By Bailey Shoemaker Richards
We’ve all heard these songs – “You don’t know you’re beautiful… and that’s what makes you beautiful,” “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts,” – and the dozens of others like them: the songs that emphasize young straight white women being ignorant of their own beauty (or deriding a certain type of presentation of beauty) in order to be worthy of the attention of young straight white men. The boys singing to the girls who are unaware that they meet a standard of beauty that the boys find acceptable want those girls to know that they are worthy of desire. How sweet, right? How cute. How harmless.
No girl who even comes close to meeting the impossible standards of white Western female beauty is unaware of that fact. Even if, like me, you were a total nerd in high school and couldn’t get a date until your senior year, you know when people think you’re pretty. They tell you, and you have to pretend to reject the compliment (otherwise you’re a snob who thinks she too good for the rest of us) or pretend like no one had ever said that to you before (otherwise you’re kind of a slut).
But they know, those girls, on some level. And so do the girls who don’t meet that standard: the girls of color, the fat girls, the gay and trans* and queer kids. Everyone knows who is in and who is out according to teen pop stars and teen magazines, whether or not they listen to the top 40 radio stations or read Seventeen. That’s one of the reasons this messaging of purity – because make no mistake, that’s what this is about – is so toxic and damaging.
You may be asking, why is it about purity, though? What does beauty have to do with purity? First let’s look at what purity means in this context. Purity is the Taylor Swift style of virginity and white female superiority: Only by being a young white woman who saves herself for Romeo/her best friend who ignores her for slutty girls/”true love” and regards her virginity as “her everything” can be beautiful. According to young boy bands like One Direction, only the girl who turns every head in the room but somehow manages to miss that fact is beautiful.
Beauty and purity go hand in hand, and are tied up in a false sense of modesty. This type of attractiveness comes from being white, virginal, conventionally attractive and actively or deliberately ignorant of meeting that standard of attractiveness. It comes from needing to be seen as beautiful even “without any makeup on” but in “skin-tight jeans” if you’re Katy Perry, from Bruno Mars ‘knowing’ that “when I compliment her, she won’t believe me,” and in reminding a boy that he should be dating a girl who isn’t a shallow hussy, if you’re Taylor Swift.
All of this encourages girls to constantly strive to meet an arbitrary standard of attractiveness that fuels multiple industries (dieting and cosmetics, primarily) while reminding them that their job is to be appealing to men but never to admit that they’re trying to be good-looking for men, and never admit that they look good – especially if they’re not skinny or white. It creates a maelstrom of unhealthy attitudes about girls’ bodies and sexuality. Girls must be all things: attractive and unknowing, winking about sex and flaunting their sexuality but never expressing desire or – worse – actually having sex, and presenting their bodies as sexually available while deriding those girls whose sex lives are more active than their own. They must do all this while being straight, slender and white and preferably blonde or they’re not really even in the game to begin with.
Song after song, movie after movie and ad after ad tell this story, reinforce it and normalize it. It’s no wonder that girls grow up with increasing anxiety about their bodies and higher rates of eating disorders. It’s completely unacceptable. It needs to change.
One thing I’d like to see change is this notion that beauty is only acceptable beauty if it’s attached to (inherently false) modesty. The idea that we have to reject compliments or pretend to be unaware when we look fantastic creates an unhealthy tension about our bodies. When we start our days thinking we look good, we should not have to pretend otherwise.
Another thing I’d like to change immediately is the notion that normalized white female beauty is the only kind of acceptable, and acceptably feminine, beauty. It’s a construct rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy and kyriarchy, and it does enormous damage to WOC, trans* and other queer women, fat women, disabled women and, yes, even men. I want to find and listen to and promote songs that celebrate the beauty of non-stereotypical beauty, that promote a healthy body image at any size, shape or color, that are all about loving yourself first and foremost as who you are and inherently worthy and beautiful, and not how you fail to meet the standards of straight cisgender whiteness.
I would also like to find, listen to and promote songs that don’t focus on beauty to the exclusion of all other characteristics where love is concerned. That’s a lofty goal, I know, but I want to expand the definition of beauty as well, and I’m up against an entire cultural mindset as it is. Beauty is not a concept that we will ever be rid of, and being attractive isn’t inherently a bad thing; it only becomes a bad thing when there is only one type of beauty that is deemed acceptable, and when that type of beauty becomes shorthand for worth. It is in challenging both of those notions that we can start to progress towards a definition of beauty that is truly accurate.