In the age of songs like "All About That Bass" and "F-ckin' Perfect" and "Love Myself," it can be hard to remember a time when self-love, specifically body acceptance, wasn't a consistent theme in pop music. And yet, in many ways, this modern trend can be traced back 15 years to Christina Aguilera's 2002 hit "Beautiful." Aguilera isn't always credited with being a changing force in pop music, but longtime fans such as myself know that she was championing body-positive hits before Beyoncé even went solo. Aguielra's "Beautiful" not only set the stage for more self-love pop music, it was also part of the revolutionary Stripped album, which brought feminism to the forefront of pop culture in a major way.
If it sounds like "Beautiful" was a life-changing pop culture moment, that's because it was for me. There is a clear separation of my life before "Beautiful" and after. I listened to it (and the entire Stripped album) in my room on a loop and cried. I had never felt that personally connected to a song before. It felt like Aguilera heard me and, most importantly, understood me. I don't think there is a pop song I have connected to more. Up until then, I had been singing along to songs about boyfriends and breakups, teeny-bopper love I had never experienced. With "Beautiful" I finally had a pop song I actually related to, and it changed my world.
At the time, I spent my time listening to whatever song was in the Top 20, like Nelly's "Hot In Herre" and Britney Spears' "I'm A Slave 4 U." Sex was, at that point, one of the only things pop music was selling me. But "Beautiful" was different. Written by Linda Perry, "Beautiful" was a huge departure from the sexy pop trend in 2002 and from Aguilera herself. Before releasing "Beautiful," the singer dropped "Dirrty" as the first single off Stripped.
In the music video, the singer said goodbye to the perfect blonde image of "What A Girl Wants" and traded it in for heavy makeup, black streaked-hair, thongs and assless chaps. She even gave herself an edgy new nickname, Xtina. "Dirrty" was an empowerment anthem in its own way — more of a celebration of sexual confidence than anything else — but the song got lost in all the talk of the singer's makeover. Personally, I liked the song and respected Xtina's courage in revamping her look, but at barely 12 years old, I didn't exactly relate to the sexy theme. Then she released "Beautiful." With one song, Aguilera was able to take the focus off of her new appearance and put it where it belonged: onto her universal message and one hell of a voice. But that's not why "Beautiful" is a classic, though Aguilera's stunning vocals don't hurt. No, the song is a classic because it has a universal message that everyone relates to, no matter what.
As much as I credit "Beautiful" with being a turning point in how self-love and pop music intersect, it didn't invent the genre. There were plenty of confidence-building hits that came before 2002 — songs like TLC's "Unpretty" or Aretha Franklin's "Respect." But "Beautiful" set itself apart from songs past in two very important ways. The first, and most important, is how it used universal insecurities to connect Aguilera to her fans. In the song, the singer goes from singing, "I am beautiful, no matter what they say," to "You are beautiful," to "We are beautiful." From chorus to chorus, what begins as a personal, vulnerable songs becomes an anthem of self-love. Moreover, it doesn't minimize the pains of insecurity. What is sometimes dismissed as a frivolous concern by outsiders (the desire to be pretty enough for others) is actually given the serious weight it deserves. It might be silly to live your life always worrying what others think of you, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt when you think you're failing at it.
"Beautiful" also stood out because it was one of the first mainstream songs to explicitly tell listeners it was OK to love their bodies, no matter what they looked like. Instead of celebrating a specific body or body part, like Destiny's Child 2001 hit "Bootylicious," "Beautiful" celebrates whatever shape you have. It's not a celebration of curves or of a make-up-free face. No, "Beautiful" is about people loving themselves, no matter what. Listening to that song, I felt that Aguilera was telling me that I was beautiful even as I felt ugly and out of place. I still feel that way.
Fifteen years later and I still get goosebumps every time I listen to "Beautiful." Sometimes, when I sing along, I still cry. Christina Aguilera changed the game when she released "Beautiful," but she also changed me. And for that, I will forever be grateful.