“Beyoncé” made one critic want to die. In a desecration of Beyoncé (singer and album), writer Tom Hawking approaches all fourteen songs with a literary axe laden with terminology such as narcissism, faux feminism, and my favourite, materialism. And though he viscerally loathes Beyoncé, he approached the album with an open mind. There are certain songs on this album to which I cannot relate to merely because I have not undergone such experiences myself. “Blue” is one such song, an ode to Beyonce’s beautiful baby daughter, Blue Ivy. It is one woman’s ascent to motherhood, which perhaps resonates with many mothers, and though I cannot yet understand it, I can appreciate it, its poetry, its music, the depth of its emotion. And though our experiences are not the same, I can respect and admire Beyoncé and “Beyoncé” for its courage, vulnerability and defiance of an established system, I can love it in the way that I loved Matangi, and for my lack of understand of certain subject matters, I can try to understand. Often the problem with white/liberal feminism and feminists, men and women alike, is the rush to exhibit knowledge of any and all feminism without understanding the feminism that does not belong to their socio-economic and racial bubble, that is, the feminism that transcends white privilege.
Of Pretty Hurts, Tom Hawking writes:
So. The album opens with a song about the pervasiveness of the beauty myth, which sounds somewhat promising until you remember who’s singing it. Sample lyrics: ‘Just another stage/ Pageant the pain away/This time I’m gonna take the crown/ Without falling down.’ Look, America’s obsession with physical appearance and general superficiality is definitely a subject worth addressing in song. But sorry, you’ll excuse me for not taking you entirely seriously for singing ‘Perfection is the disease of a nation’ when elsewhere on the album you devote an entire song to how perfect you are. (Oh yes, of course she does.) Or singing ‘Blonder hair, flat chest/ TV says bigger is better… Vogue says thinner is better,’ because: [here he ends on a triumphant note with an image of Beyoncé on the cover of GQ].
“Pretty Hurts” felt very personal to me; it hit extremely close to home. From the age of twelve to twenty-two, I was bulimic. I was raised in a conservative South Asian household belonging to a staunchly patriarchal society that promoted the value of beauty. To be thin, petite and fair was what was desirable and admirable, which was not in congruence with our natural order: Bengali women, traditionally, have dark skin and curves, many, many curves. Until the age of twelve, I was not overweight, but I was not thin either. Heavier than most girls I went to school with, and blessed with a voracious appetite, I was both conscious of my weight and made conscious of it. I did not have the sharp nose and wide eyes and full lips that were advertised as the epitome of attractiveness, and though I knew that I could not alter my appearance, I could do something about my weight. A few days after my twelfth birthday, I discovered Bulimia nervosa, and for the next ten years I would collapse from induced hunger, begin to lose hair by the handful, and be in constant pain. I would sleep every night with my hand on my chest, waiting for it to stop beating. I was eighty-nine pounds and hated myself, but I couldn’t stop because it had become a disease.
Eating disorders are nothing new, especially if you live in beauty-obsessed America. Eighty percent of children ages ten and under are afraid of becoming fat. But America also possesses the facilities to enable people to overcome their eating disorders, if they so choose. In America, there is an ongoing dialogue regarding eating disorders, there is a greater acknowledgement of its reality. I was raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where eating disorders are not a thing: there are no open dialogues, no facilities. An eating disorder is something that young boys and girls partake in behind closed bathroom doors, not to be spoken to about to friends and family. Here lies a double standard, the mounting pressure to be thin and fair and “beautiful”, while the extremities undertaken to achieve this standard is an unreality. For the ten years that I was bulimic, my parents did not know, or they chose not to know, and I had merely “lost a lot of weight,” a fussy eater. There were no rehabs and therapists, and there were no feminists. But more importantly, there was no one telling my eleven-year-old self that beauty came in different shapes and sizes, and that beauty is an internal state of being, and no amount of binging and purging could bring it to the surface if I lacked it on the inside. At sixteen, a bought a fairness cream, to which I reacted to badly, searing the skin of my right arm, leaving scars that are now beginning to fade. This experience is not only that of my own; it belongs to young girls and women of colour who struggle everyday to accrue to the Western ideology of beauty, the only ideology of beauty. It belongs to those who do not know when to stop, and worse, how.
“Pretty Hurts” is not just a melodic criticism of the beauty industry. It is a woman of colour speaking to us about her lack of acceptance of herself, her judgment of herself for trying to conform to an impossible standard. Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” picks up from where TLC left of with “Unpretty,” fourteen years later. In all these years since “Unpretty,” “Pretty Hurts” is the first open and mainstream rhetoric created for women of colour and their place in the beauty industry, a struggle multiplied because we lack one key ingredient: we are not white. I hope my cousin, who is sixteen and beautiful but throws out her breakfast and skips lunch at school and too stubborn to listen to anyone who isn’t a pop icon, will hear this song and accept herself. I hope that her friends will listen to this song and find acceptance, too, and I believe that they will, because to these girls, Beyonce is a messiah. What Beyonce says, does and believes, they do as well. That is the power of a well-crafted pop star.
In Tom Hawking’s smug triumph, he forgets to assert that when the majority of women who grace the covers of magazines are still thin and so, so white, Beyoncé’s appearance on each and every cover of a magazine is a defiance of the norm, that her determination not to be a size zero but rather to be her truest self is slowly turning the beauty world order on its head. It is ridiculous that he uses a GQ cover to negate Beyoncé’s assertion, because I, as a woman, and as a woman of colour, have experienced thinner is better. Beauty is still popularly considered as that which is closest to the image of the white woman: I have lived through it, and I see it unfold about me everyday. It was why most runway models are white; it is why those who grace our billboards and television screens are usually white. His understanding of Beyonce comes from the vantage point of the white feminist uninformed of the world beyond his own, and his analysis does not take a moment to contemplate the existence of a feminist experience that is not white.
“Beyoncé,” and Beyoncé, may not check off the plethora of boxes to be a white, liberal feminist, but that is not who she is, anyway. Beyoncé is the mouthpiece for women and girls who are disproportionately unrepresented in America and beyond — Beyoncé is here for the brown girls. While white teenage girls will feel akin to Taylor Swift, and understandably so, Beyoncé is the hero of sixteen-year-old brown girls, not only because she is relatable to them in physicality, but also because she speaks for them, on behalf of them when their voices are not heard, and she is making space for them in contemporary society where they can one day bee seen and heard. That is why Beyoncé means so much to them. That is why Beyoncé means so much to me.