Confession: some days, I spend more time watching beauty product reviews on YouTube than I do reading. And I read a lot. I love these reviews. I love these reviewers. I’ll watch 12 minutes of The BEST Face Sunscreens for this Summer! by Hyram. When Samantha Ravndahl posted a review of Selena Gomez’s new makeup line, I clicked. When Vogue posted Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez sharing her skincare and red lip beauty routine, I just about lost my mind.
As she walks her audience through her routine, she holds each product up to the camera (She and I use the same tinted moisturizer, by the way, and we both love Glossier’s Cloud Paint! I bet if we met, we would totally be best friends.) and muses on feminism, the power of femininity, the pink tax. “The pink tax isn’t just about money,” she says. “It’s also about time.” And, “Studies show that women who go to work in a full face of makeup make more money.” It’s an excellent video; she covers a lot of ground. I watched in a fit of feminist enthusiasm. I wanted to shout, “Yaya!” right there on my couch. But I didn’t. Because that would be ridiculous.
I was in the midst of this feminist reverie when she said: “If waking up in the morning and doing your makeup gives you life, then that is amazing, and you should do it.”
This is very much the party line of what I’ll call YouTube feminism. (Obviously, that’s painting with a broad brush, there are lots of ways to be a and far too many corners of the YouTube landscape to have one point of view. Forgive my shorthand. I think it’s pithy.) YouTube beauty gurus, for the most part, talk about skin care as self care, and about beauty as self-expression and empowerment. As they do this, they’re showing you new products to buy. They do this, because they are paid to. Whether it’s a paid endorsement, an affiliate link that gives them a commission, or simply having received hundreds of dollars worth of free product, they are paid. It’s sales. I have no problem with a little healthy capitalism, but it’s important to recognize that, first and foremost, these product reviews are a sales pitch. Self care, self-expression, empowerment: that’s what they’re selling. They’re selling confidence. Mental health in a bottle. A jar of hope.
Ooooh— How to make your eyes look like eyes. Tell me more. (Yikes.)
Where advertisements once relied on shaming language, now they encourage women to let their true selves shine though. Putting on makeup can give you life. Language is powerful. This is a powerful shift, and a positive one. Encouraging women to confident instead of ashamed can only be a positive change for our culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s not marketing. In response to that marketing, we spend money on products that are essentially the same ones being sold to our mothers and our grandmothers. We apply concealer, foundation, blush, eyeshadow. The works. The trends change, but the result is still that we spend money on products and time in front of the mirror. We spend, spend, spend.
I put the makeup on, and yes: I feel awesome. I feel so good, so pretty, like: I’m really into myself. I get a boost. But the boost I’m getting comes from having made myself look more like society thinks I, as a woman, should look. After all, aren’t the ‘true selves’ we’re trying to reveal always just a little bit prettier/younger/shinier? High cheek bones, pink cheeks, bright eyes, long lashes. These are standards I did not set for myself. This is society. I have been fed the message that I should look a certain way and be a certain way, and I will eagerly— enthusiastically, even— go to the same patriarchal machine that fed me that message in order to purchase a solution.
Part of me loves the simplicity of YouTube feminism. If it makes you feel good, if it gives you life, do it. Even AOC approves. But if we’re giving ourselves a boost by making ourselves look the way society says we should look, what then? I’m not going to stop putting on makeup, but the cognitive dissonance persists. So I watch the product reviews. I buy the stuff. I apply toner, serum, moisturizer, eye cream, SPF. Concealer, tinted moisturizer, blush, mascara, brow gel. Maybe some eyeshadow. And I feel pretty. And I feel like a sucker.