Over 40 in a flesh-colored bodysuit: The slut-shaming of Mariah Carey

Let’s get one thing straight: You don’t need to worry about Mariah Carey.

The pop icon’s New Years’ Eve meltdown, in which the chanteuse’s performance was plagued by tech errors, has left many on the internet speculating whether her nearly three-decade-long career is over. If you’ve been under a rock for the past four days, here’s what happened: Following a flawless performance of “Auld Lang Syne,” Carey barely sang along to “Emotions,” her 1991 hit. Afterward, a badly lip-synched rendition of “We Belong Together” revealed the track to be pre-recorded.

Is this her Ashlee Simpson moment, critics have wondered, where stardom disintegrates before our very eyes? When Simpson belts out a tune like this, I will consider that a question worthy of my word count.

What does need to be addressed, however, is a pernicious byproduct of the singer’s public debacle. Say what you will about how Carey has handled the snafu: Is her rage against the machine that of a professional who simply doesn’t have time for buffoonery or a diva who couldn’t admit that she messed up? You decide. But on Twitter, social media users have taken her to task for another reason—what she was wearing when it all went down. Despite the 35-degree weather, Carey sported a flesh-colored sparkly body suit, which looked transparent on camera. Britney has worn a similar ensemble literally dozens of times, but I digress.

The bevy of tweets attacking her appearance—many of which refer to her as a “whore” or a “slut”—are as varied as they are vile. Some, however, are unintentionally funny, like the one in which user “OneManOneWoman” blames the glitch on the “raving group of homosexuals” Carey surrounds herself with.

Choose your favorite below, and don’t worry: There are so, so many more tweets where that came from. Twitter, as always, is a never-ending rabbit hole of slut-shaming.


This isn’t the first time that Carey has been on the receiving end of social media bile because she dared to show a little skin—or, hey, maybe a lot of skin. In October, U.K.’s Telegraph shielded the pop star from criticism of her sexy Halloween costume, in which she dressed as an impossibly busty red devil, complete with a tight-fitting corset. But anyone outraged about her All Hallows Eve look has clearly never browsed her Instagram: The woman loves to show off her breasts, which really should have their own account.

Festivating dahlings. 🎄🎁❄️☃🌟🎅🏻

A photo posted by Mariah Carey (@mariahcarey) on

The “problem” with Carey, however, isn’t merely that she owns her body without apology. It’s that she continues to flaunt her ample curves well into her forties. At 46, Mariah is no longer the ingenue. She’s a mother of two. By extension, Carey should be at home baking in her sweatpants and watching reruns of Madam Secretary (if you don’t know what that is, ask your mom).

The Draconian rules for women who want to remain sex symbols are perilous at any age: 1) Be sexy, but not too sexy. 2) Don’t look like you’re enjoying it for your own sake (e.g., Kim Kardashian). 3) Don’t get older. Women over 40 are expected to present an “age-appropriate” version of female beauty, which translates to throwing a Dior flour sack over yourself and calling it a day. Those who challenge cultural ageism by doing middle age their way are quickly punished for it.

Madonna, who has been slut-shamed her entire career, is a living embodiment of our limitations on women’s sexuality. Instead of becoming an AARP cover girl, the 58-year-old has continued to push boundaries, showing off her bare butt at the 2016 Met Gala. This wasn’t even the first time Madge had flashed a red carpet.

Acting my Age!! Photo by Mert and Marcus💘

A photo posted by Madonna (@madonna) on


Instead of being championed as a tireless trailblazer and provocateur (like Iggy Pop, who performs shirtless in his late 60s), Madonna is decried as desperate. The critically acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock once referred to Ms. Cuccione as “[clinging] to youth with her Gollum arms.” Piers Morgan, the former CNN host who has since been exiled back to Britain, once claimed that he was physically repulsed by her, saying that Madonna is a “gruesome display of muscle-bound pecs-twitching that actually made me physically gag.”

The bad tweeter expressed similar disgust when Jill Stein’s best friend Susan Sarandon wore a blazer over a black bra to the Screen Actors Guild awards. Morgan, who recently body-shamed Hannah Arendt, told the 70-year-old it was “inappropriate.”

Slut-shaming isn’t a Piers Morgan problem, though. It’s an everyone problem. Studies show that women are harassed because of how they express their sexuality from a young age, and the normalization of that culture can have extremely harmful effects. A 2011 study from the American Association of University Women found that 46 percent of all women in middle and high school had been slut-shamed. Of those that had, 22 percent had trouble sleeping as a result. Fourteen percent missed class to avoid their bullies. Five percent transferred to another school.

As women get older, they don’t age out of being slut-shamed. In 2014, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Merced found that labels like “slut” and “whore” have a purpose: They establish social hierarchies. For students on college campuses, these words were signifiers of a lower status—a way to designate the undesirables.

To call Mariah Carey a “slut” isn’t just a comment on her appearance. It takes her power away, a reminder that to be female and over 40 is basically a second class citizen.

Every woman in America knows what that feels like to be disempowered, even a famous and successful multi-millionaire. Carey has battled criticism of her appearance for decades, particularly allegations that she photoshops her album covers to make herself appear younger. In 2014, Jezebel published unretouched images from a magazine spread with photographer Terry Richardson, in which her waist is slimmed and breasts enlarged. The continued scrutiny is a reminder that aging in the public eye is an unwinnable game.

But if there’s anyone who can come out on top, it’s Mariah.

Don’t miss my new Christmas special #KeysOfChristmas on @youtube! #ytredoriginals 🎄

A photo posted by Mariah Carey (@mariahcarey) on


Since first owning the charts with her octave-spanning “Vision of Love” in 1989, Carey has amassed 18 number-one hits, more than any other artist except for the Beatles. “One Sweet Day,” her collaboration with Boyz II Men, still holds the record for the most consecutive weeks on top the Billboard Hot 100.

This is the same woman, mind you, who has already risen from the ashes once before. Prior to the release of Glitter in 2001, Carey was hospitalized after suffering a severe emotional breakdown; she famously appeared unannounced on Total Request Live, handing out ice cream to host Carson Daly and audience members. At the height of her meltdown, Carey left cryptic voice messages for her fans on her website, claiming that she was taking a break from music. All of this happened before the movie, a notorious bomb that swept the Razzies, even premiered.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Virgin Records America bought out their contract with Carey following poor sales of the film’s soundtrack. That means a record label literally paid her $50 million to go away.

But Carey bounced back with a vengeance. In 2005, the melisma queen released The Emancipation of Mimi, which was nominated for 10 Grammys and spawned three number-one singles. “We Belong Together” spent 14 weeks at the highest peak of the Billboard charts, an achievement surpassed only by—yup, you guessed it—Mariah Carey. “One Sweet Day” led for 16. When it comes to giving up, Ms. Carey doesn’t know her.

And she shouldn’t stop. Women like Mariah and Madonna should be allowed to flaunt whatever they damn well please without our approval; certainly, they’ve earned the right. Instead of asking our pop icons to go quietly into that good night with a warm shawl, hot cocoa, and a copy of The Bridges of Madison County, let’s give them the space to redefine what sexy is at every age. I don’t want to live in a world where the woman who sang “Honey” isn’t wearing nearly nothing in the freezing winter, even well into her 60s.

Demanding your right to be sexy at 40 or 60 or 103 isn’t desperate. It’s defiant. 

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.