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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  • Kelly

    That song has rubbed me the wrong way from the first time I heard it–I’m glad that I’m not the only one. :) Thank you for writing this article… you bring up great some points without being “preachy.”

  • Hollyn

    SO I was actually running and jamming out to this song on my run this morning (yeah, I’m 26, it’s confession time, lol) but I also noticed that final chorus line this morning…and I was kind of like “ok, I guess I see that…sometimes the girls who KNOW they’re beautiful can be snotty…..maybe, but guys like confidence, at least in my experience…” and so a wandering train of thought happened during my run about how maybe the song is hinting at the fact that “not knowing you’re beautiful” could make you more grounded, less snotty (but that’s the stereotype of those “don’t hate because I’m beautiful” types that can be hard to take at times)…on my run I concluded that the song is just a pop song and while that line is kind of weird (since I KNOW most normal males are far more attracted to confidence in a woman than not). And then when I read this it dawned on me, THIS song is meant for much much younger girls than me, who might not think that way, perhaps they don’t think about the song at all and we’re reading too much into this, and maybe young girls don’t dissect the song (I’m pretty sure most 14 year olds are thinking “dude I need to lower my self-esteem because that’s what’s hot” but the message will sink in more glamours subconscious ways (eg look at the ground not peoples eyes, don’t flaunt your talents because being shy (insecure) is cute).
    I still like the song because it’s catchy and I usually don’t care to much about the message my workout songs send to me….but it does make me wonder how younger girls might internalize this message (can we get them to get as excited about Ne Yo’s “Miss Independent” he loves her because she’s the boss, pays her own bills, and is independent etc)?

  • Alex

    I think there might be a tad bit of over-reading, yeah, but I do understand where you’re coming from. That said, it seems more a message that girls who know they’re beautiful and act like it/play it up/take advantage of it (and we all know someone like that, let’s face it) are the opposite of the girl in the song, and that she’s beautiful because she just is. Sure, a confident girl would be nice, but I bet a lot of the demographic who listen to this group are not in the most confident age; and isn’t it nice to hear that the girl in the back with the braces and the frizzy hair and the baggy brown sweatshirt stands out—positively—as much as anyone else? That would have given my fourteen-year-old self a boost (especially once I lost the braces, cut my hair, and ditched the hoodie).

  • Liz

    Although I agree completely that the lyrics could come off with the wrong message, I think we need to look at the flow of the song. The artist is describing the fact that he thinks she is beautiful for different reasons.

    The pause before the line, “And that’s why your beautiful” came across more of the overall punchline, that this girl is not like the vapid girls that society plays up all the time and therefore, despite the fact she doesn’t realize she’s beautiful, she is.

    It would be great if they tried to rev up the girl to feel more confident, but perhaps that is the point of the whole song, to realize that they ARE beautiful and different, and therefore that final line “You don’t know your beautiful.” can be separated from the next? One can hope at least!

  • Heather

    I don’t know if I care for this song. It’s about a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful but it seems like they’re saying “it’s okay because you ARE beautiful- no reason to be insecure/shy!”. Shouldn’t they/we be saying that no one should be insecure regardless of whether they’re beautiful or not? I’m also hating “you don’t know you’re beautiful. that’s what makes you beautiful”. So a beautiful person can only be really beautiful if they have low self esteem about their appearance? Come on now.

  • Zoe

    I think it is important to be critical of pop music, I love this article and would love to share a similar one analyzing Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend”

    • Matt

      I agree somewhat it sounds like having a boyfriend is portrayed as the most important thing, but make you do a dance can be interpreted many ways. Like you find 20 bucks do the happy dance, you can’t help it because its just so awesome.

      Blowing money can be interpreted differently too. Going out and just having fun is often considered a waste of money and irresponsible. So he could be saying he wants to go out with her and have a good time.

  • ellestar

    I have a completely different take on this song. I really think it comes down to marketing to teen and tween girls.

