Last week, John Legend released the video for his single “You and I,” and full disclosure: It made me cry. The video is a unique case in which a song about the natural beauty of women is paired with truly diverse images, and it’s uplifting to see these women — of all ages, sizes, ethnicities — in the spotlight. But the song itself rubs the wrong way from the beginning, with opening lines to a woman who, wouldn’t you know, doesn’t realize she’s beautiful:
You fix your makeup just so / Guess you don’t know that you’re beautiful / Try on every dress that you own / You were fine in my eyes a half hour ago / If your mirror won’t make it any clearer I’ll be the one to let you know
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a pretty tired motif: the woman who is beautiful, but doesn’t know she’s beautiful, and who absolutely needs to be told that she can be liberated from her makeup and mirrors. In “The Way You Are,” Bruno Mars knows that when he compliments the object of his affection, she “won’t believe [him],” insisting, as the title suggests, that she’s beautiful just the way she is. In “She Will Be Loved,” Adam Levine’s girl’s got “a broken smile” and he just “want[s] to make her feel beautiful.” Sammy Kershaw’s titular woman in “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful” is ignorant to her allure — even though, “time and time [he’s] told her so” — because she’s “not that kind.” And then, of course, the worst offenders: the One Direction moppets who, in “What Makes You Beautiful,” assured an audience of “insecure” girls — whose beauty is apparent to “everyone else in the room” but lost on them — that they “don’t need makeup to cover up.”
The men who are cooing reassurances to women that they’re beautiful just as they are is the equivalent of a paternalistic pat on the head, and it assumes, requires, and reinforces the idea that those women don’t know this already. So let’s say for the moment that this is true. Probably many women listening to the song don’t believe they are beautiful, and another 10,000 words could be written on the many and varied ways that that’s the fault of our mass media.
Am I mad at John Legend (and those in his camp) for writing a song attempting to undo the damages of years of his own industry’s sins? No. Of course not. But I’d still rather he didn’t, and here’s why: These songs, which presume to assure women that they are attractive (and, by extension, worthwhile), assume that the singer’s relationship to our bodies overrules our relationship with them. All of our primping — our “fixing makeup, just so” — has a pointed objective, namely to be found attractive by men. And allegedly, what a relief to find out we don’t need to be doing any of it at all!
If a woman doesn’t believe she is beautiful, the solution isn’t a man telling her she’s wrong. If women have been groomed to believe that they need to look a specific way to succeed in the world, you can trust that those beliefs are so internalized and wide-ranging as to require far more than male approval and acceptance to be undone.
Now let’s assume wearing makeup isn’t about that, at least not entirely. Let’s say that these women DO know they’re beautiful, and, more importantly, that their relationships with their appearance aren’t defined by whether or not they put on makeup. That a woman might wear lipstick or curl her hair because she likes it, that she could find her own empowerment through physical appearance, completely detached from the reaction of men, is an absent concept in these songs. It seems unfathomable that there can be any satisfaction, separated from male approval, that could be gleaned from the dressing of our bodies.
And here’s the biggest problem with these musical paeans to insecurity: The women who do enjoy their bodies, who know and celebrate their beauty, don’t get syrupy love songs. Their narrative isn’t compelling. If One Direction has taught us anything, the unknowing-ness is an essential factor of their beauty. She doesn’t know she’s beautiful, and that’s what makes her beautiful. (In case you missed it, Stephen Colbert expertly pokes fun at this in his logical dissection.) But the guys from 1D weren’t alone in this. The “best part” of the girl Blake Shelton croons about in “She Doesn’t Know She’s Got It” is, unsurprisingly, that she doesn’t know she’s turning heads. And, again, in Kershaw’s “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful,” the fact that “she’s not that kind [to believe she’s attractive]” is presented, with little subtlety, as among her most attractive qualities.
Why this fascination with the woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful, the idealization of low self-esteem? It orients the singer as a savior — the sensitive soul whom this girl, who has been slaving away day in and day out in front of a mirror that just won’t reveal the beauty she longs to see, desperately requires. These aren’t songs for young men, who, theoretically, could listen and reconsider their standards of female beauty. These are songs for girls who get the message that insecurity has romantic value, if only because it’s the necessary setup to the grand moment in which they find the boys who — god bless them! — finally pull them out of it.
By all means, write songs about how beautiful women are. Write songs about how beautiful men are too! (Incidentally, if you’re unsure how specifically gendered this trope is: Try to imagine a song in which a female singer says just how much she wants to make a guy “feel beautiful.”) But don’t assume we’re uncomfortable in our skin just because we dress it up when we present it to the world. Don’t tell us we don’t know we’re beautiful, and certainly don’t tell us that our ignorance to this fact is our best quality. We’re good.