The Soapbox: On “Pretty Hurts” & Beyonce’s Critique Of Airbrushed Beauty Culture
Three or so days in, I’ve listened to Beyonce’s new, self-titled record straight through at least a dozen times. I say with all seriousness that I believe it is her masterpiece, one of those increasingly rare albums in which every track is essential to the overall story. While I have my favorites, there is not one track I have the desire to skip. The album and its 17 accompanying music videos tell a story about womanhood, but specifically Black womanhood, that is powerful, compelling and beautiful. At times, the songs are clearly autobiographical, but they also speak to themes that are relatable to many women — sexuality, self-expression, motherhood, love, heartbreak, power, and self-worth. The latter theme is especially felt in the album’s opening number, “Pretty Hurts,” which has Bey singing about the damaging effects of rigid beauty standards and body policing. The video for “Pretty Hurts” features Beyonce as a pageant contestant (from the Third Ward, the area in Houston where she grew up) who endures judgmental looks and objectifying weight and measurement assessments as she sings, “But you can’t fix what you can’t see/ It’s the soul that needs the surgery.”
The song sends a powerful message about the pressure we put on girls to look a certain way; the video depicts just one way that pressure is experienced by girls specifically in the pageant circuit. But according to Amanda Hess over at Slate, the video’s pageant theme is “based on an incredibly outdated vision of how we reinforce unattainable physical norms for girls.” According to Hess, “today’s beauty myth is constructed through collections of highly curated ‘candid’ selfies beamed straight from the stars themselves, and Beyoncé is its queen.” In other words, it’s not just the video that Hess has a problem with — it’s Beyonce delivering that message at all because, in her opinion, Beyonce is part of the problem. What Hess gets wrong is … well, everything.
I don’t quite understand Hess’s problem with the beauty pageant theme of the “Pretty Hurts” video. The vast majority of music videos depict a song’s theme via some specific imagined storyline and Beyonce’s is no different. Who cares that less people are watching the Miss America pageant on TV? And while Hess is correct that Instagram certainly contributes to the way modern beauty myths are constructed, it’s wrong to put the blame on Beyonce for using it in a way that Hess sees as heavily curated and clearly too pretty to know how not being pretty hurts.
According to Hess, Beyonce is too beautiful to sing about unattainable beauty standards because “she now is the standard.” The video for “Pretty Hurts,” writes Hess, “shows the judges nitpicking Bey’s flaws, but what viewers see are shots of a toned stomach and immovable thighs.” In other words, what’s Beyonce complaining about? She’s perfect! As if body hatred and insecurity is only experienced by the objectively “ugly.” Just talk to any woman who suffers from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia. While I agree with Hess that Beyonce is “the living embodiment of diversifying beauty standards,” in that, as a Black woman, she breaks the white, blonde, blue-eyed mold, Hess is completely wrong in assuming that Beyonce is or has ever been immune to feeling the pressure of those standards. In fact, I can imagine that as one of the world’s most famous women, who is held up as “the living embodiment of diversifying beauty standards,” the pressure is greater and more complicated than ever. I mean, Beyonce’s Instagram photos are being scrutinized for not being ugly enough, or something.
Never mind the fact that the pressure we’ve felt throughout our lives can continue to impact us in the here and now. As a teenager, I had horrific acne, glasses and braces all at once. Puberty hit me hard. My self-esteem was ravaged and every time I look in the mirror now, there’s still a part of me that feels like that “ugly” teenager. The hurt that comes from failing to measure up to our culture’s beauty standards does not ever completely go away. Did it not occur to Hess that Beyonce, as a flesh and blood human being, might know that hurt too? That she might know that hurt especially as a Black woman who was once a Black girl competing in pageants where her competition was often white? As much as Beyonce may now embody diversifying beauty standards, those beauty standards have not always been and still are not diverse. Besides, “Pretty Hurts” is hardly the first song from a beautiful pop star to criticize impossible beauty standards for women … but I don’t recall similar criticisms of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”
Hess writes about Beyonce’s beauty as if it’s universally accepted. “Even an ‘unflattering’ Beyoncé photo is an ideal,” she says. As a commenter noted, “Ms. Hess may protest all that she wants that she thinks Beyonce is too pretty to critique the airbrushed beauty culture, but I think she forgets the reality of this world, where dark skinned women are not considered ideals of beauty, where they will always be considered lacking or ugly, even one who looks like Beyonce.” Besides, those “Hulk”-esque snaps from the Super Bowl Half-Time Show nearly two years ago beg to differ. Hess actually uses those photos as an example of Beyonce contributing to the beauty myth, because Bey’s publicist famously tried to get the images scrubbed from the internet. Hess may feel even the most unflattering of those photos is still the ideal, but Beyonce clearly didn’t. (Neither did the internet, whose reaction to those photos was largely “Holy shit, look at how bad Beyonce looks!”)
Hess’s analysis of “Pretty Hurts” falls flat because she writes as if her perception of Beyonce at the new beauty ideal is both one everyone shares and Beyonce has experienced. Hess thinks Beyonce is pretty, therefore Beyonce can’t know the hurt of not being pretty. Beyonce is pretty, therefore she can’t portray someone in a video who doesn’t feel pretty. Beyonce is pretty, therefore she can’t complain about the beauty standards that make other women, particularly Black woman, feel less than pretty. Hess ultimately misses the mark because she fails to recognize how Beyonce’s blackness affects her feminism. As this album is clearly a reflection of that feminism, both personal and political, I would suggest that white feminists like Hess stop overanalyzing Beyonce’s Instagram feed and placing blame, and instead really listen to what she has to say.