    At that age, they’re going through a time where they feel as everyone is watching and judging them. It’s enough to make even the prettiest girl feel like she might not measure up. A lot of girls have self-confidence issues at that age and the media constantly bombards them with things that they need to change about themselves.

    The writer of this song knows that. The writer knows that what many girls want to hear is that they’re beautiful anyway. I know I would have eaten that shit up at that age. I vividly remember wanting someone to look past everything and really see me as beautiful, even when (especially when) I wasn’t trying. I doubt I was alone.

    Yes, I wanted for whatever potential love partner to see me as funny, charming, smart, adventurous, etc., but I still wanted to be thought of as beautiful, too.

    I think the song plays on all of the insecurities that girls have at that age, and by giving those teens and tweens some handsome young men saying that “you’re beautiful” to girls who often wonder if they are, is going to play very, very well to that crowd.

    It’s not a song about what boys actually like and find attractive. It’s wish fulfillment for young girls because that’s what they (in general) want boys to want. And, obviously, it’s going to sell like hotcakes.

    • rhian

      Yes! Exactly. This is very perceptive.

  • Adrienne

    Ha. When I first heard this, I just thought of this country song I grew up with, “She Don’t Know She’s Beautiful.” Sounds like a rip off to me!!!
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    (No reason to be embarrassed by liking tween pop, 70s, 80s, 90s country is my guilty pleasure.)

    Anyway, I don’t think “What Makes You Beautiful” is a terrible song message-wise, but it could be better for sure. I think it has a better message than most of the pop songs out there. I’ve been brainstorming about an idea to create a pop star that sings songs that are good for kids, but I realize that the kind of person I would pick to do this– minority, not thin, actually has real deal musical talent but decides to devote it to children, would probably have to compromise some real talent to become “sell-able”.

  • toongrrl

    C’Mon, let’s balance this song with “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”

    • Matt

      Glad I am not the only one who thought of that song. I listened to the song after reading the article and I feel like its about not being pretentious and arrogant, like I’m hot and I get my way because of that, as opposed to, I really like that you have no self esteem.

  • Julia

    I think this is an interesting interpretation of the lyrics, and while I certainly see how they could be understood the way that Chloe is describing them, I think that might actually be missing the message. What I got out of the song (full disclosure I enjoy pop music way more than I should) was that it was from the point of view of boys who liked the girls who weren’t stuck up and superficial a lot more than the ones who were. It’s sort of the any girl in the hallway who doesn’t think she had a chance with the boy she likes. The song to me read more as you’re great and I like you, but you really have no idea why I’d like you, and that’s appealing. It’s pretty innocent message wise, and I think that’s part of the package. Cute and bright eyed young men singing songs about idealized teen romance. It’s not necessarily realistic, but it sells to young teens because it makes them feel good. A lot of young teens are desperate for that teenage feeling that this sort of music and first kisses are supposed to represent. Oddly enough there is another song on the album “I Want” which is catchy as can be, but I find far more distressing in terms of messages to girls.

    Now, on the subject of the boys in the band themselves. They seem to be a pretty cute and non-threatening bunch. Each of them represents an idea of a “hot” guy. It’s pretty much a group of archetypes rather than people. It’s important to note that they were a constructed group so those roles were clearly identified early on, and they have to stay in them for the idea of One Direction to work. I know they’ve been big in the UK before invading the US and Australia, and in their interviews they really seem to say all the right things about girls. I was frankly impressed with the refusal of Harry Styles to use gendered words to describe his ideal date. He pointedly used “person” or “someone” much to the dismay and annoyance of the interviewer. If someone’s getting overwhelmed by hair flipping I’m certain that there is a larger problem in terms of coping skills, but perhaps with time around women who know their own worth, the One Direction guys might get over it.

