thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Unpacking The Beauty Vlogger Phenomenon

In Beauty Culture, body politics, fashion, feminism on December 3, 2014 at 7:37 am

Vera Hanson**

I stumbled upon the beauty vlogger phenomenon over a year ago. It was summer, and I was at home from college with way too much time on my hands. I remember watching my first Zoella, or Zoe Sugg, video and instantly being charmed. At 19, I loved fashion and was interested in makeup. But I was mostly stunned at how quickly I felt connected to a girl talking to a camera thousands of miles away in England. Over the next few months, I not only grew attached to Zoe’s videos, but I began watching other beauty vloggers, such as Tanya Burr and Sprinkle of Glitter, as well. With millions of subscribers each, they all have their own distinct personality, style of video editing, and personal story.

As a career, beauty vloggers share their passion for beauty via video blogging. This takes the form of makeup tutorials, clothes hauls, product reviews, and beyond. The videos are “all the same but slightly different,” according to Guardian writer Eva Wiseman. “A young woman talks to you from the edge of her bed … Piece by piece she will test the brushes, the lip glosses, and piece by piece she will make you her friend.” What’s distinctive about these women is how personable they all are. Watching their videos feels, at times, less about makeup and more about the relationship they’ve carved out with their audiences.

Today, these women are not just beauty vloggers but also entrepreneurs, building YouTube beauty empires one makeup tutorial at a time. Yet their widespread influence does raise questions. In recent months, I’ve begun to wonder about the cultural significance of this trend. What, if any, stereotypes about women and beauty culture do these vloggers engage with and perpetuate?

It would be easy to conclude that beauty vloggers are feeding into stereotypical images of femininity. Their videos are overgrown with pastel colors, they’re capable of talking about lipstick for over ten minutes, and sometimes it feels as if they’ve done more shopping in a week than most of us have done in a year. Yet that conclusion feels too simplistic to me, and it denies these women their agency. To shame vloggers for their interest in beauty and fashion is to undermine their contributions to a larger female narrative. More than that, the way they continue to contribute to an industry pioneered by women plays a large role in explaining why beauty vlogging, at its core, can actually be quite feminist.

While anyone is welcome to watch these videos, it comes as no surprise that the majority of viewers are female. This is content made by women, for women. The narrative in beauty vloggers’ videos is never about wearing makeup to impress anyone, especially not to impress men. Even videos classified as “date night make-up tutorials” focus on how the look makes the vloggers feel beautiful and, most importantly, confident about their own self-worth. Furthermore, there is no longer a single definition of what is “beautiful” among vloggers. According to Tameka Kee, “YouTube is evolving into a place where the ‘business of beauty’ isn’t defined by ‘mainstream’ American or Western standards of beauty. There is a diversity of races, nationalities, and an influx of ‘alternative’ ideas of beauty.”

It’s also important to note that makeup, clothes, and all other beauty products are never talked about as necessary items in a woman’s life. Beauty vloggers instead openly recognize that their passion for beauty stems from the way makeup can be playful, artistic, and as Julia Tulloh writes entirely “on their own terms.” For many of these young women, talking about and sharing beauty culture with their viewers is a way of celebrating something they find to be both exciting and empowering for women.

Beauty vloggers also make the concept of beauty completely transparent. They are neither ashamed of their natural appearance nor ashamed of wearing the amount of makeup that they do. By creating tutorials and discussing the uses and benefits of different beauty products, vloggers are unapologetic in the way they use makeup as a tool for transformation. As Tulloh writes, “These artists are interesting because they are not ashamed of their natural appearance… the artists are not attempting to be dishonest about how they create their looks; rather, they are engaging in beauty in a performative, explicitly constructed way.”

As we watch vloggers apply their makeup step by step, there is no hiding the process of transformation. Makeup is not a shameful disguise used to attract male attention, but rather a routine in which women are controlling the way they look. As makeup tutorials unfold, each step in the routine is an honest choice made by the vlogger: what lipstick color do they want to wear, how much eyeliner do they want to put on? By showing the makeover process from start to finish, the vloggers communicate the sense of freedom and control that they have over their own bodies. Makeup, like a person’s clothes, can act as an expression of personal identity. For years, I’ve found satisfaction and excitement in the way that fashion and makeup can contribute to ever-changing individuality.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore the way that the male gaze contributes to beauty culture. Even if many women wear makeup for their own enjoyment now, what role does patriarchal pressure play? The answer is complicated. In the 19th and 20th centuries, men were extremely disapproving of women who wore makeup. According to Kate Ward, women wore makeup to assert their independence and embrace their individualism. As a result, “men feared this new sense of identity” that was deemed “rebellious, uncontrollable and dangerous.”

In today’s world, makeup has been mainstreamed. Yet it can still feel like patriarchal mores dictate when women should wear makeup, how much they should put on, and what a certain face of makeup says about her lifestyle and morals. Thus, makeup in today’s society boils down to a feminist issue of choice. If a woman chooses to go makeup-free, great. But as Kate Haddock points out, “Those who tell women to forsake makeup to be a ‘better’ woman are using the same tools of oppression that exist within our patriarchal society by telling women that their behaviors and choices are wrong in some way.”

Beauty vloggers not only embrace makeup in terms of choice and personal expression, they embrace the way their love of beauty can become an entrepreneurial endeavor. In a recent Guardian article, the editor of Company magazine is quoted saying, “Vloggers like Zoella have given young women hope that girls just like them can become successful from their bedrooms. Unlike the Big Brother pipe dreams of the 90s, it is a fame based in hard work.”

This type of success is evidence of a new wave of hard-working, self-made young women paving the way for online content creators. This trend of female creators is not to be overlooked. In fact, it should be talked about more often because, as it is, women are enormously “underrepresented behind the camera.” Comparing the number of women directors, writers, and producers to their male counterparts, there are “4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.” Beauty vloggers, on the other hand, both create and star in their own content, controlling their own representation from start to finish.

In reality, beauty vlogging is about a lot more than just beauty. It offers access to a culture of women who are in full control of their content, choosing to express themselves through a self-determined and genuine passion for makeup and beauty products. In many cases, beauty is simply a jumping-off point for them to indulge in countless other opportunities wherein they remain the captains of their own ships — both as businesswomen and creators.

As vloggers continue to flourish, it’s crucial to acknowledge the way these women undermine traditional concepts of beauty performance and strip away the shame that is often placed on women for wearing makeup. They are evidence that feminism and makeup are not mutually exclusive. More than anything, vloggers continue to play active roles in an industry that, now more than ever, demands female control and ownership.

**Vera Hanson is a junior studying Public Relations and Marketing at American University in Washington, D.C. She is a self-proclaimed media junkie and pop culture enthusiast. Currently, she is blogging about pop music and feminism at veralhanson.wordpress.com and you can follow her Twitter.

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