The word “flaw” is some 700 years old. It was born from fire and ice, first used to mean “ember” and “snowflake” — some fragment of a whole gone astray. It evolved to signify “defect,” initially in surfaces and soon after in character. But recently, it has become associated most closely with appearance, thanks to the popularity of its opposite, “flawless.” On social media, “flawless” has a celebratory sheen: Women apply it tenderly, reverently to one another — and triumphantly to themselves.
The word was ushered into its new usage by Beyoncé’s 2013 song “***Flawless,” whose declaration of proud, almost swaggering femininity was taken up by women on the Internet. A much-shared photograph of a woman in a hijab with dramatic, winged eyeliner is captioned “flawless”; so is one of Rihanna on a New York street, wearing a tight white skirt and holding a bright blue umbrella. A teenage girl shows off her “flawless” braids. A young woman embraces a pregnant friend in a hospital room: “Fixing to have a baby & still flawless.” Plus-size fashion bloggers upload a video of themselves dancing to “***Flawless.” And there’s Rihanna, again, in a pale pink pantsuit and matching fur stole.
It’s perhaps our first untroubled word for human beauty, free of the whiff of sexism that clings to many others. It doesn’t denote marriageability (like “nubile”) or beauty born of fragility (“comely”). Unlike its close relations “fair,” “perfect” and “immaculate,” it carries no overt religious connotations. And unlike “beautiful” itself, with its associations of perishability and status, “flawless” feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution. Over the years, this publication has reserved it for Babe Ruth’s swing, Sarah Bernhardt’s turn in “Cléopâtre” and a few especially strong competitors at the Westminster Dog Show.
Something interesting happens when a word that suggests action is applied to beauty: It recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed. On Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, when “flawless” is used as praise, it implies a friendly interest in workmanship — in a brow arched just so, in contouring cream ingeniously applied, in effort and experimentation as much as the final effect. True, “flawless” has its own conventions and idiosyncrasies: It usually refers to a certain kind of regal woman — think Beyoncé, Rihanna, Michelle Obama — with a sculpted look that feels achieved (also, possibly, complicated and expensive to maintain). But its abiding spirit is generous and even vaguely campy; it honors the artifice in all beauty and is skeptical of anything wanly “natural” or “authentic” that conceals the trouble it took. Its ethos could be Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.”
The idea of beauty as performance — and as successful gender performance — is not what’s new. “Women are all female impersonators to some degree,” Susan Brownmiller wrote in the ’80s; “flawless” has been part of drag argot for years. (It even provided the title of an appalling 1999 comedy in which Philip Seymour Hoffman starred as a drag queen giving singing lessons to Robert De Niro’s brooding bigot cop.) Joe E. Jeffreys, a historian of drag culture who teaches at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, told me he can trace the word back to at least the 1960s. “It’s an underground word,” he said. “People sometimes say that they ‘spooked your beard,’ meaning they can see through your makeup foundation to your facial hair and see that you’re a guy. To be ‘flawless’ is to be the opposite of that. There’s nothing to see through, it’s so perfect.”
This usage, he says, can probably be linked to one individual: Flawless Sabrina, a legendary godmother of American drag. William S. Burroughs was her lover; Andy Warhol, a supporter. Diane Arbus photographed her in Central Park looking gaunt and glorious, with her narrow body and bright bulb of hair. In the years when cross-dressing could get you arrested (and long before “Paris Is Burning”), she established a national circuit of beauty pageants for drag queens, traveling across America in the ’50s and ’60s. Jeffreys suspects that the term “flawless” followed her. Flawless Sabrina, now in her 70s, cautiously agrees. It was “tongue in cheek,” she says of her name. She was attracted “to the irony of it,” she adds. “This idea of a paragon of perfection. God knows I was anything but perfect.”
In its current life online, however, the word has shed some of this irony; it is now deployed with earnest self-satisfaction. The video for “***Flawless” contains a clip from the televised talent show “Star Search,” with a 12-year-old Beyoncé and her girl group keeping their smiles in place as they learn that they have lost the contest. An adult Beyoncé, looking at once tomboyish, severe and sexy, delivers a scattershot message of feminism, gratitude to her family, strong words for detractors. Her sardonic refrain, “I woke up like this,” winks at the major production involved in making her camera-ready. The song’s lyrics double as a recitation of assets: “My diamond flawless,” she sings, “My Roc flawless,” referring both to her jewels and to her husband Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation. Her version of flawlessness means to be well fortified — by family, by marriage, by money. It is rigorously controlled, hypercompetent, hypercapitalist — never dangerous or disheveled.
“***Flawless” opens with a sneering “Bow down, bitches,” and Beyoncé performed the remix wearing a centurion helmet. This little word is an attempt at armor, and it announces itself as such. Its metaphors are martial: “Michelle Obama Was Flawless at State of the Union Address” read a headline in Essence, lauding her tweed Michael Kors skirt suit that channeled “her inner gladiator.” Salon reported that “Laverne Cox Flawlessly Shuts Down Katie Couric’s Invasive Questions.” Excessive and a little outlandish, it is the verbal equivalent of the animal impulse to puff up, fluff out feathers, raise hackles — to appear bigger than you are.
Invoked this way, “flawless” hints at humiliation anticipated and narrowly avoided. “Prettiness,” Mary Gaitskill wrote in her novel “Veronica,” is “always about pleasing people.” Flawlessness is about elevating yourself, whether or not anyone else will. “I look fantastic,” a plus-size fashion writer posts on her blog. “All of my imperfections, all of my fatness, all of my chins, all of my rolls, all of my dimples, all of my cellulite and so on and so forth make me flawless. I know what I need to do for myself, and that’s no one else’s concern but mine.”
In some corners of the Internet, “flawless” is being used as Flawless Sabrina intended — as a critique of beauty, albeit a less playful one. It’s being wielded by those who feel themselves painfully at the margins, most of them young, many black or brown, many queer. They post images of themselves, their stretch marks and scars, hashtagging them with a tentative or defiant #flawless. They write things like: “I will appreciate this body from every angle. Under any circumstances.” “I refuse to hate myself.” “All bodies are good bodies.” “Some #naturalhair pride for ya,” a brown-skinned girl writes, beaming in a selfie taken in a bathroom mirror, her hair brushed up and out, filling the frame, her fingernails painted mint green to match her phone case. Late in its life, “flawless” has taken on a joyful, political function: It’s a way of declaring not just your beauty but also the fact of your existence with pride.
The subjects of these photos wrest beauty from the eye of the beholder: It is not granted but announced. And here the word wends its way home to its original definition. “Flaw” once evoked a shard; now “flawless” has come to mean plainly, powerfully, something unbroken, something defiantly whole.