A closer look at fashion in the music industry – is embracing femininity exclusively for thin, cis men?

Kim Peci writes on the media treatment of Sam Smith and Harry Styles

At their recent performance at Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball, non-binary pop artist Sam Smith stunned in a glittery jumpsuit. But it caused a widespread controversy across social media. Much discourse has happened over Sam’s body size. It was debated whether or not wearing the jumpsuit was merely a poor fashion choice. I will be taking a closer look at fashion in the music industry, comparing the media’s response to two iconic artists making bold fashion statements: Sam Smith and Harry Styles.

It’s strange to see how much hate Sam is getting for embracing their feminine side. In comparison, their pop counterpart Harry Styles wore a similar jumpsuit. Harry was praised, loved by many, and even called an “icon”. 

Why is it that social media can pick and choose when they want to appreciate male or non-binary artists in the music industry embracing their femininity with the clothes they wear? The way these two artists are treated differently reflects not only their distinct body types, but also how society views and treats those who identify as queer. It seems unfair that Harry is appreciated for the same things Sam has been criticised for. These criticisms not only stem from society’s conservative views but also deep rooted fatphobia and queerphobia.

Harry_Styles_Wembley_June_2022

Why is Sam’s partially bare chest such a source of controversy? Meanwhile people are in support of Harry dancing around semi-shirtless on stage? Why is Sam flaunting their body considered to be disgusting? Especially when Harry’s physique was never addressed negatively, well, at least on a large scale it hasn’t. 

Harry Styles’ unconventional fashion choices have enabled him to escape from his boy band reputation and establish himself as a truly fantastic solo star. He has a tendency of wearing traditionally feminine attire and makeup. Alongside his androgynous appearance, it frequently draws attention and has provoked some “queerbaiting” claims over the years. However, the artist is alternatively recognised as a “queer” icon by music lovers all across the globe. His clothing choices are applauded for defying heteronormative conventions. 

Yes, Harry has previously been criticised for wearing skirts and dresses, but it does not compare to the amount of hatred towards Sam. It seems to be more acceptable when artists who are widely seen as straight challenge gender conventions.

So, are fashion stereotypes really changing?

Sam Smith has previously been very open about their difficulties with body image. They told Sportskeeda that they “tried to control the way the camera moved and got a bit obsessive about it. Smith was constantly looking in the mirror, pinching their waist, and weighing themselves every day”. Comparing this mentality early in their career, to their confidence now, Sam is finally at ease with themself and their body image. 

In 2019, the artist said in an Instagram post that they wanted to “reclaim” their physique. They shared pictures of their chest online. Sam felt like they were reclaiming themselves when they made the change to wear more feminine clothing in their most recent “Unholy” music video. Watching the singer clearly content dancing in their curvy body is truly inspiring. There’s no disputing that representation is vital. 

Sam_Smith_Lollapalooza_2015

This is fatphobia

In response to Sam’s music video, social media influencers, conservative pundits, and even newspapers have argued that by identifying as non-binary, they are attention-seeking. Media argues Sam must cover up their body because it sets a bad example for children. Some have even gone to the extent of calling them “perverted” and “disgusting”. This is a blatant indicator of the transphobic prejudice that non-binary people frequently face. Any divergence from the gender binary is depicted as ignorant and distorted. 

There has been a mixture of responses from Twitter users to Sam Smith’s ambisexual fashion. One tweeted: “Sam Smith, this is not art. This is not trendy. It is not empowering. This is monstrous!”. Another user’s fatphobia was clear when they tweeted: “Sam Smith looks fat. At least Harry looks thin”. Thankfully, there were people who were defending Sam online. A Twitter user said: “[Harry Styles and Sam Smith are] both similar in what they do but one is revered, and the other is hated and mocked. The only difference between them? One is queer and the other is not. Your homophobia is showing”.

No escaping the criticism

Whilst walking in Central Park in New York, and clearly unconcerned with anyone around them, Sam was verbally harassed. A video of the singer being recorded in Central Park, seemingly appears to be a group of people shouting at them was shared on Twitter. A woman in the video was seen shouting the words “groomer” and “paedophile”, and continues to yell, “You demonic, twisted sick bastard. Leave the kids alone!”, but Sam remained unbothered as they walked away. In recent years, the word “groomer” has become a popular term used by the right-wing for practically all LGBTQIA+ folk. This is a frequent occurrence which resulted with the passing of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which brought the notion that queer people “groom” children into “gender ideology” merely by being openly out.

In an interview with Zane Lowe, the singer stated that they endure harassment whilst on the streets in the UK. They went on to say: “I’m being abused in the street verbally more than I ever have” and “That was the hardest part, I think, was being at home in the UK and having people shouting at me in the street. Someone spat at me in the street. It’s crazy”. 

Sam does not have the stereotypical figure that is frequently accepted within the music industry. They have suffered substantial fatphobia as a result of pressures to cover up and be modest. Sam has steadily transitioned from wearing suits to corsets and dresses over their career. Queerphobia and fatphobia heavily influence responses to their physique, gender portrayal, and inclination to consider Sam Smith as an artist. 

Rising above the hatred

Social media movements for body positivity have made some headway in broadening the range of body types we see, as shown on social media posts with the tag “#bodypositivity”, depicting a variety of body types. However, the acceptance of larger bodies in print has been sluggish and sparser in television media. 

The widespread rejections of femme, queer, and bodily joy shown in the reaction to Sam Smith’s clothing choices and music videos affect more than just the artist. There are repercussions for everybody who recognises a part of themselves in Sam’s work. Conservative criticisms of Sam Smith enable hatred towards trans, non-binary, and full-figured people. 

Having seen Smith embracing their body and feminine side evolve into some sort of joke on the Internet is an unpleasant scene. What sort of statement does that give to someone with Sam Smith’s body and wants to embrace their feminine side?

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