Beauty vloggers are some of YouTube’s biggest stars. Michelle Phan, one of the first vloggers to achieve cult-idol status, has over eight million subscribers, more than a billion cumulative views, and makes three million dollars a year. She’s been using the platform since at least 2007.
Phan’s videos follow a soothing formula: she greets her viewers with her famously soft, American-accented voiceover (“Hello cuties”; “Hi, gorgeous”). She appears with a full face of themed make-up—the Spanish Rose, maybe, or a red-lipped Chinese New Year look—explains what she’s about to do (“I have here a beautiful look for you to try out to ring in the Lunar New Year”), and then the video snap-cuts to Phan bare-faced and staring down the barrel of the camera, starting with skincare and going through a routine, step-by-step, until her transformation is complete.
Phan has been around long enough to become an often-referenced source of inspiration for the thousands like her, who collectively embody every possible variation on the same theme: women doing their make-up for an audience.
It’s a beautiful world, the one these women on YouTube inhabit. Their faces are lit like they’re sitting in front of their own small, friendly star. The music in the background is sweet: Creative Commons guitar loops or massage-therapy pan flutes, or the kind of uplifting techno that could also be the soundtrack for montages of snowboarding stunts.
The demeanors of the women lie somewhere on a continuum from big sister to fairy godmother, from the ASMR-inducing almost-whisper of Phan, to the calming British authority of Eldridge, to the charming goodness of Katerina Williams. They pluck apparently limitless products seemingly from the air, accompanied by wisps of text telling us their incantation-like names (Guerlain Terracotta 4 Seasons Bronzing Powder 00 Nude, D.J.V. Beautenizer Fiberwig LX Mascara).
They have a wealth of secrets to share, a never-ending series of beauty memes and tags (put your make-up on without a mirror! Kylie Jenner lips!), and they don’t demand anything from their viewers except that they like and subscribe. Beauty vloggers tend not to talk politics. But they are still, without even trying, political.
The more beauty tutorials I watched, the more I came to believe that I was witnessing something extraordinary: the creation of a realm that could not exist in such an unfettered form anywhere but digitally—a space just for women. Somewhere for us to nut out the often difficult business of being women, to discuss the trappings of performed femininity that would be uncomfortable to raise in the company of men—covering acne blemishes, contouring one’s face to appear slimmer, enjoying the art of disguise.
It’s a space in which to divorce the pressures of the Beauty Myth from its products. Like many activities historically pushed to the fringes because of men’s contempt for anything coded feminine, the online beauty club makes a place for women to spend time together, share knowledge, bond, and do the practical work of surviving in a patriarchy that is trying to pit us against one another. The women on Reddit’s r/Makeup- Addiction forum aren’t in competition, and they’re not trying to snag a man. They’re enthusiasts swapping stats on fiber count and polymer quality.
The beauty standard might be artificial, but its effects are profoundly real, and much further reaching than sexual attraction.
Collectively, beauty vloggers construct a narrative completely devoid of the male gaze. I have never heard any YouTube beauty celebrity mention a man’s opinion. I’ve never even heard any of them address a potential male viewer. Which might seem weird, on the surface of it, because a broad cultural understanding (read: a male understanding) of make-up is that it’s supposed to appease and attract men.
Despite literally thousands of years of cosmetic use by all human civilizations, despite many hundreds of thousands of women making a living from doing make-up for themselves and others for fashion, TV, movies, magazines and more, and despite every woman in the public eye wearing it at nearly all times, make-up is still coded as deceit. I know I grew up buying into the idea almost entirely.
For a very long time I felt that make-up was supposed to be something secret, even shameful—probably because I fiercely wanted to be the most virtuous kind of beautiful: “naturally” beautiful. Make-up defeated the point, which was to be gorgeous without even trying. This attitude is a popular one.
Just look at the scorn many young men reserve for women who are obviously made-up, and their approval for women who pass as “naturally” pretty. You can find their comments on any YouTube beauty tutorial if you scroll down far enough: among the hundreds of women commenting “You look great!”, there are the ugly boils of “This is why men have trust issues,” “Take her swimming on the first date,” “False advertising” and, my personal favorite, “You’re hotter without make-up.”
All of these attitudes are evidence of a tired and prevalent male understanding of cosmetics, which is as a tool of seduction and nothing else. The joke’s on chicks, these guys are thinking, because they’ve put all this shit on their faces and men don’t even like it.
Maybe the joke is on us. It is expensive and time-consuming to wear make-up; why would we do it, if not to attract the opposite sex? This is something I have grappled with long and hard. Men definitely pay more attention to me when I’m wearing make-up, and I’ve definitely worn make-up to attract male attention. But I’m not looking for male attention at all these days, and I still feel compelled to wear make-up.
I’m well-enough entrenched in modern feminist subculture to happily let my leg and armpit hair grow out; why can’t I leave the house without putting on my face? And if it’s just for me, why don’t I put it on when I’m home alone?
