“Hi guysssss, welcome to my channel!”
This phrase echoes through the infinite void of YouTube, penetrating our souls with its obnoxious Valley girl intonation, and has become synonymous with the cult of social media influencers that promote the culture of beauty blogging. The incredulous rise of beauty blogging in the last 10 years, which started from YouTube as 45-minute painstaking masterpieces, has now moved to all social media platforms as bite-sized, binge-worthy clips that have successfully penetrated the female psyche.
As with all cultural staples of femininity, it begins in pre-adolescence. My 15-year-old sister started spending hours every day watching beauty videos when she was twelve. She devoted weeks to deciding on the perfect products to invest in with her birthday money. Though she does not wear makeup on a daily basis, she is absorbing the skills consistently and has become another devoted follower to the cult.
The rise of beauty blogging has placed enormous expectations on women from the ages of 11 and above to expend thousands of dollars, numerous hours learning and applying skills, and significant mental energy so as to acquire the same level of expertise as professional makeup artists.
The combined allure of creative expression, glamorous transformation and global exhibition may explain why so many women have gravitated towards beauty blogging. They are both the creator and the model; the canvas and the camera are both theirs. The control is physically in women’s hands, but socially-mandated beauty standards have embedded themselves so deeply into our brains that we continue to replicate it with only minor adjustments that give us the illusion of self-creation. We are told, through underlying messaging of its popularity, that this endeavour should be our hobby and that we will take self-pleasure and gratification from its labour.
The creators of the new beauty standards are women just like us. Beauty corporations do not outright tell us to inject our lips and contour our faces so heavily that we no longer look like ourselves, but have found a much more insidious and effective way to grow profits – they employ ambassadors women can relate to. These ambassadors (i.e. influencers) are dynamic women who possess humour and quirks and share their lives on screen. When these influencers speak, we believe that they have full agency and free will. These women are “choosing” to engage in three-hour beauty rituals. They genuinely enjoy doing it and sharing it with us. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.
The fact that women can 100 percent achieve the same results as the influencers we idolise on screen with enough time, skill, devotion and money has strengthened the beauty myth like never before. This goes on almost completely unchallenged, because mainstream feminism pedestals choice above all other sociocultural pressures and expectations. Women are “choosing” to devote themselves to the rituals of makeup application. We feel “empowered” by doing this. We are no longer doing this to impress men; we are doing it for ourselves.
The choice ideology has embedded itself so deeply into the brains of young women who are growing up absorbing two parallels – fourth wave feminism alongside beauty blogging culture – that they become entwined into a bouquet that legitimises the intense, growing pressure to perform beauty at all times under the guise of choice: alone at home, going to the supermarket, walking the dog.
To say that makeup is a confidence-booster is an understatement. Makeup equals beauty. Beauty equals cultural capital and power. This cultural capital can extend into every domain of a woman’s life – attracting a desirable partner, earning the admiration of her peers, as well as millions of strangers on the internet, and building an entire career. We are under the illusion that in 2021, feminism has become so widespread in the western world that a woman’s appearance no longer determines her worth because now we are educated, powerful and independent, but a quick look at YouTube and Instagram show that women’s attractiveness is glorified and cult-ized, and the bar for it is higher than ever before.
The rise and explosive boom of beauty blogging culture is a well-established mechanism of social suppression of women’s true emancipation, an evolved technological response to increasing pressure from a renewed feminist movement.
Naomi Wolf wrote ‘The Beauty Myth’ 29 years ago, and her critique of the demands of beauty placed on women in the western world is just as pertinent today. In the book, Wolf explains how in response to third wave feminism, the beauty myth came into full force so that women would become preoccupied with hating their bodies: “An ideology that makes women feel worthless was urgently needed to counteract the way feminism had begun to make us feel worth more.”
History has shown that in response to political uprisings, infiltrating the movement, destabilising it and shaking its foundational core is effective in halting its progress. When patriarchal institutions began to fear the wrath of Beyonce’s feminist endorsement in 2012 and what that would mean for the status quo, they brought in the capitalist experts to commodify and de-politicise feminism by glamourising the word “feminist” and attaching it to every act, product and service that loosely had the interests of women at heart. As a result, young women who have the intelligence, values, resources and potential to be drivers of significant change, to become feminist militants with educational, institutional and economic power like never before in history, are being kept distracted with pretty shiny things.
To muddle the performance of beauty – something established over the decades by feminist academics as a tool of patriarchal suppression, into a postfeminist narrative that the choice to perform beauty is a liberating and feminist act in itself is a brilliant marketing spin that most of us still have not been able to see through. Why can’t we see this? Because the minds of our young women are enthralled with the addictive entertainment value in binge watching makeup tutorials on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. They are getting shorter, from 30 minutes to 30 seconds. They are getting more creative. They are rippling across the globe – creators and viewers of every nationality, religion, skin colour and age. They are in essence inescapable on the internet, and there is an underlying pressure for both young and older women to consume this form of media and attempt to replicate it to the best of their efforts. We all know that a woman gradually loses her value past the age of 25, and so she must learn the new tricks of the beauty trade to stay relevant, to remain visible, to be considered a woman deserving of attention, love and respect.
The beauty myth has evolved for the millennial generation. We are now being told to internalise two values about beauty – that we perform beauty for ourselves, not for the male gaze, and any change or modification any other woman makes to her face or body – temporary or permanent, should never be questioned or criticised, as long as no one is holding a knife to her throat to make her do it.
It is easy to accept these values that have a superficial layer of increasing confidence rather than to recognise that patriarchal capitalism has been holding a knife to all of our throats for so long, we think it is normal. Women are painfully injecting chemicals into their lips and cheekbones, putting plastic inside their breasts and buttocks, but do not panic because this is her choice, and if it makes her feel empowered, who are we to criticise her?
There is an overwhelming narrative of “women supporting women” on social media, and this superficial slogan prevents us from gently destabilising each other’s internalised pressure to perform beauty at all times. If natural beauty is the epitome, why are we putting on 10 products to achieve that “look”? Even in the glorification of natural beauty, we mean a certain type – clear tanned skin, thick eyebrows and eyelashes, and plump lips. Those who do not naturally meet this standard will go through procedures to look this way. How are we unable to see how ridiculous that is?
We live in a feminist culture that is so against asking critical questions of one another, it becomes nearly impossible to help each other unlearn social conditioning and social enforcement of beauty, amongst other things. We often confuse critical dialogue and intellectual discussion with bullying, meanness and ostracisation. They lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, but the internet would have us believe otherwise.
Where do we go from here? It does not look like beauty blogging is going to disappear anytime soon. Corporations are dependent on it and women are becoming financially independent through it. It has become a firm staple in the culture of femininity. What we can do is critically examine makeup tutorials, recognise that our faces simply do not require 10 serums, and refuse to give our hard-earned pay checks to corporations that profit off our insecurities.