The Curious Conformity Of YouTube's Beauty Tutorials
YouTube beauty videos are all variations on a predictable formula. Is that a bad thing – and what exactly do we want them to look like?
There is a video of a 4-year-old girl, Mia, and in that video, she is showing her mother how she applied make-up to her face. She picks up a brush – bristles down – as well as what looks like a blush compact. The lid is open, and she holds it at the product end, dipping her wrist so you can see the pigment. "I just used these..." she explains, "...put it all over my cheeks and my...my head and my chin." She gestures at her face, explicitly showing her mother, who is filming her, where the make-up has been applied. "I put this for my eyebrows," Mia continues, this time waggling a tube of mascara, before swapping it for a dark lipgloss that she uncaps with some difficulty. "And I used this lipgloss." She replaces the applicator and screws it shut.
The video garnered more than 15 million hits in a couple of days, so chances are you might've seen it already. But even if you haven't, it's more than likely you can imagine pretty clearly what Mia's doing, and what Mia sounds like. If you watch the corner of the internet known as "Make-up YouTube", you already know. Trust me.
Because here's the thing: Mia is speaking in the very specific and codified language of YouTube beauty tutorials.
It's all there. The sibilance of her speech (she smacks her lips together in the way only 4-year-olds and YouTubers do); the "gameshow assistant" presentation pose; the way she touches her hair and splays her fingers before steepling her hands. At four years old, Mia has understood and internalised a complex series of rules of what it means to be creating a YouTube video for public consumption. She is the star of this video, in the same way the biggest, highest-earning vloggers are the stars of the hundreds and thousands of videos hosted on the platform.
Mia is not just acting like a YouTube guru. She kind of is one.
Make-up tutorials are big business. The biggest vloggers are reaching millions, collecting views at a speed that would dazzle the vast majority of everyday YouTubers who use the platform for more quotidian things. But regardless of the actual reach of each individual clip posted, there are rules that go into the production.
The videos are a sort of meme – or more accurately a series of memes – repeated ad nauseam until the medium is completely saturated. It doesn't really matter what the actual meat-and-potatoes content of these videos are: whether a lookbook, a contouring and highlighting tutorial, a haul or even just a chat between a woman, a camera and her public, there are ways of being. An unofficial manual from which seemingly all YouTubers crib their style, and which all viewers can watch and grasp immediately. "Oh, that's what this is," we think when we watch these videos. The shorthand is clear and simple. And more than anything, it is incredibly effective at spreading. These are self-perpetuating organisms; what was one becomes many, until no one remembers the time before. Everyone does it, yes, but that's only because it's all everyone has ever done.
I conducted an unscientific survey on social media, asking those who enjoyed watching YouTube make-up tutorials: what are the common tropes, good and bad, that come up again and again in these videos? The responses tripped over themselves in their similarity. Here, then, are five of the biggest tropes of Make-up YouTube.
You already know what time it is, right? There are no urgent "Good afternoon"s on Make-up YouTube, just ebullient, casual greetings, perhaps with a half-cocked head, a wave (finger-wave, or Queen-like relaxed wrist flick) and a wide grin. No matter the subject of the video, the greeting stays the same: upbeat, friendly, what the marketers describe as "having your chatty best friend in the room with you!". This greeting is Lifestyle with a capital 'L' and there are no grave voices here. All is light, all is bright. And it all starts with that greeting.
From there follows the markers of gratitude: "thank you for tuning into my channel"; "I appreciate all of you guys for watching"; "I can't believe I have 40,000 subscribers already!" Because everyone knows that you have to stay humble – as defined by your subscribers and commenters – to survive with your likability and ~relatability~ intact on those mean YouTube streets. The sign-off is just as important: "Don't forget to thumbs up, comment and subscribe!"
If television personalities can develop their own unique catchphrases and legendary sign-offs, then why can't YouTubers?
Candles. Fairy lights. Minimalist white walls. A Marilyn Monroe/Audrey Hepburn character/Beyonce-inspired quote in a frame.
Wooden floors, decorated with a single faux-fur rug. High heel shoes stored in pairs along a back or side wall, a sparsely populated clothes rail, a spotlessly made up bed.
I could probably name another fifteen items that can be found in the background of any YouTuber's set, and you would nod in agreement. If relatability is the desired initial object of the exercise, then aspiration is a close second. Here is what you want your space to look like: clean, uncluttered, stylish in the samey way as everyone else on the platform, but unique enough if you were to tweak a couple of details. It's why room tour videos are so poupular, why the commenters request ever more details on how YouTubers store their brushes for example (thank heaven for empty Diptique jars), or arrange their lip products (Muji's acrylic drawer units) or get inspired ("this framed bible verse that reminds me to breathe"). The most organised YouTubers will inform you of upcoming changes to come to their regular setting, and may even invite suggestions on how to zhuzh it up.
Sometimes, an unsupervised child wanders into the frame and the shot jumps from a crude edit, sometimes phones go off, or a partner opens a door. It's no big deal: All of life's intrusions are just a part of the particular vocabulary of Make-up YouTube.
Scents are "fresh" or "fruity" or "sensual". Eyeshadows and blushes are "very pigmented" and foundations offer all sorts of "coverage". The packaging is "easy to use" and "very pretty". And so on.
There are prescribed ways of talking about products and feelings, presented in similar ways: the non-professionals call themselves "enthusiasts" as disclaimers to deter the #WellActually crowd in the comments. British YouTubers who, for all their lives have talked about Boots and Superdrug as being on the High Street, suddenly call them "drugstores", one eye firmly on the US viewership. A YouTuber might "find myself reaching for..." a recent favourite item and gush, "I'm obsessed with this!" Looks are "wearable", "buildable", "durable"; the language of heavy duty machinery. Subject matter makes it to screen because it was "highly requested" and viewers are urged to "let me know what videos you want me to do in the future".
The power is in the YouTubers' hands, but they generously devolve it to the viewer.
"Thank you so much for your comments – I read every one!"
Who taught you to cover the mirror of a compact in that way? Who instructed you to stand pigeon-toed, and rotate your hips? Where did you learn that look-down-then-up-then-pout pose choreography? Why do you hold the palm of your hand up behind the product like that?
So what is it we want from our amateur make-up YouTubers? Their very conception lies in the idea that they were out of the hands of the big guys of television and the propagandists of cosmetics companies. This was to be a FUBU operation: For us, by us, a kick against the slick, polished system to which we had been exposed for so long. But if a simple and slick 1+1=2 formula emerges in what was supposed to be our very own DIY, rough-hewn homemade salvation, what happens then? Like all popular consumables, YouTube is endlessly co-optable. Is something still hand-crafted when the final result is indistinguishable from the thing we see at the end of a mechanised production line? If not, why not? How do you measure inauthenticity if you sometimes have trouble even identifying it?
The next stage of the evolution of YouTube videos may already be here. There is probably a vlogger out there doing something new right now – a different camera angle, a subtle change in their intro, some wild new set idea – that will begin its slow-then-rapid traipse into the mainstream. There is no end in sight; the re-configuration of the lexicon is constant.
And perhaps that is the take-home from all of this: not the rules themselves, which are always changing, but the source of the rules. Who sets the agenda? To a large degree, it is the YouTubers themselves. That sense of ownership, which can never truly be taken away, is the key. Their evolution is in their own hands.