In two recently released music videos — Colbie Caillat‘s “Try” and John Legend‘s “You & I” — women of diverse ages, races and sizes earnestly lip-synch to lyrics about the effort women expend on their appearance or evoke vulnerability as they dress, apply makeup or otherwise evaluate their reflections. Whether these videos are more theatrical than transformative is up for debate, but there’s no doubt they acknowledge the cultural expectations that torture millions of women daily: You are not beautiful enough. Try harder.
When Caillat permits that young women “don’t have to try so hard” and Legend affirms “You don’t have to try…all of the stars, they don’t shine brighter than you,” many women feel supported and understood. Consider that 65 percent of women and girls report disordered eating behaviors, 78 percent of 17-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies, and 81 percent of 10-year-olds say they fear getting fat. Since women are routinely hypersexualized and held to unattainable beauty standards, any representation — whether it’s a music video or soap commercial — suggesting women can relax such ideals (and that those ideals in fact are unjust) are embraced.
Music videos typically convey a different message and reflect an industry that regularly objectifies female performers. One study analyzed Rolling Stone covers, concluding that women are nearly five times more likely than men to be sexualized. Female musicians of every genre have complained about unfair treatment. Solange Knowles tweeted, “I find it very disappointing when I am presented as the ‘face’ of my music, or a ‘vocal muse’ when I write or co-write every f—ing song.” Canadian singer Grimes wrote on her Tumblr, “I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized.”
Women may feel palpable relief watching these new videos, but in doing so we may fail to notice how such “body positive” presentations are far from revolutionary and may actually reinforce existing paradigms. Caillat and Legend’s lyrics and imagery suggest a beauty revolution that involves little more than eschewing makeup. Another music video recently embraced for its body positivity — Meghan Trainor‘s “All About That Bass” — equates being thin to being like a “silicone Barbie doll.” She doesn’t embrace a spectrum of body diversity so much as reinforce a paradox in which women only exist as thin/ideal/unrealistic or full/natural/acceptable.
These artists still problematically maintain a focus on women’s beauty above all else and encourage women to prioritize how they look to others. The actors in Caillat and Legend’s videos stare at the camera, as if beseeching viewers to understand, accept and approve of their imperfect looks. Trainor, who describes herself as “ain’t no size 2,” may be confidently dancing and seducing her viewer, but she’s mimicking music videos by the “silicone Barbie dolls” her song references.
Truly body-positive media should impart a different message — not that a beauty ideal is within the reach of all, but that there shouldn’t be a physical standard in the first place. We need representations that allow women to accept their appearance so they can move past it and focus on traits like intelligence and humor. Janelle Monáe has accomplished this throughout her career; the videos for “Tightrope” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” transcend gendered expectations.
Problematically, Caillat, Legend and Trainor’s videos also exist to use women’s bodies to sell commodities — a song, an album, the artists themselves. It’s hard to gauge the comparative progress of capitalizing on the authenticity of diverse bodies over an over-sexualized, unattainable ideal. The same capitalistic intentions underlie both efforts, ultimately regarding women as dehumanized consumers.
But even if these new videos don’t epitomize a feminist victory, we shouldn’t discount them entirely. Watching women of diverse sizes, races and ages is progressive and preferable to witnessing Robin Thicke gyrate near blank-faced models in thongs or close-ups of twerking, dismembered female body parts.
Julie Zeilinger is the founder and editor of the FBomb, a blog for young feminists that recently partnered with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan’s organization, the Women’s Media Center. She is the author of two books: A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word and College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year and is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, Forbes, CNN and Jezebel, among other publications. Follower her on twitter (@juliezeilinger), and for more information visit juliezeilinger.com.