By Lindsey Painter  |  23 May, 2018

I’m sitting at my desk at work and a song comes on the easy listening station by One Direction. Here are the lyrics for part of the song. 

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 ain’t 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

It’s a catchy song. I can see why people like One Direction. But when I caught myself singing along to this song (and actually took a moment to register the words) I was taken aback.

Wait… she doesn’t know she’s beautiful and that’s what makes her beautiful? What makes her beautiful is her ignorance of her own beauty? Let’s take a stroll down the rabbit hole of the logic here.

She is beautiful because of her insecurities about her own appearance. She is clearly not confident in her own beauty. What if, under the (we’re giving him the benefit of the doubt here) warm and loving attention of her singing partner here she gains confidence in her own beauty. Does that mean she ceases to be beautiful?

Country music star Sammy Kershaw sings “She don’t know she’s beautiful, no she’s not that kind.”

And again, I ask: What kind is that, Sammy? Confident? A woman who has done the counter-cultural work of learning to love her own body? We wouldn’t want a woman like that around!

A quick google search revealed lists such as “15 songs about women who don’t know they’re beautiful.” And that is hardly a comprehensive list. Artists as varied as Ariana Grande, U2, John Legend, and Ed Sheeran (and many more!) all have songs about the attractiveness of innocent or insecure women.

I am disappointed in the music industry. Do better.

It is plain that the culture is invested in keeping women ignorant, insecure, and innocent. Not only are there entire industries heavily invested in women’s insecurities (I’m looking at you beauty and weight loss industries!) but the culture reinforces these ideas constantly. If you’re a woman, the most desirable qualities you can possess are beauty and insecurity.

But why? Why is everyone so darn invested in making women feel insecure? My theory is that it’s easier to control, manipulate, and dominate someone who is insecure. It might not be calculated (though I’m not ruling that out…) but as a whole, the culture prefers women who are easier to control, less likely to stand up for ourselves, and willing to buy all the things to help us feel better about our insecurities.

Money is a factor too, of course. Billions of dollars every year go into the beauty and weight-loss industries from insecure women. Makeup, clothing, and body alterations (waxing, lotions, and surgical intervention as a few examples) are just some of the things women are expected to know about, invest money in, and devote time to. Every single day, without exception, I see advertisements for these things. They are on my facebook page, the billboards I drive by, the TV shows I watch, the magazines I pretend not to read in the checkout line at the grocery store, everywhere.

Another aspect of this is innocence. If not knowing your beauty is a theme of every musical genre, innocence is even more. It’s part of the weird culture that sexualizes children (think of all the clothing for little girls that says things like “bootylicious” on them). If sexualizing children is frowned upon, then we will infantilize women (think Lolita). Sexy is a woman wearing a schoolgirl outfit, in pigtails and sucking on a lollipop. It’s all about innocence and being childlike. The amount of media and literature devoted to infantilizing women is staggering. Nearly all the women in romance novels are inexperienced. It is so common that there is an opposite trope: an experienced woman “teaching” a younger man in an almost predatory manner. But neither of these tropes serve women. Neither one says, “It’s great when women share equal knowledge and power with men. A woman’s life experiences should be an asset to her, as it has given her the chance to grow, learn, and become a better, more well-rounded person.”

And once again it’s about power. Women with experience are more likely to be confident, self-assured, and advocate for themselves. Ignorant women are vulnerable women. And we all know from the vast body of literature stretching back through hundreds of years that vulnerable women, preferably ones who need a man to rescue them, are desirable women.

From a faith perspective it is important for us to consider these things. This isn’t just a problem “of the world.” This is inside our churches. Do we want our daughters, our sisters to be taught that their attractiveness lies in their insecurity and ignorance? Do we want to set them up for abuse, the kind of abuse we know is rampant within the walls of our own congregations? Even within marriages, the “complementarian” perspective reinforces the imbalance of power. Making women ignorant of their own agency, making them afraid or unable to stand up for themselves. We have to stop thinking of feminism as something for the outside world to handle. This is happening here. With us.

Let’s educate, educate, educate. Teach our girls that loving our bodies is not just okay, but a deliberate decision to stand and face a culture that tells us every day and in every medium not to. Point out literature, media, and music that reinforces this idea and talk about it. Ask questions with your daughters. Try to find media and literature that affirms women when they love themselves.

But not just your daughters. Talk to your sons. Teach them that a relationship is not healthy when there is an imbalance of power. Therefore, when he is ready to seek a partner he will look for someone who shares knowledge and confidence. Someone who is confident and wants to share a life with him, not dominate or be dominated.

And let’s, for heaven’s sake (literally) please stop equating childishness and sexiness. We’re not only hurting women with this repulsive practice, but children.

Therefore, in an effort to remind myself that it is not only okay, but a powerful act of resistance to acknowledge my own beauty, I have asked Pandora never to play that One Direction song again. I want to listen to music that affirms my humanity, my confidence, and my experience.

Music industry, I’m talking to you. Do better.

Media and literature, I’m talking to you. Do better.

Church, I’m talking to you. Do better.

Lindsey Painter is a writer, teacher, and mother of two. She enjoys reading, playing with her cat, writing about feminism, and eating strawberry pie. 

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