Maybe it’s because cultural norms allow men to pass through the world unchallenged as long as they are washed and fully dressed, but to access the same privileges women need to spend money and time painting on a better-looking face. It’s not just men who are nicer to me when I wear make-up, it’s everyone. No amount of recognizing this for what it is—utter gendered bullshit—will change the fact that me with a bare face and me with BB cream and filled-in eyebrows experience the world very differently.
The beauty standard might be artificial, but its effects are profoundly real, and much further reaching than sexual attraction. Numerous studies have shown that women wearing make-up are more confident, receive better treatment from the people around them, and earn more than their make-up-free sisters. Make-up makes a difference.
But we know this. We know that beauty is not as simple as trying to outcompete our peers for male attention or praise. We know that an understanding of beauty, and membership to the club, is really about gaining and sharing the means to move through the world easily, skillfully, without detection—a means of smoothing the system from the inside.
What I’ve come to believe is that part of the reason make-up is still scorned and coded as deceitful is because we do it with other women. Pleasures and activities that exclude men automatically become the object of suspicion and fear (What are they talking about when we’re not around?), which is defanged by turning fear into derision and contempt (Those silly women, they don’t even know how ridiculous they look).
But the beauty club, when it’s gathered in force, is a subversive collective. Unlike the women’s magazines of my teens, with their implicit confirmation of make-up as Secret Mate Attractor (“Date night make-up,” “Ten beauty trends he hates!”), YouTube make-up tutorials are a feminine space totally abstracted from the churn of heteronormativity. If they say anything to straight men, it’s that this isn’t for you.
The politics of modern cosmetic use is a tangle, and women much smarter than I am have tackled this topic with vigor. (I’m thinking particularly of Rian Phin, a former Rookie contributor and prolific blogger and vlogger; her incisive work on why she, as a Black woman, wears make-up provides a framework in which to understand a whole raft of other opposing pressures.)
But one of the things I love about YouTube beauty tutorials and the rest of the online beauty community, including websites like xoVain and subreddits like r/SkincareAddiction, is how easily they smooth out that tangle. They don’t engage with uninvited male opinions. They don’t ask me to interrogate why I love make-up. They just teach me how to do it better, and make me feel good while they do it.
Beauty vloggers strip away the layers of artifice shellacked onto any mainstream image of beauty. By that I mean: I have had bad skin since I was ten years old. Acne, oil slicks, giant pores, scars, hyperpigmentation, the lot. I spent a long time feeling ashamed of the way I looked without make-up because I never saw anyone who looked like I did in any of the culture I consumed. Nothing has made me feel better about my skin than watching beauty vloggers.
They appear bare-faced and unashamed of their acne, dark circles, pigmentation and blotchiness, disentangling the cultural myths that imply that beauty and virtue are synonymous, and they show, step by step, how the illusion is created. “Beauty” as understood by the broader culture is largely trend-based and deeply connected to the cosmetic industry—almost no one looks beautiful to the standards demanded by advertisements and popular culture without cosmetic help.
“Do you know how hard it is for an off-white/brown girl to learn to do make-up here? YouTube taught me everything.”
As Dolly Parton says in Steel Magnolias: “Ain’t no such thing as natural beauty.” Online make-up communities embody this philosophy entirely—beauty is by nature artificial, and by recognizing that truth we can disconnect beauty from inherent goodness or correctness, and connect it instead to skill, effort and ingenuity. Being beautiful is like carving castles out of eggshells: it’s impressive, difficult, time-consuming, and not everyone wants to do it—but if you do want to, you can learn how.
Now, sometimes, I leave the house without putting foundation on—not because my skin is different, but because I’m no longer ashamed of it. I never would have made this progress had I not seen the effort that goes into making those effortlessly beautiful women in magazines look the way they do.
More importantly, beauty vloggers transcend physical boundaries like geography, which is pivotally important for many young women of color in majority-white countries. As multicultural as the Western world has become, it’s still rare to see non-white faces in women’s media, particularly in the context of make-up. When I asked my friends what they loved about YouTube beauty tutorials, this was the strongest response: the videos gave them a chance to see themselves.
There are beauty vloggers of every race and creed, just as there are beauty vloggers of every skin quirk and eyebrow idiosyncrasy. There really is someone for everyone, and for women and girls who don’t have representations of themselves elsewhere in their lives, those YouTube videos can be life-changing.
“Do you know how hard it is for an off-white/brown girl to learn to do make-up here? YouTube taught me everything.”
Ebony is in her mid-twenties, an engaging, energetic graphic designer and sometime model.
“If we’re talking community, there is no greater solidarity—to me, regarding beauty—than learning how to make myself pretty from other light brown girls. YouTube tutorials taught me all the things I never knew about being a ‘girl,’ especially ’cos my mum doesn’t wear make-up or have long hair.”
