What conversations in digital beauty communities reveal about the pressure to buy and the resolution to break free
Until recently, the online beauty community could be defined by the unrelenting cycle of anticipating and reviewing new products. Want to mull over a new palette, or find out which highlighter is an HG (Holy Grail, for the uninitiated)? Head to beauty subreddits, the Sephora forum, or YouTube and fall down a rabbit hole of swatches, colour pay-off demos and products looming towards you with a palm behind them for focus. But if you’ve spent any time in beauty communities during the tail-end of 2018 and early 2019, you’ll have noticed a sea change.
Online beauty loves a trend; contouring tutorials yield 55.5m results on Google and glass skin tutorials, at almost the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, provide over 38m. That a particular facet of beauty has already been covered and dissected by hundreds of videos doesn’t deter beauty bloggers from creating their own version. Whether it’s read as simply joining in with current debate, or, more cynically, bloggers inserting themselves into the algorithm, once a new trend starts snowballing, there’s no stopping its spread.
The idea of the ‘no-buy’ has been discussed in online beauty communities as far back as at least 2014 on Sephora’s forum, and YouTubers have been trialling not buying any new products for set periods of time for around as long. The concept of a low or no-buy is a simple one: you set some rules for yourself about what you can and cannot buy, with the overall idea being to drastically reduce your spending.
"Beauty routines were considered part of practising self-care, but the compulsion to buy has depleted the self-control – and the finances – of many beauty fans"
YouTubers have undertaken no-buys over the past few years, and, like every trend in digital beauty content before, more have followed, setting intentions for a no-buy in 2019. Beauty vloggers whose content has previously focussed on products and tutorials are now, often for the first time, posting vlogs about stopping their shopping on beauty products. According to Google data, ‘no-buy’ searches spiked on beauty YouTube in January 2018, and peaked again towards the end of the year/beginning of 2019.
Hannah Louise Poston, who is active on YouTube and Reddit, just completed a no-buy year, and many users cite her as an influence. In a video posted towards the end of 2018, Poston reveals what is at the core of the movement: a breaking of a cycle of behaviour many feel trapped by. “I am just one person who had a problem, an overspending problem, a shopping habit, and I have combated that by launching my own no-buy.”
While the phenomenon of the ‘no-buy’ is by no means exclusive to online beauty communities – it’s of course favoured by those whose focus is on sustainability or minimalism – it has a marked prevalence amongst the beauty community. Time and time again, across videos and forum posts, those committing to a 2019 beauty no-buy are not citing a will to save the planet, but talk as if trying to break free from an addiction that is hurting them. For a while, beauty routines were considered part of practising self-care, but the compulsion to buy has depleted the self-control – and the finances – of many beauty fans.
"The cycle of loss of control, followed by shame, echoes the language of addiction"
“I’ve reached a low point, I just cannot stop myself from purchasing make-up,” one beauty YouTuber said as she set her intentions for a 2019 no-buy. “I tried to go on a low-buy last year and I think I was actually worse. I feel almost ashamed of how much I spent,” said one poster on the Sephora forum in a thread marking five years of discussing beauty no-buys. The user goes on to explain, “I started to feel indoctrinated into the whole into YT and IG ‘buy this’ mentality and it feels as though little by little I'm snapping out of it. I'm hoping to Marie Kondo the heck out of my beauty shopping this year.”
The cycle of loss of control, followed by shame, echoes the language of addiction, and the forums in which these conversations take place operate like support groups. The hub of these conversations is a subreddit aptly named MakeupRehab, which has over 50K subscribers, over 2000 of which joined in the first weeks of 2019. The community is for “those who are on a no-buy, low-buy, or just want to talk makeup and beauty without being bombarded with sales, hauls, and other tempting posts.” Users offer each other support in the form of tips, such as unsubscribing from mailing lists, or more practical measures like talking each other out of buying something when the inner voices compelling them to make a purchase get too loud to ignore.
Those who come out the other side achieved catharsis through their no-buys. A user on the Sephora thread wrote: “While this is still very much a work in progress, I'm feeling happy about where I am mentally now that I'm not obsessing over finding HG products.” And YouTuber Kelly Gooch, who did a low buy in 2018 reported that, for her, the process corrected her compulsive buying, that it fundamentally changed the way she viewed her make-up and the way that she shopped.
"Without new products to share, what will bloggers make content about?"
It’s difficult to overstate how central products are to the online beauty community. These are the people who post and watch haul videos, a genre trailblazed by fashion and beauty vloggers who’d run through though large volumes of ‘stuff’ they had bought. That more and more members of these communities are opting to disengage with shopping for new products is potentially huge.
2019 intentions have been set, and if beauty addicts can stick to them, the digital beauty world could look very different by the time the year is out. Without new products to share, what will bloggers make content about? A new genre of video ‘the anti haul’ has emerged, where vloggers discuss what they are not buying or clearing out, and there are already videos where users talk themselves out of buying something they had been obsessing over.
The bigger question is how beauty brands might react if this takes off? If beauty enthusiasts opt to eschew purchases and gain tighter control over their compulsions and their money, the biggest changes could be yet to come. The product drop cycle that has defined consumer culture far beyond beauty for the past several years could be over.