn't want you to see and the pressure to look perfect

Ultimately, mental health experts say this unwelcome commentary on famous women's bodies can inflict long-lasting harm not only to the celebrities in question, but to those watching at home, too – particularly when their fanbases are young and impressionable. A 2019 study from psychologists at McGill University found that when celebrities were fat-shamed online, the implicit beliefs about weight gain of the women reading those comments grew more negative.

"It's not about having anything both ways. If you choose this presentation … there shouldn't be any kind of, 'Well now this is what you're inviting,' " Gillen says. "It's just another double standard for women and another thing women are told that they should have to worry about that they shouldn't."

When Eilish made history at the 2020 Grammys, sweeping all four major categories, she did something surprising: She apologized. She said others were more deserving of the honors. Fast forward a year and change, she isn't apologizing for anything.

"I think this is a statement whereby she's saying, 'I am embracing my own power,' " Goodgold says. " 'I am getting comfortable in my own skin. And I am determining who I am and what road I want to travel.' "

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Lizzo: Female stars face pressure, shame