One Direction to girls everywhere: your low self-esteem is hot

If you’ve been listening to the radio, or watching TV, or indeed breathing the air in Sydney lately, you won’t have been able to avoid One Direction, the British boy band that was in town last week (they hit the States in May).

One Direction arrived in Sydney around the same time I did, but sadly, there were no throngs of screaming tween girls waiting for me (god, don’t you wish there were throngs of screaming tween girls following feminists wherever they went? Doesn’t have to be me, obviously, but any feminist. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we were that excited, as a culture, about feminists? Maybe if the Feministing crew sang about feminism instead of writing and speaking, and got ourselves some awesome choreography? I’m going to bring this up on our next Editors conference call. But I digress).

Even if you know nothing about One Direction, you’ve probably heard their hit single “What Makes You Beautiful.” And if you haven’t, well, here’s your chance.

Ok, this is a song about a girl who is beautiful, but doesn’t know it.

The first verse goes thusly:

You’re insecure, don’t know what for
You’re turning heads when walk through the door
Don’t need makeup to cover up
Being the way that you are is enough

That’s a pretty decent message, right? You’re beautiful just as you are, you don’t need makeup, and you don’t need to be insecure about your appearance. I could do without the implication that the girl in question should be reassured by the fact that lots of other people think she’s hot, but as far as pop music goes, this is alright.

Then, the chorus:

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, you don’t know you’re beautiful

Pretty standard stuff here. Is it kind of disappointing that the most notable thing about this girl is the way she flips her hair? Yes, it is. Are we concerned about this guy’s ability to handle more overwhelming things than hair flipping, like, say, differential calculus or the electoral college system? Yes. But this is fine, I suppose. It’s not until the second half of the chorus that shit really goes off the rails.

If only you saw what I can see
You’d understand why I want you so desperately
Right now I’m looking at you and I can’t believe
You don’t know, you don’t know you’re beautiful
That’s what makes you beautiful

Wait, what? She’s insecure, and that’s why she’s so attractive? No. Not cool. Not sweet. Not charming. Creepy.

Look, I understand the whole “you don’t know how gorgeous you are so I’m going to tell you” pop song thing. Bruno Mars did it with “Just the Way You Are” and that is a perfectly serviceable pop song, fake vinyl hissing aside.

But this song takes that message a step further. It’s not just that he likes her just the way she is. It’s not just that sees in her a beauty that she doesn’t see herself. It’s that she has low self-esteem – and he’s telling her that her low self-esteem is what makes her so attractive to him.

So what happens next? She hears the song, realizes she’s beautiful, develops some self-esteem and ceases to be attractive to him? It’s a pretty unsustainable situation – unless, of course, she continues to be insecure. You can have your confidence or you can have your guy, hypothetical pop song girl, but you cannot have both.

OK, so maybe I’m reading a little too much into this. But the message of this song really rubs me the wrong way. Shouldn’t we be telling young women and girls that confidence, not low self-esteem, makes them attractive?

At the very least, shouldn’t young girls have teen pop idols who aren’t quite so easily overwhelmed? If he can’t handle it when you flip your hair, what is he going to do when you express an opinion?

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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