Three “Positive Body Image” Songs That Actually Aren’t

Some songs you might think of as body-positive contain questionable messages.

Posted Jun 18, 2018

Source: Voltamax/Pixabay/CC0

Feeling unhappy with your body? Among women, this feeling is so common that some researchers refer to it as normative. In other words, being dissatisfied with how you look has become a typical part of being a woman in this culture. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we often turn to music to get us out of a body image rut. There’s nothing like a good dance party in your living room to get your heart pumping and raise your spirits. But some of the songs you might think of as body-positive actually contain some pretty questionable messages – messages that don’t line up with research on how to improve body image.

1.  All about that Bass, by Meghan Trainor

Admit it – this song is crazy catchy!  And some of the lyrics are spot-on when it comes to healthy body image messages. Trainor calls out magazines for their egregious use of Photoshop on women’s bodies, and she assures her listeners, “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” This is a strong start, but Trainor loses this positive momentum when she explains how she came to accept her own curves. “My mama she told me, 'Don’t worry about your size,'” Trainor explains. So far, so good. But then we learn why women shouldn’t worry. It’s because, “boys like a little more booty to hold at night.”

Your body shouldn’t have to meet a man-approved standard before you can feel good about it. This is what researchers call body objectification. Messages like this teach us to think about our bodies not in terms of what they do or how they feel, but in terms of how they look to other people. And body objectification is correlated with depression, anxiety, and eating disordered behaviors.

Not to pick on Trainor too much, but there’s another disappointing aspect to these lyrics. Body shame is bad for everyone, no matter their body size. But Trainor does some skinny-bashing in her lyrics (and in the video), using the term “skinny bitches.” Let’s all be on the same team here, ladies. We should never insult the shape of other women’s bodies, and certainly not to feel better about our own.

2.  Baby Got Back, by Sir Mix-a-Lot

Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” hit the scene in the midst of mass media’s worship of extraordinarily thin female bodies and the destructive influence of the “heroin chic” look. The song felt like a breath of fresh air to many when it was released in the 1990s, and was credited for pushing back against a dominant beauty culture that prizes white women’s bodies more than the bodies of women of color. But if you really think about the lyrics, they’re no great favor to women. Just like the lyrics in “All about that Bass,” we’re told that only one body type is acceptable for women, and that this body type is determined by men’s sexual attraction to it.

Bruce Mars/Pexels/CC0
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels/CC0

3.  What Makes You Beautiful, One Direction

I know, I know. Many fans find One Direction positively swoon-worthy. And who wouldn’t want those pop stars crooning to you about how beautiful you are? But these lyrics leave a lot to be desired. After noting that everyone else can see how beautiful a particular woman is, One Direction tells us that this woman can’t see her own beauty. There’s nothing surprising about this narrative, given how many women struggle to like what they see in the mirror. But there’s a major problem with the message of this song and it’s all summed up in the line “That’s what makes you beautiful.”  For One Direction, it’s precisely a woman’s inability to see herself as beautiful that actually makes her beautiful.

What a terrible message! How are women to reconcile that lyric with all the other advice they hear suggesting that confidence is sexy? Despite all the talk of body positivity in our culture, this song’s lyrics suggest that men don’t really want women to feel body-confident – because that would be unattractive. Women should not have to rely on others to determine whether their looks are worthy of love. On top of that, we need to stop the mixed messages that encourage women to be confident and love themselves, but then penalize women who do so by calling them arrogant or vain.

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing here. (I’m a psychologist, it’s what I do!) But given the flood of truly body-positive songs released in the past few years, why not demand more from our lyrics and stick with songs that send healthier messages? My favorite is the classic “Unpretty” by TLC.  Here’s a list of more recent suggestions by Billboard, some of which I find much more in line with a genuinely helpful type of body positivity.

Happy dancing!

Bruce Mars/Pexels/CC0
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels/CC0