Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” does not have any direct lineages in terms of references or direct connections, but there are songs that came before it and after it that send the same messages and make each song more meaningful. TLC released “Unpretty” in 1999 and the song is about self-love and how the pressures of society can change how you see yourself and make you insecure. This song, like “Pretty Hurts” touches on the idea of plastic surgery and doing what you can to alter outside appearances, but still makes the statement that we should focus more on what is on the inside. In “Unpretty” the chorus goes,

“You can buy your hair if it won’t grow / You can fix your nose if he says so / You can buy all the make-up that MAC can make / But if you can’t look inside you / Find out who am I to / Be in the position to make me feel so damn unpretty.”

This song is interesting because the “you” refers to yourself. In this song she is talking about the importance of self-love and implying that none of the beauty practices or plastic surgery matter if we can’t love ourselves for who we are as people. However, there are parts of the song that address how outside factors are what make us insecure. The song also notes how easy it is to fake confidence when they sing,

“My outsides look cool / my insides are blue.”

This is another theme represented in “Pretty Hurts” proving the importance we put on how we look no matter the impact it has on our mental health. This song directly correlates to and, I believe, set the stage for “Pretty Hurts” because it is also about outside pressures that make you insecure and contribute to the internal struggles that are body image and self-confidence issues. Similarly to “Unpretty” in her chorus Beyonce sings,

“Pretty hurts / We shine the light on whatever’s worst / You’re tryna fix something / But you can’t fix what you can’t see / It’s the soul that needs the surgery.”

This chorus is extremely powerful in the way that it completely calls out the way we think of beauty in this country. This chorus makes a very similar claim to the one in “Unpretty,” but I think since society had grown and we had songs like “Unpretty” set the stage, Beyonce and her co-writers were able to go deeper. They gave the same message in a more gut-wrenching way. She does the same thing in the bridge where she takes a theme from “Unpretty” and takes it a step further. Beyonce sings,

“Ain’t got no doctor, or pill that can take the pain away / The pain’s inside, and nobody frees you from your body / It’s the soul, it’s the soul that needs surgery / It’s my soul that needs surgery / Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far / Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark / You left with shattered mirrors / And the shards of a beautiful past.”

This whole bridge is about the dangers of putting on a mask to hide how you actually feel and putting the way you look over how you feel. This will inevitably lead to a breakdown and is not a sustainable way to live. Again, I think she was able to feel so comfortable doing this because of songs like “Unpretty” that were really ahead of their time.

Fast forward about 5 years and Lizzo comes out with “Juice.” This song becomes a smash hit and a body positivity anthem. Obviously, Lizzo had and continues to have a huge influence over the body positive movement by constantly showing people how much she loves herself and how she radiates joy and confidence. She has become a role model for so many people. “Juice” sends a very similar message to “Unpretty” and “Pretty Hurts,” but flips the script. Instead of making it a power-ballad focusing on how damaging societal standards for beauty are, she makes it an upbeat, pop dance song that emphasizes her own confidence despite not fitting the traditional mold of beauty in America. Her pre-chorus describes this perfectly when she sings,

“If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine (Yeah, I’m goals) / I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (Now you know) / I’m like Chardonnay, get better over time (So you know) / Heard you say I’m not the baddest bitch, you lyin’.”

Clearly, there is self-love and happiness pouring out of these lyrics. It is in stark contrast to both other songs, but I think they have the same message. Just like Beyonce had more room to be vulnerable because of songs and societal progression that came before “Pretty Hurts,” Lizzo released this song when the body positivity movement was truly making its presence undeniable. We had made many societal changes and women had started demanding that Hollywood as well as miscellaneous companies did a better job of including models of all sizes in their advertisements, in TV and movies, in the music industry, etc. “Unpretty” set the stage for these kinds of songs and made the necessary claim that we need to love ourselves for who we are on the inside instead of focusing on what we look on the outside. “Pretty Hurts” helps us to understand why we feel the way we do and made it known that it is unacceptable for society to impose these standards on us, while “Juice” helped us realize that just because society tells us that we should feel bad and work to change our appearances if we don’t fit their mold doesn’t mean we have to listen.


