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Jesy Nelson, mental health and women in music

Fans suspected Nelson had been struggling for some time. Now it’s time for the music industry to change.

In mid-December, Little Mix member Jesy Nelson announced she’d left the group in an Instagram post. Her moving statement, which outlined the reasons for her exit, cited the band taking a “toll on (her) mental health”, adding that she found living up to the expectations of being in a girl group “very hard”.

Though shocking, her words didn’t feel new – they reiterated the sentiment of her BBC documentary, Odd One Out, which premiered last year. The hour-long film followed Nelson through a period of mental rehabilitation after suffering from mass online abuse.

Cyberbullying has been critical to Nelson’s timeline. Since the inception of Little Mix on the 2011 series of The X Factor, she’s been consistently singled out – when Nelson competed in the singing contest, it unleashed a sea of criticism about her weight and appearance rather than her voice.

Winning offered no solace. After being crowned, Nelson received a Facebook message from a stranger that read: “You are the ugliest thing I have ever seen in my life. You do not deserve to be in a girl band. You deserve to die.” Within a year of winning the show, the trolling grew to be so intense that Nelson quit Twitter. Within two years of that, she’d been diagnosed with depression.

Nelson is just one example of how social media can tear apart female stars. Women are three times more likely to be trolled than men, a statistic that is backed up by anecdotal evidence from public figures – Taylor Swift is hounded for writing about her ex-partners, Megan Thee Stallion is rebuked for her appearance and Madonna is ridiculed for her age. Women in music are attacked for their appearance far more than they are for their songwriting or musical ability.

At a fundamental level, the way we navigate online spaces must change. A culture that forces a woman out of the most successful girl group since the Spice Girls is regressive. There’s a line of argument that says famous women will never see insulting comments that are posted about them online, but that’s not true – Nelson addresses specific Tweets that she’d personally seen in Odd One Out.

Of course, being a pop star is an undeniably privileged position to be in. Particularly at a time when unemployment is rising, and NHS staff (amongst other key workers) are tirelessly salvaging essential services. However the ongoing pandemic – and its accompanying periods of isolation – have only emphasised how crucial it is to behave compassionately to everyone on social media. It’s unproductive to disseminate hatred to those who haven’t done anything to warrant it at a time of public uncertainty.

Online abuse isn’t the sole reason for Nelson’s departure. The music industry is multi-faceted, so her reasons for isolating herself from it are inherently layered too. The former Little Mix member also stated she needs to take time off to “reinvest in taking care of (herself) rather than focusing on making other people happy”.

As with the online world, we need to question the morals of an industry that overworks musicians to the point where they neglect their own wellbeing.

Fellow X Factor alumni Liam Payne claimed that remaining a member of One Direction “would have killed (him)” due to the level of exploitation of the group by the band’s label. “I had no personal life, I learned nothing about myself”, Payne said about his seven-year boyband career.

Although discussions around male mental health are long overdue, this strain of online abuse has the biggest impact on women. Alongside performing, female stars experience the dual burden of constant reinvention – women are expected to continually change their aesthetic to stay relevant in a fast-moving popular culture. The same cannot be said for men. There are dozens of white men with guitars, who bear more resemblance to Ed Sheeran than they’d care to admit, currently topping the charts.

This continuous change has been a lived experience for Nelson. Little Mix has released six studio albums, each accompanied by a radical new look – 2013’s Salute saw the group in military-inspired costumes whereas its predecessor, 2011’s DNA, saw the women clad in bright DayGlo outfits.

The pressure of reinvention catches up with female musicians. From Beyoncé to Selena Gomez, many have taken hiatuses due to burn-out. The departure of Jesy Nelson is just another case of the music industry taking a heavy toll on its female stars.

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