    While I completely agree that the messages that are sent to girls shouldn’t be all about looks etc, I do find the more innocent “I wanna hold your hand” nature of poppy songs like “What Makes You Beautiful” a lot less troublesome than other songs out there. The song may not have the best message in some ways, but I think it’s playing on what already exists in the minds of young teens rather than trying to make them feel worse about themselves.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Yeah, my guess was that this was an attempt to say part of what he likes about her is that she’s not conceited, but it’s unclear and falls short of the mark. But then again, I’m not exactly expecting differential calculus out of Top 40 songwriters either.

    I think a bigger problem than a muddled pop song is that there seems to be a lot of extremes where genuine, healthy self-esteem tend to get drowned out. On one hand you do have girls who are afraid that being too outspoken, too smart, athletic, talented, etc. will be viewed as unfeminine and thereby unattractive. (See the “Ideal Girl/Anti Girl” chapter in Rachel Simmons Odd Girl Out, in which a group of middle school age girls spell this out in no uncertain terms.)

    On the other hand you have this sort of overcompensating narcissism masquerading as self-esteem–just look at how many girls like to proclaim themselves “Goddess” “Princess” “Supermodel” “Diva” etc. online or merchandise that commodifies and presents these types of attitudes, or even competitiveness, as “self-confidence”. But also notice that in this extreme also, young girls aren’t encouraged to take pride in their thoughts, talents, or achievements. Only in how desirable they are seen by others, how fashionable, popular.

  • brlocks

    Hi Chloe,
    All due respect, I disagree totally. I’m not getting “you’re insecure and I think that’s hot” out of this at all. It describes a girl with quirks (hair flipping – not super original, but still) who “smiles at the ground” – probably just a girl that’s shy or keeps to herself, not one with low self esteem necessarily. Being shy doesn’t equate low self esteem.

    For that matter, not actively thinking of yourself as beautiful doesn’t equate low self esteem either. I know lots of girls and women who just do not spend much time thinking about how beautiful they are – they have good self esteems based on something else. Maybe this is a song to a girl who doesn’t walk around like she’s superior because she is a certain standard of beautiful, doesn’t happen to wear make up, is just busy being HER and the guy who is singing to her is saying, “I think you’re beautiful.” You may not think of yourself that way, for a variety of reasons, but I do.”

    As far s the ‘hair flipping leaves me overwhelmed’ – I don’t know, sometimes quirks are just really cute. There’s a guy in my differential calculus class who leans back and tilts his head just so when he’s thinking hard about something. I find that adorable. Is that so wrong?
    All in all, there are hundreds of truly derogatory songs out there, but I truly and genuinely do not think this is one of them.

  • Courtney

    Being a teenage girl myself, I’m going to have to agree with Chloe. Though I recognize that many of my peers have self-esteem problems and recognize that the intent of boy bands like One Direction producing songs like this one is only to raise the self-esteem of girls like my peers who believe themselves to be worthless… I don’t like it. To begin with, it perpetuates the notion that girls need a guy for validation; a notion that I assure you is incredibly prevalent not just among my peers but among my friends. Even I myself on occasion feel worthless or a failure for not having a boyfriend (but very rarely, and I never act on it). Girls my age adore songs like this because a guy is telling them that they’re beautiful just the way they are– and clearly if a guy is saying it it must be true. If a friend says that they’re beautiful, they’re lying, or just being a nice. If a family member says it it’s because they feel obligated. If an adult friend says it it’s because they find anyone young beautiful, and they think of beauty differently. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that teenage girls feel like the only person whose opinion of their appearance matters is a teenage guy, and the boys in One Direction aren’t helping this idea by singing about beauty like they’re an authority on the subject. (Not that I have anything against the guys in One Direction. Unless tumblr is lying to me, Harry Styles is a feminist.)