Another lineage I developed starts with “Crooked Smile” released in 2013 by J. Cole. This song goes into detail about body image issues described in a different light. It is interesting to see from a male perspective that he first writes about his own flaws, showing that this is not a strictly female issue, just one that they are usually more affected by. Although society does put more pressure on women’s standard of beauty, we can’t ignore that men struggle with it as well. He goes on in the song to talk about how he sees the societal pressure on women to look a certain way from a man’s perspective saying,

“Love yourself, girl, or nobody will / Though you a woman I don’t know how you deal / With all the pressure to look impressive and go out in heels / I feel for you.”

I think the first line is important because it is implying the idea that you need to be able to love yourself before you can love someone else or even let someone else love you. While I do not think this song is perfect in its ability to assess women’s insecurities as a lot of the song has to do with the pressure to look good for a man specifically, I think it is a great song to show solidarity between men and women. Here is an incredibly influential man acknowledging how hard it is to be a woman because there is a societal pressure put on women that is not put on men. It is very rare to hear a man address or advocate for women in this context in their music. He goes on to rap,

“You wake up, put makeup on / Stare in the mirror but it’s clear that you can’t face what’s wrong / No need to fix what God already put his paint brush on.”

This stanza is really powerful because it brings in the aspect, again, of hiding behind a façade, but then he tries to explain that even without the makeup you are still beautiful. A lot of the themes in “Crooked Smile” are represented on a deeper level in “Pretty Hurts.” This is inevitable anyway because it is from a woman’s perspective, but I think she also intentionally made this song to evoke an emotional reaction. When she sings,

“Blonder hair, flat chest / TV says, ‘bigger is better’ / South beach, sugar free / Vogue says, ‘thinner is better’,”

it reminded me of the first verse I quoted from J. Cole. He mentions “the pressure to look impressive” and I think this stanza in “Pretty Hurts” highlights some of those pressures. At the very end of the song she sings,

“When you’re alone all by yourself / When you’re lying in your bed / Reflection stares right into you / Are you happy with yourself?”

This takes J. Cole’s lyric about staring in the mirror and goes a step further. It poses the listener with an extremely personal and possibly heavy question. “Crooked Smile” led into Beyonce releasing “Pretty Hurts” the following year very well. J. Cole was able to prime his audience and get them to understand, in a more lighthearted way, the issues at hand. This allowed for better reception of “Pretty Hurts” since it is so honest and powerful. I don’t know if people would have been ready for it, despite its beautiful and catchy melody, if songs like “Crooked Smile” hadn’t been released prior.

Finally, in 2015, Alessia Cara released “Scars to Your Beautiful.” This song is another commentary on the restricting and damaging societal beauty standards. The song basically describes the feelings and life of a girl who is struggling with how she looks and how she wants to fit the mold of beauty. Cara sings,

“She has dreams to be an envy, so she’s starving / You know, covergirls eat nothing / She says, beauty is pain and there’s beauty in everything / What’s a little bit of hunger? / I could go a little while longer, she fades away.”

There is a clear parallel in this stanza between this song and “Pretty Hurts.”  Alessia Cara also makes the claim that “beauty is pain.” She addresses how the famous people we look up to and envy usually look a certain way, so we do extreme things like starving ourselves to attain the level of “beauty” we think we should be at. However, unlike “Pretty Hurts,” this song has a bit of hope in it. It became and anthem for mental health and body confidence at the time. She sings,

“But there’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark / You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are / And you don’t have to change a thing / The world could change its heart / No scars to your beautiful / We’re stars and we’re beautiful.”

This aspect of hopefulness and the reassurance that you do not need to make anyone else happy and conform to the standards set by others is something the other two songs don’t explicitly mention. That is their goal, but “Pretty Hurts” is not a particularly uplifting song. It is a song that is meant to make you think and consider the reasons behind why we feel the way we do, but Alessia Cara is able to take that idea and make it more digestible for the mass public and create a pop hit that dominated the charts.