TLC's "Unpretty" Is A Feminist Anthem That Rings True Today

Photo: Jim Smeal/WireImage.
Ruminations on the pressure women face to stay thin, beautiful, and youthful have been a common thread in popular music for years, particularly because the pressure doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. Madonna told women to “Express Yourself.” Gwen Stefani stomped on the assumption that women are the weaker sex with her mosh-pit mainstay “Just a Girl.” And even Beyoncé had to work through the insecurity of “Pretty Hurts” before she could own the confidence of “Formation.”

In 1999, TLC tackled the topic of women’s self-worth with “Unpretty,” a meditation on how women are expected to transform themselves to meet unrealistic beauty standards. While a direct interpretation of the lyrics might suggest that the song seeks to free a woman from the oppression of trying too hard to please a boyfriend ("Never insecure until I met you"), the primary antagonist of this song is actually the woman herself.

I've tried different ways but it's all the same
At the end of the day I have myself to blame

“Unpretty” was the second single off TLC’s third studio album, Fanmail, and spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Five years had passed since the release of their last album, the 11-time-platinum CrazySexyCool — the record that transformed Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas from a girl group into seriously legit R & B thought divas.

Half a decade between albums is an extraordinarily long period of time for any group, especially one at the top of the charts. But the break wasn’t exactly a hiatus. TLC followed the multiplatinum success of CrazySexyCool by filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a consequence of a shitty recording contract and an even shittier manager. Also during this time, Watkins revealed that she had been battling sickle cell anemia, and had recently been hospitalized. Thomas had a son with producer Dallas Austin, whom the group had just fired, then rehired. And Lopes burned down her boyfriend’s house, went to rehab, and announced she was going to record a solo album. The group’s breakup seemed imminent.

Instead, TLC was reborn with Fanmail, an album with grown-up themes about sex and relationships — peppered with enough profanity to earn the group its first Parental Advisory Label — and a hint of feminism, even though no one was calling it that yet. Singing about loving yourself the way that you are (the essence of “Unpretty”) or demanding higher standards from men (“No Scrubs”) stood in stark contrast to the underage boy-candy image of another newly minted pop star from that era: Britney Spears, who sparred with TLC on the charts that year.

When pop culture projects an image of beauty that is distinctly white, thin, and youthful, what measures will women go to in order to match media’s mirror?

Fanmail received eight Grammy nominations, including three for “Unpretty.” With more than 65 million albums sold worldwide, TLC remains the most successful female group of all time. Only the Supremes have spent more time at the top of the Billboard charts. But all that success can’t stifle the pressures of the female condition. And in 1999, those expectations were crushing.

At the end of the millennium, women’s magazine covers overwhelmingly featured thin, white, and young actresses and models, with the notable exception of Oprah Winfrey, looking the slimmest she’s ever been. The world fawned over this “transformation” with an obsession author Eva Illouz called “the glamour of misery.”

During the same era, on prime-time TV Dawson’s Creek and Friends represented the angst of teenagers and young adults, respectively. Both shows were told from a distinctly white, privileged point of view. Generally, Black women in leading roles were relegated to the newly created baby networks UPN and the WB, which received a fraction of the financing and media attention as the Big Three.

When pop culture projects an image of beauty that is distinctly white, thin, and youthful, what measures will women go to in order to match media’s mirror? TLC digs in:

You can buy your hair if it don’t grow
You can fix your nose if he says so
You can buy all the makeup that MAC can make
But if you can’t look inside you
Find out who am I too
Be in the position to make me feel so
Damn unpretty
I’ll make you feel unpretty too

While the shilling of hair extensions, plastic surgery, and makeup contribute to the beauty industrial complex, the expectation to invest in these aesthetic tweaks also creates a significant economic handicap for women. The hair extension business is a half-trillion-dollar industry. The year "Unpretty" was released, the number of cosmetic surgery procedures jumped 66% from the previous year to reach an all-time high. The cosmetics industry recruits girls as young as 8 to buy all the makeup, doing about $56 billion in sales. Think how many college funds could be seeded, businesses started, or homes purchased by women if they weren’t spending tens of thousands of dollars on prettying every year.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic.
The last line of the chorus is perhaps the most searing: "I’ll make you feel unpretty too." If the whole song is a woman’s conversation with herself, this is the moment when she wages war. If she can’t fit in, she’ll self-destruct.

The video for “Unpretty,” which won a Grammy in 2000, focuses on the ugliness of this kind of obsessive self-improvement. In one vignette, Thomas sits with a presumed boyfriend at a computer screen debating the appropriate breast-implant size. The one that gets his smile of approval: 38DD, which would render 5-foot, petite-as-a-pencil Thomas both a mutant and a cripple. Still, she shrugs and agrees. When Thomas gets to the doctor’s office, she witnesses another young woman crying on an operating table. She bolts, then kicks out the boyfriend with the Playboy ideals. Total scrub.

Another scene shows a young woman cutting her head out of pictures and pasting it onto model bodies cut from magazines. She puts the Picasso-esque creations up on her walls, the way teens of the era hung posters of the Backstreet Boys. Then, feeling the shame of it all, she stress-eats in a corner while crying, followed by self-purging.

The original uncut version, which aired on MTV in 1999 but was subsequently edited down, includes a scene of actual implant surgery, and vignettes of Watkins being bullied and Lopes getting into a deadly gang fight. The bulimic woman is also shown dancing in a swimsuit, seemingly cured of her self-destructive insecurities.

If only it were that easy.

Ours is now a culture in which a sex tape and a killer body can create a billion-dollar industry.

Just as Naomi Wolf’s searing critique of sexist consumer culture, The Beauty Myth, seems as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1990, the messages in “Unpretty” are all too prescient. While women’s magazine covers have diversified a bit (though they’re still pretty white, thin, and airbrushed), the onset of reality television and social media have created even more visual pressures for women to become a certain kind of pretty.

Ours is now a culture in which a sex tape and a killer body can create a billion-dollar industry. The ubiquity of social media has made cyberbullying women a spectator sport. And women are still spending billions on makeup, plastic surgery, and “good hair.”

Fanmail was TLC’s last complete album; Lopes tragically died in a car accident three years after its release (2002’s 3D includes tracks Lopes had previously recorded). If they had the chance to reflect on beauty ideals today, how would TLC’s message change?

Look into the mirror who's inside there… Same old me again today (yeah)

Maybe it doesn’t need to.

More from Music