    Secondly, I feel like Chloe isn’t overstating the problem. As a teenage girl, I often get the message that being demure is beautiful. I’m a fairly confident and outgoing person by nature with a healthy self-esteem level, yet everywhere I look someone is trying to tell me that there’s something wrong with me being so. I, and teenage girls like me, are not allowed to say that we are beautiful, attractive, desirable, or even pretty. If we do so, our peers will immediately jump on us for being “arrogant”. This is not a theoretical situation. I’ve seen girls mention that they think of themselves as pretty, or even just mention that they think of themselves as worthy of male attention…. and all of the other girls in the area immediately start criticizing them. Because the only times that this doesn’t happen is when the person in question is not actually pretty or desirable by conventional high school standards, I assume it’s a power/threat thing. Somehow, by admitting that she thinks of herself as desirable, a girl immediately implies that all other girls in the vicinity are not.
    But girls don’t just face pressure from their peers to pretend to have low self-esteem. Girls my age are constantly told that being insecure is beautiful. This isn’t the only song that mentions it; in fact, there are quiet a few songs from quite a few boybands that talk about how shy, insecure, and quiet the girls they like are, and how cute it is. There’s an element of mystery to the insecure quiet girl that seems to intrigue boys in boy bands. Why, just look at Twilight, pretty much the most popular book for girls my age and younger. Edward constantly tells Bella how beautiful she is… he adores her embarrasment, her insecurity, the fact that she doesn’t talk much and he can’t hear her internal dialogue. Even Katniss from the Hunger Games is trained by her mentor to be more likeable for the cameras, becuase she’s too honest and tomboyish and outspoken to be likeable to the citizens of the Capitol.

    Somehow, the message that modest is hottest has become twisted in girls’ minds to become the message that insecurity is beauty. This song isn’t so much a cause of the trend as it is a reflection of it, though it’s certainly not helping alleviate the problem.

    I feel like perhaps so many boy bands sing about insecure girls because they’re trying to differentiate these girls from the “other” girls. In high school, there are two types: the confident girls who get guys and are said to sleep around and are generally disapproved of, and the insecure girls who keep to themselves and secretly and desperately want a boyfriend but think no boys would like them. The boys in the boy bands want to be your friend. They want to seem like they’re overturning the status quo. What they’re trying to say is “I think you’re beautiful even if you’re not the traditionally beautiful popular girl, and in fact I like you better”, but saying that is too obvious. So instead they distinguish between “popular girl” and “non-popular girl” by making the stereotypical assumption that popular girls are confident and girls who aren’t popular aren’t. The idea started with “I like you even though you’re not as confident as a popular girl”, turned into “I like you because you’re not as confident as a popular girl”, and then into “I like you because you’re not confident like a popular girl” and deteriorated from there. Because of course very few teenage girls would consider themselves worthy or popular, appealing to the “average girl” sells more albums. This is because every girl thinks of her self as an average girl, and every girl wants to be told that she is more special than other types of girls. Using the popular girl as an example gives girls someone to be better than, and provides a common enemy. At their cores, this song and other songs where boys applaud the “average” girl are really songs that pit girls against each other and encourage jealousy, hatred, and cattiness.

    To conclude this ridiculously long rant: though this song may seem like it’s helping girls who have low self-esteem, it is in fact helping to undermine many things that feminists stand for, affecting many impressionable and confused young girls.

  • jazmyn

    first off let me start by saying you guys honestly just need to stop over thinking everything. no directioners don’t just sit there all day analyzing every single word they say. we listen to the song & its catchy & we get what they’re saying…they’re saying “your insecure,don’t know what for” as in you have no reason to be insecure because your beautiful. i don’t even understand where the freak this ‘its good to be insecure’ message you guys are coming up with is coming from in this song. & secondly it is honestly SO annoying how because were fans of a boy band we are automatically assumed to be “tweens”. if you guys actually knew anything about us you’d know that most of us are between the ages of 15-19…some are younger & some are even older,but we are NOT ‘tweens’… & yes i am offended by that because it annoying how people just assume were 12 year olds…i know for some of you its a compliment to be told your younger than you actually are but for us older teenagers its not because we are already young.thats all.