Beyoncé dropped a new full-length album on iTunes on Thursday night, and it came with the combination of pop feminist commentary and fierce video performance we’ve learned to expect from Bey. “Mama said you’re a pretty girl/ What’s in your head, it doesn’t matter/ Brush your hair, fix your teeth/ What you wear is all that matters,” she sings on the opening track “Pretty Hurts,” an ode to the damaging effects of body policing. “Blonder hair, flat chest/ TV says bigger is better/ South Beach, sugar free/ Vogue says thinner is better.” In the pageant-themed accompanied video, judges measure Beyoncé’s tummy with tape and slap at her thighs in preparation for the stage; in a post-pageant scene, she sits on a hotel floor in tiara, sash, underwear and socks, putting the “hurt” side of “pretty” on display. “Shine the light on whatever’s worse, tryna fix something,” she sings. “But you can’t fix what you can’t see/ It’s the soul that needs the surgery.”
That’s a very positive message to send to young women. And it can afford to be so positive because it’s based on an incredibly outdated vision of how we reinforce unattainable physical norms for girls. Who is this strawmama Beyoncé speaks of? I can’t imagine that a significant portion of American girls are growing up today with mothers who emphasize nothing but their daughters’ looks. And beauty pageants are increasingly irrelevant to our construction of femininity. In 1965, 22 million households watched the Miss America pageant; this year, the pageant counted only 7.4 million viewers. Beyoncé may not look like your stereotypical long-limbed blond beauty queen, but then again, neither does the modern Miss America.
No, today’s beauty myth is constructed through collections of highly curated “candid” selfies beamed straight from the stars themselves, and Beyoncé is its queen. Eight million people follow Beyoncé on Instagram, where they drink in flawless shots of her “casually” stepping out with her family and lounging on vacation. (The audience for that performance is larger than Miss America’s.) Even as Beyoncé winkingly mocks the exercise, she’s looking fly. After Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance last year, her publicist attempted to scrub the Internet of all “unflattering” shots by intimidating news outlets into removing Getty photographs from one of the most public performances in American entertainment. She now bans the media from photographing her shows, allowing only her personal photog’s approved shots to leak out to the masses. In Beyoncé’s “documentary,” she is writer, director, and star.
There’s something very powerful about Beyoncé taking ownership of her own image, as opposed to just surrendering to disgusting tabloid messaging about women’s bodies or straight-up selling off her image to the wolves at Us Weekly. But it’s worth investigating exactly how she chooses to use that power. The “Pretty Hurts” video ostensibly shows the judges nitpicking Bey’s flaws, but what viewers see are shots of a toned stomach and immovable thighs. In reflective hotel floor repose, she looks more flawless than ever. Beyoncé is the living embodiment of diversifying beauty standards for women in America, but in many ways, she now is the standard, and it’s still an unattainable one. Google “Beyoncé diet” to see just how she does it.
Being honest about the work that goes into attaining feminine beauty—and the pressures that are put on even the people who work at it the hardest—is better than one alternative, where the celebrity ludicrously claims that she just “eats healthy” and “runs after her kids.” And for stars like Beyoncé, embracing the feminist messaging helps refute the basic idea that women are just movable dolls of the beauty industry with no thoughts of their own, including complex perspectives on their own bodies. (Take that, parents who say “what’s in your head, it doesn’t matter.”) But this is also a concerted ploy. Today’s beauty queens don’t just project their images by restricting access to the candid paparazzi shots that fuel “worst beach bodies” slideshows. They also do it by rejecting beauty ideals vocally even as they reinforce them visually.
On Thursday, Pretty Little Liars actress Ashley Benson took to Instagram to criticize a poster for the show: “Our faces in this were from 4 years ago … and we all look ridiculous. Way too much photo shop. We all have flaws. No one looks like this. It’s not attractive,” she wrote. In a note to her fans, she added, “please don’t ever try to look like the people you see in magazines or posters because it’s fake. It only causes an unhealthy mind about how you see yourself.” But scroll through the remainder of Benson’s self-shot, filtered, and curated Instagram photos, and you’ll find a pretty flawless vision there, too. This is also “fake,” but when it comes down to it, it’s hard to make Benson look bad. “I think there’s a perception out there that people know me based on these glamorous photos they see of me in magazines, but I have about two hours of hair and makeup and then people to dress me, to make me look even better, in those pictures,” Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice told Seventeen. “Even” is the operative word here. If Justice (or Benson) didn’t satisfy the basic requirements to be photographed as a thin, windswept beauty, she wouldn’t be a star. Publishing images of beautiful girls, along with the beautiful girls’ rejection of their artifice, is now a reliable strategy for selling women’s magazines and Beyoncé videos alike.
And the fetishization of the candid only increases the demands on women’s looks. On the track “Flawless,” Beyoncé samples a TEDx speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” Then Beyoncé comes in: “You wake up, flawless/ Post up, flawless/ Ride round in it, flawless … I woke up like this/ I woke up like this.” Beyoncé may by exposing how ridiculous this notion is, but we’re still meant to believe that she really does “wake up like this.” And if we’re being honest, Beyoncé wakes up a lot more flawless than most of us do. Even an “unflattering” Beyoncé photo is an ideal.
“Perfection is the disease of a nation,” Beyoncé sings on “Pretty Hurts.” Beyoncé lives in that nation, and there are arguably more eyeballs assessing her appearance than any other living woman. She, too, is an admitted perfectionist, in her work and in her looks (and in her business, it’s impossible to draw a distinction between the two). “I am a natural fat person, just dying to get out,” Beyoncé has said. “I go through agonies to keep my stomach as flat as possible—though it is never flat enough for me.” The way that Beyoncé grapples with these complicated dynamics is an incredibly complex, and interesting, performance. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than “Pretty Hurts.”