Beyoncé’s song “Pretty Hurts” focuses on the unrealistic beauty standards women face and the drastic measures women will take in order to fit into those standards. The video depicts Beyoncé competing in a beauty pageant and it shows some of the tactics the girls in the pageant use to lose weight. Beyoncé is seen in multiple settings, all with different influences on the message of the song, such as when she is backstage, in her room, and on the pageant stage.
When Beyoncé is shown in the dressing room backstage, she is surrounded by other contestants of the beauty pageant. She is swallowed into the background, as other girls push their way to the front of the mirror and fight for attention. On multiple occasions, Beyoncé is seen fighting with the other girls in the dressing room, such as when she is fighting over a blow dryer with another girl; other girls are seen staining other’s outfits. This symbolizes how people in today’s society will often drag others down in order to make themselves look better. This contributes to the overall message Beyoncé was trying to portray, as it shows how harmful society is to one’s self esteem. The pressure of society makes people feel the need to tear others down just to make themselves fit in.
In the dressing room, girls also engage in self-harmful behavior, such as disordered eating. One contestant is first seen squeezing her fat as she looks in the mirror. In a later shot, she is forcing herself to eat cotton balls. The cotton balls would fill her stomach, so she would not have to eat. This form of anorexia shows the lengths that people will go just to fit society’s standards of “pretty.” People willingly starve themselves just so they can feel like they meet society’s standards. Beyoncé is also shown a few different times wiping her mouth as she comes out of a bathroom stall, insinuating that she forced herself to throw up. Bulimia overtakes the lives of many people, both girls and boys, as they feel guilty for eating, so they make themselves throw up. When she is leaving the bathroom stall, Beyoncé looks scared, guilty, and ashamed. She knows she should not do that, but she is willing to do whatever it takes to be seen as pretty in society’s eyes. Eating disorders and disordered eating control the lives of many people around the world, primarily affecting teenagers. Beyoncé helps bring attention to the ever-growing issue by addressing it in this music video.
Another setting of the music video is when Beyoncé is sitting alone in her room; she is surrounded by trophies and is the focus of the shot. The trophies show that even though she has won all of her pageants, she is still unhappy. Even though she is society’s definition of perfection, she has never focused on herself and her wellbeing; she has only focused on being pretty. Beyoncé is also the center of the frame in this setting, portraying that when she is alone she can finally focus on herself, rather than what others think of her. Later in the music video, Beyoncé destroys all of the trophies in her room, knowing that they will not make her happy. This symbolizes her realization that as long as she keeps trying to be society’s definition of perfect, she will never be happy, which ultimately is her aspiration in life.
When she is on the pageant stage, she is compared to all of the other contestants. This is especially seen when all of the contestants are wearing the same outfit (a yellow swimsuit), with the same hair and makeup. In this scene, all of them are waving and smiling at the same time. This reflects the idea that society wants everyone to look the same way. This scene portrays the uniformity of being perfect. Society’s expectations are forcing everyone to conform to one identical look, which can be especially harmful to teenagers whose bodies are always changing. The reason for showing Beyoncé in different settings is to highlight that when girls are alone, they are able to reflect and focus on themselves and themselves only, but when they are surrounded by other girls, they are often blurred into the background as they are compared to each other, seeing who doesn’t fit the standards of society.
The main goal of this song is to address the harmful nature that society has created for people, particularly women. Women are constantly being judged by others for their body weight and size. Beyoncé shows how girls react to this at multiple points throughout the music video. The lyrics in the song say, “Blonder hair, flat chest, TV says ‘bigger is better’… Vogue says, ‘thinner is better’” (3:15). Girls are told that “bigger is better,” often in regard to breast size and butt size, but also that “thinner is better,” when talking about waist size. It is unrealistic for girls to have a skinny waist and a big butt, but girls will take extreme measures to try to obtain that body image. Beyoncé is shown working out with a waist trainer on, which squeezes her organs together and rearranges them to make her appear skinnier. When she is working out, the lyrics say, “thinner is better,” and she is then seen weighing herself, looking ashamed of her weight (3:27). Because of society’s beauty standards for women, women become obsessed with their body image and what they look like. They will do practically anything to fit in the category of “skinny,” regardless of whether it is healthy or not
Both the music video and the lyrics of the song highlight the harsh beauty standards women face every day. Due to these harsh beauty standards, it is hard for women to be happy in life, which Beyoncé depicts when she is asked what her aspiration in life is. Beyoncé struggles to answer the question she is given, mainly because she has not focused on what her life aspirations are. Instead, she focuses on what she looks like on the outside, such as her body size, and how to look “better”—how to look skinnier, tanner, etc. In the video, it is clear that the character Beyoncé portrays is not happy with her life, so she says her life aspiration is to be happy, to not have to worry about what she looks like or being judged by others. This video raises awareness of the unrealistic beauty standards society imposes on both women and men. It highlights the harsh and harmful measures people will take in order to conform to these standards.
The chorus of the song aims to show the distorted reality of society, and how vast the problem it creates is. The chorus sings: “Pretty hurts / We shine the light on whatever’s worst … ” (1:21). The phrase “pretty hurts” points out the pain it causes people to try to fit into society’s standards. Whether it be emotional pain from someone thinking they are not good enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not tan enough, or physical pain from the measures they take to be good enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, or tan enough. In today’s world, society causes people to point out the flaws other individuals have, mainly to make themselves feel better. This toxic behavior is the cause of the increase in mental illnesses, some of which are portrayed in the music video. The chorus goes on to say, “Perfection is a disease of a nation/ It’s the soul that needs the surgery” (1:29). By this, Beyoncé means that the idea of being perfect is stretched all across the country. Every person in this country has struggled with the brutal expectations of society. The second verse highlights that it is not people’s body that needs surgery, such as plastic surgery or liposuction, it’s their soul that needs it, because society has distorted people’s perceptions of what is pretty to an extreme level.
Although this song and music video were released six years ago, it is still relevant today. Social media plays an important role in shaping societies standards. On social media, people are able to edit their photos and pick exactly how people see them. This leads to the concept that everyone is perfect in this idealized world, which is far from the truth. When everyone is viewed as perfect on social media, it creates feelings of insecurity and doubt within oneself. Beyoncé works to address this problem, but as long as social media continues to create these feelings of insecurity, the problem will struggle to be resolved.
Matsoukas, Melina, director. Beyoncé – Pretty Hurts (Video). 24 Apr. 2014. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXXQLa- 5n5w. Accessed 24 September 2020.