“Pretty Hurts” is a song that is extremely powerful and holds a lot of meaning, but is pretty straightforward with the lyrics. However, its meaning goes deeper than just the lyrics. One can understand the song more deeply many ways, but I chose to look into a live performance and analyze the official music video.

I found a video of Beyonce performing “Pretty Hurts” live at her On the Run tour. I was honestly a little surprised by the tone of the performance and the emotions Beyonce seemed to be expressing during the song. It is a beautiful and powerful performance, but for reasons different from the music video. The performance starts with Beyonce’s back towards the audience and a video begins playing on a large screen behind her. The video shows a young girl practicing her posture by walking around with a book on her head. At some point during the song, two other girls begin following her. Towards the end of the song, her backup dancers walk in straight lines on stage behind her, dressed like the girls in the videos and walking with books on their heads. These are obvious allusions to pageants which is what this song is generally about. What took me by surprise about the performance was that Beyonce seemed really energized and uplifted during the song. She was often smiling and began jumping at one point. This showed me that she may have been so inspired by the fact that her song could have impacted so many or she could have overcome her trauma with body image and felt in that moment like she was taking back power. The song seems like it should be a very sad, powerful moment, and it was powerful, but in a way that made you feel strong, not one that made you self-reflect. The whole time, the crowd was engaged and scream-singing along to the words. This helps to understand the way that Beyonce’s fan base connected to the song. Sometimes, when celebrities that are like Beyonce, ones who are seen almost universally as gorgeous and as the standard for a “perfect body,” when they release some kind of media about body positivity, it can come off as inconsiderate or tone deaf. However, Beyonce was so raw and vulnerable in her song that her fans could feel the honesty and it provided a deep resonation with them. Many of her fans are young women, the demographic most affected by not only pageantry, but body image issues in general.

While the live performance was moving, the official music video for this song is incredibly impactful. The imagery and acting make it feel so real and truly allow the viewer to feel what Beyonce is feeling as well as relate it to their own experiences with body image issues. The video is based around a pageant that Beyonce is competing in and throughout, it goes back and forth between showing clips before the pageant and during the pageant. The video begins with simplified chords from the song and short shots of a multitude of things happening in the dressing room. They show girls getting zipped tightly into dresses, a girl whose spine is visible, Beyonce whitening her teeth, and Beyonce coming out of a bathroom stall wiping her mouth, insinuating she has an eating disorder. Eventually, the song does begin and it shows her doing more to get ready to show the superficiality that goes into pageantry, but it is important to understand that this is a commentary on everyday life as well. It shows her getting weighed and getting her waist measured as well as being berated while being taught how to stand and pose. Furthermore, it shows her working out in a waist trainer and then proceeding to weight herself. These clips simply add detail to what she is singing in the song. These are the types of things we do that make being pretty literally hurt us.

During all of this, there are also clips of the actual pageant intertwined. It shows the girls when they look “perfect” completely juxtaposed to when they are trying to get to that point. This image is also juxtaposed with their actual emotions. We see them faking extreme happiness on stage and then looking miserable in the next shot either backstage or while training.

The next part of the video may be one of the most powerful. During the final section of the pageant, the announcer brings Beyonce forward and asks her, “What is your aspiration in life?” She begins fumbling and starts tot say, “That’s a great question. I wasn’t expecting that question.” At this point it shows her falling underwater in her dress seemingly struggling which could symbolize her drowning from the pressure she puts on herself to be perfect and live up to everyone’s standards. They also show clips of her crying backstage and sitting with all of her trophies. When it cuts back to her on stage she says, “Well, my aspiration in life is to be happy.” This clearly tells us that she is currently unhappy and possibly does not believe that she can be happy since aspirations tend to be synonymous with dreams which can feel impossible.

After she says this, it immediately cuts to shot of a tear running down her face backstage and then to her smashing all of her trophies. It is at this point that the tone of the video and the song really shifts. It goes through another montage of disheartening clips that give us more insight into the song’s true meaning of body dysmorphia and body image issues. It cuts to a clip of her at a plastic surgeon which shows again how truly unhappy she is. The video also shows her singing in front of her smashed trophies and it truly looks like she has hit her breaking point as the song begins to peak.

Eventually, she comes in second place to a woman with albinism. I believe this is a commentary on beauty standards because while the woman is beautiful, she does not necessarily fit society’s mold of what is considered “traditionally beautiful.” So really, in the end, it did not matter what Beyonce did to make herself fit society’s expectations because someone with unconventional beauty won anyway.

The very ending shots of the video seemed to mimic and go along with what the words were. At this point, Beyonce 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? / Stripped away the masquerade / The illusion has been shed / Are you happy with yourself? / Are you happy with yourself?”

Throughout this sequences we get shots of her without makeup on crying. Finally, at the very last “are you happy with yourself” we see her natural beauty and a small grin as she finishes the song with a prolonged “yes.” This is something I had always missed when listening to the song without seeing the video. I always thought that the ending “yes” was simply an ad lib that she threw in for stylization. However, the video gives a deeper understanding as we see her smile. The song actually ends on a hopeful note as she answers her own question of “are you happy with yourself?” with a simple “yes” and see her genuinely begin to smile for the first time off stage.

The whole video ends with a real home video of Beyonce winning a pageant as a young child. This gives us insight into her genuine trauma from and relationship to pageants. This really allows her fans to believe her and be vulnerable with her as she has just been so raw with exposing her emotions to them.

Both the live performance and the official music video give another layer of meaning to the song “Pretty Hurts.” These alternate forms of media give us a deeper glimpse into how the song is meant to be perceived and how they impacted the audience.