“You don’t know you’re beautiful”

I know. Of all the songs in the world, I choose “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction to attack. Why not something openly misogynistic? An I-want-to-do-violence-to-women anthem? Perhaps a piece written by an unapologetic abuser? We all know these artists and these songs, many of which are more popular and played than “What Makes You Beautiful”.

I admit, there is a level of bias operating here. I’m a snooty amateur musician. Very snooty, very amateur. Boy bands are not well-appreciated by the likes of us and One Direction is very much a boy band. Three of the five of them have interpretive versions of Justin Bieber hair.

But, dear reader, I promise you that I’ve checked my anti-boy-band bias and this is not the only reason I’m hating on “What Makes You Beautiful”. If you will, please come on a journey with me through the chorus lyrics.

Baby you light up my world like nobody else
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed
But when you smile at the ground it aint hard to tell
You don’t know, oh oh
You don’t know you’re beautiful
If only you saw what I can see
You’ll understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know, oh oh
You don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh
That’s what makes you beautiful

Do you see what I mean when I say horrible evils come in the form of a sweetly singing boy?

For all the “women are beautiful” pretence in media and advertising going on these days, there’s this whole contradictory strain of thought going on at the same time. It tells women and girls that they should know they’re beautiful inwardly and out, but when a girl or woman is too knowledgeable about her outward beauty, too aware of it, she’s vain and shallow. A bitch. What’s more, she’s dangerous – she’s got beauty and she knows how to use it.

I don’t believe in vanity and an overemphasis on looks, but I think this can be an impossible place to be in. Outwardly beautiful and completely unaware of it, as if you’ve never looked in a mirror, never come across the stereotyping standards of beauty in media, never benefited or felt uncomfortable by how people treat you by virtue of your looks. “That’s what makes you beautiful”. That a woman or girl’s very lack of understanding on an issue should make her beautiful – even the ways she fulfils sexist standards with her own looks – creeps me out entirely.

“What Makes You Beautiful” is a messed-up song.

Think I’m wrong? Why do we love to hate the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Pamela Anderson and the like? Yes, they say and do problematic things. Yes, they’re annoying. But I don’t believe those to be the only reasons we react. They full well know they’re hot stuff and know how to get rewarded for it in cash money. It’s distasteful to us – the very fact they’re aware of their beauty and use it makes us bristle. But, what? We’re telling them they shouldn’t know it? Shouldn’t use it or make money from it, as if they were the ones who invented this sexist system of rewarding women’s looks? Or maybe we’re okay with them knowing it, we’re just not okay with them using it. Perhaps we’re telling them to live quiet, orderly lives in obscurity. Just be a good little pretty girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. That’s what would make you beautiful.

Some would read this post and think I’m another victim of the Third Wave, that I’m sticking up for vanity, sexist standards and lookism. But amongst normal, non-rich, everyday people, I’ve heard this “be a beautiful woman, just don’t know it” reasoning turn all kinds of terrible. I’ve heard men say they’d prefer to date an “ugly girl” because she’d treat them better, that a girl who knows she’s pretty is by definition a devil. And when I asked them to tell me how they’d explain to this girlfriend that they picked her “because she’s ugly”, they only laughed and said they’d lie.

I think “What Makes You Beautiful” is another song that, yet again, overly focusses on women and girls’ looks as a measure of their worth. No, it’s not talking explicitly about boobies and booties, but it’s still pinning womanly desirability on looks – specifically, on pretty women and girls who lack full awareness of their own looks. Is that much better than being annoyed at self-aware women? Than just admitting you want a hottie, that you only care about hotties and you wish every woman and girl were a hottie? I can deal with that more than this cloak-and-dagger boy band sexism, this “I’m a clean-cut, good little white boy, I’m not singing about grinding or milkshakes, I wear hoodies and skinny jeans, buy my album for $14.99 plus tax” stuff.

But now I’m easing back into snooty amateur musician territory, aren’t I? Old habits die hard.

About Andrea

METRAC staff
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7 Responses to “You don’t know you’re beautiful”

  1. Nynne says:

    It really is bullshit. I also think that when they sing, You don’t need makeup to cover up, and other things along the same lines, it’s as if they’re implying that girls shouldn’t wear makeup or make themselves feel good because clearly that’s just an insecurity. I am very much into makeup, but it is not to attract boys, it is an art to me. We women have the freedom to do whatever we like, if it makes us feel beautiful. But to have some boy (or worse, a boy band) tell us what makes US beautiful is uncalled for. We are not objects that are made to be looked down upon and told what to do.

    • Andrea says:

      Thanks for pointing out the whole makeup piece. I remember someone telling me that she wasn’t a “vain woman” and therefore wasn’t into makeup. I had a hard time articulating the point you make so well! (I personally love makeup too … totally agree with the art element you mention. I also just love colour and love the idea that I can wear colours on my face!)

  2. tuffalo says:

    Aren’t you missing the most obvious and (in my opinion) the most problematic issue with this song? Namely that she is beautiful BECAUSE she has low self-esteem?

  3. wickedrache says:


  4. an says:

    *like* i actually googled that song hoping someone would share my immediate reaction. well said

  5. D says:

    This is so true! I have had guys tell me that before, that they would rather an ‘average’ girlfriend than a hot one. I think it’s about self-worth and people not wanting to be held accountable for how they treat others.

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