Way back in 1999, TLC released "Unpretty," a girl-power anthem about the emptiness of trying to correct physical imperfections. Now the new TLC album song every woman should listen to updates that philosophy for a generation who arguably have even more pressures exacted on them by the internet. Whether via Instagram, street style blogs, or gossip websites, this generation is pressed to not just look great physically, but to look as if they're leading their best lives at all possible times. And the TLC song that summarizes that struggle is, of course, "Perfect Girls."
"Perfect Girls" applies the message of their popular '90s single a little more broadly. This isn’t just about beauty, but about giving the impression that all areas of their life are under control. Basically, it’s about the destructiveness of living purely for appearances, something we see in the line, “Livin' for the outside but you're always lonely.”
This resonates in the age of social media; in 2014, a study was carried out by the University of Pittsburgh in which 1,787 adults were questioned about their social media use. They found that users who visit social networks over 58 times a week are three times more likely to feel lonely than those who use the sites under nine times.
The song also feels empowering because it tears down the sort of assumptions some women may leave unchecked: that if your life looks great from the outside, it must feel just as good from the inside, too. As TLC suggest, it takes more than appearances to create a sense of self. They sing:
"Don't know who you are when the makeup's off... who are you?
Doesn't take much to lose yourself"
And they hit their point home about social media in a big way in the chorus, in which they start on a bold claim, that perfect girls “ain’t real” and “hide who they are inside,” and then explain the reason why it’s easy to get psyched out by the appearance of these women’s lives:
“It's always on your mind
'Cause you're online all the time”
The best thing about the song is that it doesn’t just pose a searing critique about the hollowness of getting envious of someone else’s social media presence or trying to craft an impressive online appearance. It actually offers active steps to take to feel better about yourself. When describing a situation that sounds eerily similar to the desperate measures taken by the male gaze-starved protagonist of “Unpretty,” with a girl starving herself on a diet “but he's still lookin' at everybody else,” the singer concludes, “Guess it comes down to loving myself.” Sure, it’s a little trite, but it’s true, right? If you’re desperate for someone else’s approval, self-care and self-love is a necessary step.
Similarly, in the third verse, we get more advice:
“You are beautiful inside
Don't you let 'em still your pride'
You should learn to live your life
For yourself, no one else”
Again, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s about forcing people to confront behavior they may not even have noticed they’re prone to. One of the side effects of social media is the constant opportunities you give the world to judge your life (and the opportunities you have to judge other people’s lives). As such, the idea of living a life purely for yourself and for “no one else” feels borderline radical. Radically healthy, that is.
TLC have always been at their strongest when singing about the toxic patterns women are forced into and "Perfect Girls" is no exception to this rule. So if you've only got time to listen to one track on the album, make it this one — and then head offline, ASAP.