Earlier this month, Dove Cameron shared a selfie with her 30 million followers on Instagram. In the photo, the 23-year-old actress best known for starring in the Disney Channel sitcom Liv and Maddie is tilting her head ever so slightly, allowing her bleach-blonde hair to cascade over her shoulder. She stares at the camera with big green eyes and barely pouts her glossed lips. Her outfit is unextraordinary—a ribbed white tank top and delicately layered gold necklaces. All in all, it’s about as normal as a selfie gets. And, as if on cue, the comments began to pour in.
“As a woman I personally don’t post things that expose my body for the simple reason that I have self-respect,” writes one user. “It’s inappropriate to post stuff like this with kids following her,” says another. “She should have a PRIVATE account for these type of photos instead of her MAIN account where kids can see.” Setting aside that there is nothing offensive about the photo, except for maybe the subject’s enviably dewy complexion, there is the fact young kids are not even allowed to be on Instagram in the first place. The minimum age requirement on the app is 13.
Of the 48,679 comments on the photo at press time, many read like the ones above or much harsher, infected with hateful language about female sexuality. You may ask yourself why such an innocuous photo garnered this response (or maybe not, because you already know social media to be a garbage dump free from the constraints of logic and human decency). Well, dear reader, Cameron committed the cardinal sin of choosing to forgo a bra. Her followers now know—gasp—that she has nipples.
It seems Cameron anticipated the angry response, sharing the photo with a lengthy caption about female empowerment, as if she felt she would have to justify her braless-ness. “Women HAVE a history that has been systematically suppressed,” the caption begins. “Our collective spirituality has largely been tainted to fit the needs of men and those in power.”
While it’s positive that the Disney darling is using her platform to empower young girls, the caption-photo combo also conveys a grimmer underlying message—that Cameron, a 23-year-old woman, couldn’t post a braless selfie just because she wanted to. That she felt the need to offer some explanation besides “I just didn’t feel like putting on a bra on this morning.” That she even had to put so much thought into a seemingly inconsequential wardrobe choice in the first place.
Such is the tragic (infuriating) fate of many Disney starlets who are just trying to navigate growing up. It’s a familiar tale, one that’s been played out so many times that an entire book could be written on the subject. In fact, as I was preparing to the write this column I was struck with an unshakeable sense of déjà vu and realized that the exact same thing happened to Cameron back in January when she posted a blurry video of herself on a bed in a bikini. Strangers called her desperate and attention-seeking, using the coded sexist language directed at women comfortable with their bodies. She was forced to amend the original caption (“I love the female body,” followed by a series of emojis) to include the parenthetical statement, “guys if i’m in a bathing suit, and i’m 23 and you’re tripping, you need to re-evaluate what trips you up. and also get more comfortable w the human body.”
Few know the struggles of growing up in the spotlight as well as Miley Cyrus, who was 11 when she auditioned for Hannah Montana and subsequently catapulted to superstardom in her vulnerable, early teen years. Cyrus’ character was the embodiment of all-American wholesomeness, delivering absurd catch phrases like, “sweet niblets!” and “say what?” with a Tennessee twang. It doesn’t get more on the nose than naming her pop star alter ego after one of the 50 states. So when Cyrus had her first brush with scandal at the age of 15, the incident rapidly spun out of proportion.
In 2008, the then-teen was photographed by iconic celeb photographer Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, posing with her bare back exposed and a sheet covering the front of her body. Parents were outraged, calling the shot provocative and inappropriate. Jamie Lee Curtis took a break from hawking Activia yogurt to blog about how it was unfair for Cyrus to have been put in that position. The New York Post ran the photo on the front page with the unsurprisingly sensationalistic, caps-locked headline, “Miley’s Shame.”
In response, Cyrus issued a statement apologizing for her participation in the photoshoot. “I took part in a photo shoot that was supposed to be ‘artistic’ and now, seeing the photographs and reading the story, I feel so embarrassed,” she says in the statement. “I never intended for any of this to happen and I apologize to my fans who I care so deeply about.”
The singer has been unable to escape scrutiny since. We all remember her Bangerz-era VMAs twerkathon with Robin Thicke—a performance that would be considered tame by today’s standards, delivered by a grown-ass woman (Cyrus was 20 at the time). Last week, amidst the fallout from her separation with on-off partner of 10 years Liam Hemsworth, Cyrus took to Twitter to share a cathartic 11-tweet thread clearing up rumors surrounding the break-up by reflecting on past controversies.
“I lost a massive Walmart deal at 17 for ripping a bong,” she writes in one tweet. Also on her moral rap sheet: “I got kicked off [Hotel Transylvania] for buying Liam a penis cake for his birthday and licking it,” “I swung on a wrecking ball naked,” and “There are probably more nudes of me on the internet than maybe any woman in history.” The thread is meant to be Cyrus’ way of being transparent about her mistakes, but it doubles as a list of every time she was skewered for simply growing up under conditions of extreme fame.
It’s an unfortunate testament to our society’s treatment of young girls and women that the same article could be written about any number of other starlets who emerged into Hollywood from the House of Mouse—just swap out the names and examples of public shaming. Former Shake It Up star Bella Thorne, who is 21 years old and was recently the victim of hackers threatening to leak her nude photos, is regularly lambasted on social media for being candid about her sexuality, childhood molestation, and use of marijuana. In 2007, at the peak of her High School Musical fame, Vanessa Hudgens was slut-shamed when nude photos of her made the rounds online. Hudgens had to bear the brunt of the blame, instead of the hacker who grossly and illegally invaded her privacy.
Following the 2008 Vanity Fair photo controversy, the president of entertainment for Disney Channel, Gary Marsh, was quoted saying, “For Miley Cyrus, to be a ‘good girl’ is now a business decision for her. Parents have invested in her a godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.” Not only does this quote have a vaguely threatening undertone and blatantly sexist overtone, but it suggests that Cyrus herself was the one making the “business decision” to be godly, and thus the one to blame for jeopardizing that image. In an industry in which girls reach astronomical levels of fame before entering high school, I am skeptical that this is true, and positive that it should not be.