How culture has changed since Christina Aguilera’s 2002 hit ‘Beautiful’

To mark its 20th anniversary, the singer has updated her ‘Beautiful’ music video – here, we speak to the director to find out how much, and how little, beauty expectations have shifted

Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” is an iconic music video. Released in 2002, the song was the second single from her image-shifting album Stripped, a raw soulful ballad which followed the attention-grabbing first single “Dirty”.

With lyrics centred around insecurity, self-esteem and inner beauty, the video shone a spotlight on the people suffering from society’s strict beauty standards, and those outside of and rejected by the mainstream. Touching on themes from eating disorders and body image to sexuality, the video won a GLAAD Media Award for its positive portrayal of gay and transgender people. Now, to mark its 20th anniversary, Aguilera has released an updated version of the music video.

“The film was a celebration of courage and self-love. It was an act of resistance, a love letter, a signal for change in the way we perceive beauty,” says SMUGGLER director Fiona Jane Burgess, who was tasked by Aguilera with reimagining the video for 2022. Growing up in rural England, pre-internet in a home without MTV, Burgess only caught glimpses of music videos when at her friends’ houses, but this one stuck with her and had a profound impact. 

“It showed me things that I knew but had never seen on screen before: a young girl overcoming her battle with anorexia, a young boy confronting his body dysmorphia, gay men kissing, a man in drag,” she says. “It gave me inspiration and motivation to know that I could be different in the world, and my voice mattered.”

Unlike the original video which featured a diverse range of ages, the 2022 version keeps its focus on children, as Burgess was keen to explore the ways the beauty industry and social media are impacting people at younger and younger ages. “More than half of girls and one-third of boys ages six to eight are unhappy with their body weight. And more than 80 per cent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being ‘fat’. This is heartbreaking,” she says. 

There’s been a 50 per cent increase in reported self-injury among teenagers since 2009, and by the time they reach 17, 78 per cent of girls in the US are unhappy with their weight. “The way we are taught to view and value ourselves as children affects the way we view ourselves as adults,” she says. “With this film, I was interested in exposing the ways we, as a society, inadvertently expose children and teenagers to damaging body ideals.” 

We spoke to Burgess about the impact of the original music video, and how she wanted to update it for 2022.

What was the cultural impact of the original video for “Beautiful”?

Fiona Jane Burgess: I feel like the original video set Christina apart from her peers. It felt so vulnerable and raw and brave for an artist to reflect themes of depression, isolation and body shame, as well as make a clear statement about unachievable beauty standards portrayed in mainstream media. It confronted taboo topics and shone a light on very relatable struggles. 

Also as a female pop star, Christina was sending a clear message to the world; that women can create work that’s socially conscious and questions the image and perception of traditionally marginalised groups within mainstream culture.

When you first started thinking about creating a new version of “Beautiful”, how did you want to update it for 2022?

Fiona Jane Burgess: With this re-release, I wanted to create a film that feels as emotional, provocative and fearless as its predecessor. 20 years ago social media didn’t exist. When I think about how the beauty industry and society as a whole have changed in the last 20years, the internet is by far the biggest monumental shift. 

Young people are experiencing and understanding the world in ways we didn’t, for example via influencers and content creators, and they are also the ones most at risk of being exploited by it. It is very difficult to supervise children’s online activity, and with this film, I wanted to highlight the dangers of this, as well as how young people are beginning to react and reject what they are being told (and sold).

“We are creating a cultural environment where it is normal to wish you looked different in some way, to want to change something about ourselves” – Fiona Jane Burgess

When the original video came out there was no social media. To what extent do you think social media is responsible for the increase in eating disorders, self-harm and body image issues that we are seeing now? 

Fiona Jane Burgess: I think it would be too simplistic to suggest that social media is solely responsible for the rise in mental health issues we're seeing in young people, but for many years I’ve worked in an adolescent psychiatric unit as a drama facilitator, so I've seen first-hand the reality for many young people who are struggling with mental health issues and its relationship to their online existence, so that’s why this feels like a really poignant concept for this video.

With this film, I wanted to explore the tension between progression versus regression in terms of beauty standards and how our cultural relationship to it has evolved in the last twenty years. On the one hand, body positivity has had a radical impact, with activists fighting to make the beauty industry a far more welcoming space with more diversity on runways and on our screens, reflecting an acceptance and celebration of difference. 

But on the other hand, there has been a huge surge in self-harm, body dysmorphia and alterations, plastic surgery, and an entire generation of teenagers wanting to look like the filters on their phone screens, a sort of Kardashian effect. Who knows to what extent social media is responsible, but I think the correlation between the two is undeniable.

Do you think beauty standards are worse now than they have ever been?

Fiona Jane Burgess: Only time will tell. I think there’s a kind of tug-of-war going on in the beauty industry, and that’s having a confusing and complicated wider cultural impact. I think we are definitely beginning to see more inclusion and acceptance of body diversity within certain areas of commercial advertising and within the fashion and beauty industries at large, however, I think this is in direct conflict with the hyper-perfect presentations of self we see online and still exist in most mainstream advertising. The rise in self-harm and plastic surgery speaks for itself. In the past 18 years, the number of cosmetic procedures for men has increased by more than 273 per cent and the number of cosmetic procedures for women has increased by more than 429 per cent.

What worries me is that I think we are creating a cultural environment where it is normal to wish you looked different in some way, to want to change something about yourself, to perpetually feel inadequate and less-than. Despite a growing inclusion of plus-size models and activists, for example, I worry that it’s easier to feel bad about yourself than it is to feel good. One study found using social media for as little as 30 minutes a day can negatively change the way young women view their own bodies. Nearly 80 per cent of young teenage girls report fears of becoming fat.

It’s hard to know whether this is worse than it has been in previous generations, but when I think about my childhood growing up without social media, I feel like I definitely wasn’t very aware of my body or my self-image, in a positive way. I think the problem is that it’s impossible for children to avoid social media nowadays, and it’s normal to apply filters to edit the way you look, for example. I can’t imagine what impact this would have had on me, because I don’t remember feeling particularly self-conscious or self-aware until my body began to change and develop, and even then there were no smartphones or selfies. It’s hard to know if things will get better or worse from here, but I think we are already beginning to see the impact.