The broader digital beauty community helps to create concrete changes as well. A couple of years ago, a friend put me onto an online community of women who are DIY experts in skincare. This community encompasses sites as diverse as subreddits like r/SkincareAddiction, personal blogs and the websites of amateur scientists in a sprawling, unaffiliated and self-taught network of women taking control of their appearance in a fascinating way.
Here were women who have turned their participation in the exhausting rigmarole of being a woman in the world into an engaging, stimulating hobby—and some of them are as informed about the mechanics of human skin as some dermatologists.
As soon as I began trawling through this enormous body of crowdsourced material, I was hooked. For one thing, I was struck by the generosity of the community. Participants spend hours sifting through published research papers, sharing their findings in easily digestible blog posts; they post pictures of themselves without make-up, and praise the vulnerable selfies of others for the progress they have made towards reducing acne, hyperpigmentation or fine lines. They candidly discuss their goals, and their concessions to the reality that they will never be “perfect.”
Some women go even further into grassroots skincare and create their own formulations. Many active ingredients found in skincare products, such as vitamin C and glycolic acid, are available to purchase in stable states on Amazon and eBay; thus, the internet has given birth to a generation of at-home chemists, happy to be taking the state of their body into their own hands to the fullest degree. The community is so strong and so vocal that some skincare brands (the Korean company COSRX in particular) are starting to create new products that address specific issues raised by the community.
Most importantly, these women’s work and curiosity, and their willingness to share their knowledge, allows women without access to expensive specialists and high-end brands to begin to understand and address their own issues; demystifying the science of skincare allows us greater control of our bodies without an intermediary.
And I was astonished at how much I could learn. From message boards, blogs and online communities I learned about the skin’s moisture barrier or “acid mantle,” the layers of epi- dermis and dermis, the methods by which vitamin A strengthens the skin, the importance of pH levels to skin health.
From YouTube beauty tutorials I learned how to cover my acne, use a lipstick everywhere except my lips, put highlighter on without looking like a disco ball, and a never-fail cat’s eye. And I learned to shed the shame I’d felt for a long time: shame about being plain, wanting to be beautiful, feeling afraid to pursue prettiness, resenting other women and then being guilty about resenting them—a whole morass of weird, bad vibes washed down the drain, bit by bit, along with my oil cleanser.
In terms of spaces that allow ordinary women to access a form of femininity that encourages collaboration rather than competition, digital beauty communities are unique.
In order to function, the Beauty Myth requires a disconnect between our selves and our bodies. We are separated by shame and ignorance, taught that our physical selves are our enemies. Knowing your body closes the gap; knowing the skills and how to use them puts power back into women’s hands. So many beauty vloggers are careful to tell their viewers that they don’t need make-up. Beauty is not about need; it’s about choice.
Society’s beauty apparatus has a way of making you feel desperately alone. As Naomi Wolf’s book highlighted, a woman isolated and worn down by the pressure to be beautiful, robbed of her financial freedom by the requirement that she purchase products, clothing and diet plans to maintain her beauty quotient, and suspicious of other women whom she considers obstacles to her success—this woman does not agitate for change, argue with the status quo or walk away from a discriminatory workplace.
The isolated woman feels incurably ugly, struggling alone in uncomfortable shoes up an unscalable mountain, putting on lipstick in a locked toilet stall and worrying about doing it wrong, always feeling like the only one failing at correct womanhood. But we’re lucky to be around in a time that gives us access to the best antidote to this debilitating solitude: an internet connection and the right search terms.
Look through any comments section on a beauty vlog and you’ll see outpourings of admiration from woman to woman. The openness of this admiration is part of the appeal of these online spaces: here is a place in which women publicly demonstrate their care, affection and admiration for one another. There has been a recent cultural boom in the “girl gang,” a phenomenon of famous women working with and championing each other that’s best encapsulated by Taylor Swift’s notorious “squad.”
But in terms of spaces that allow ordinary women to access a form of femininity that encourages collaboration rather than competition, digital beauty communities are unique. Once I started to talk to other women about make-up online, it opened up channels in my real life as well. Now I talk to all my female friends about it.
Make-up talk is coded as shallow, but it makes for deep connections. We talk about the tricky aspects of beauty; we tease apart the political mess of wanting to be pretty but maybe not wanting to want to be pretty; we get theoretical. I couldn’t do the work that I do on this topic without those women to work through things with me.
In digital spaces women find community, even in the very aspects of culture that seek to separate and oppress us. Many of my friends tell me they feel something unusual after they watch beauty videos or engage with online beauty communities: they feel calm.
I don’t think it’s just because beauty vloggers tend to have soothing voices. I think something about harnessing the Beauty Myth, saying its name aloud, and sharing it, in all its joy and confusion, with people you love and admire, makes the weight of performing beauty turn powder-light.
From Witches: The Transformative Power of Women Working Together. Used with the permission of the publisher, Melville House. Copyright © 2020 by Sam George-Allen.