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Unpacking the darker side of beauty tutorials

Are beauty tutorials liberating in their lifting the lid on the time, money and work that goes into creating a look or are they just another way of reinforcing culturally sanctioned ideals? Clementine Prendergast examines

In his famous work, The Art of Love, the ancient Roman poet Ovid issues a stark warning to women about how they should go about applying their make-up. “With wax you know how to whiten your skin, and with carmine to give yourself the rosy hue which Nature has denied you […] But on no account let your lover find you with a lot of ‘aids to beauty’ boxes about you. The art that adorns you should be unsuspected.[…] Why should I know what it is that makes your skin so white? Keep your door shut, and don’t let me see the work before it’s finished.” 

Fast forward two thousand years to an internet age of ‘radical transparency’ where privacy is scarce and openly sharing every second of our lives is the norm, and it appears as though Ovid’s misogynistic musings thankfully hold no value. Cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically, with beauty being an enormous part of that. From celebrities lifting the lid on their beauty practices with behind-the-scenes coverage of their ‘glam squad’ in action to regular people turning the camera on themselves as they share with the world their intimate beauty routines, the beauty tutorial has taken the internet by storm. Indeed, a historically private but increasingly public practice, one’s beauty routine has been rendered visible by the virality of the online beauty tutorial with beauty-related content generating more than 169 billion views in 2018 alone. 

In many ways, the rise of the beauty tutorial has been liberating in its subversion of the Ovidian notion that beauty should seem naturally inherent. In 2019, not only are we sharing with our lover the “‘aids to beauty’ boxes” about us, we’re sharing them with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Instead of keeping the door shut until we’re finished, the beauty tutorial flings the door open to reveal the amount of time, money and work that goes into creating a finished look, showing that we’re not all genetically blessed and therefore evening out the playing field.

Dr. Meredith Jones, a reader in gender and cultural studies at Brunel university studies and author of Beautyscapes: Mapping Cosmetic Surgery Tourism, cites the Kardashian sisters as playing an important part in this movement, through their constant behind-the-scenes beauty footage on Keeping Up With The Kardashian’s and later beauty tutorials. “The Kardashians have in a way led the cultural turn to make-up not being something hidden away and then a perfect face presented to the world (possibly leading to people believing that no work has been done to it),” she says. Instead of beauty appearing inherently natural, “the Kardashians show the labour that goes into beauty.”

Thus the power of the beauty tutorial lies in its ability to demystify beauty as an unattainable ideal. By focusing on the process it takes to create a look as opposed to merely the end result, beauty tutorials provide much-needed relief to the unrealistic images we’re constantly surrounded with, both in fashion magazines and in mainstream media. “Rather than emphasize a static unattainable image, tutorials focus on a process which, when you are shown the steps, tools and techniques, you can adapt in your own way,” says Jones. “By seeing that so-called ‘perfection’ or ‘prettiness’ is manufactured and potentially attainable to everyone, beauty tutorials may be empowering to those who watch them.”

Olivia Galvin, Style Collective Lead at cultural insights agency Flamingo agrees, arguing that, “tutorials, in essence, can humanise beauty and empower people to feel it is accessible - something they can do too rather than an unattainable art form.” This is especially true of a growing breed of body-positive beauty vloggers who use their platform to spotlight various skin concerns from acne to scars and burns. Instead of presenting a perfect image to the world, these individuals peel back the curtain on their perceived flaws and highlight how you can use make-up in conjunction with them as a means of expression, rather than mere concealment. Take Em Ford, founder of My Pale Skin or Louisa Northcote, for example, who regularly reference their acne concerns on camera. Or Shalom Blac, who openly discusses her facial burns on her YouTube channel. There’s also a refreshingly popular trend amongst Chinese beauty influencers who have taken to filming themselves removing their make-up, tape, and prosthetics to reveal entirely different features - highlighting just how much work goes into their daily looks. 

But there’s a problem. While beauty tutorials may debunk the dangerous idea that women just appear beautiful, surely by breaking down how a desired look can be achieved, are they not essentially reinforcing existing ideals of what it is to look beautiful? Is this not selling us the notion that true beauty could be yours if only you follow these simple steps? After all, though the emphasis is on how to achieve a look, the entire format is still predicated on mimicking the end result. Yes, you can adapt the rules, and showcase your creativity, but how many tutorials flag that? From multi-step eyebrow regimes aimed at sculpting brows to perfection to multi-layer contouring techniques, beauty tutorials emphasise the need to be transformed into a new kind of beauty, insinuating that our bare-faced selves might not be quite delightful enough. This is particularly true of short-form beauty tutorials such as the sped up Instagram tutorial. Here, the process is unclear and the rules ambiguous, encouraging viewers to mindlessly recreate looks as opposed to adapting them. 

What is more, the repetitive nature of algorithmically-controlled echo chambers means we are exposed to the same beauty looks again and again. “It is far easier to discover and be prompted with tutorials that are similar to those we have viewed before,” explains Galvin, “often we see the same type of beauty look, codified with the same language, same behaviour and often similar products.” So even though there are lots of diverse beauty tutorials out there, we are programmed to watch the same kind of content over and over again, thus exposing us to the same beauty ideals over and over again. And what are we to make of brand-sponsored tutorials? In this scenario, not only is the end game to make certain desired looks achievable (many of which reinforce mainstream narratives of beauty) but to do so using specific products, which can be all yours at a considerable price.

Beauty tutorials have undoubtedly changed the world of make-up, enabling people, for whom beauty was once unattainable, to learn, discover and explore new expressions. Lifting the lid on previously hidden practices, they subvert the Ovidian notion that beauty should seem naturally inherent, that women should miraculously appear beautiful, leaving no trace of the wax, carmine, or other “aids to beauty” used to achieve their desired look. However, for the most part, beauty tutorials are still a means of achieving some kind of culturally sanctioned beauty ideal. On top of that, they place a somewhat problematic emphasis on transformation, encouraging viewers to move from their natural state to a more beautiful end result. This gets even muddier when big brands are involved, with the idea being that beauty can be yours if you follow these simple steps, and more crucially if you buy these products. Of course, this is not to say that we should suddenly boycott all beauty tutorials forever, but it is a lesson in taking them with a pinch of salt. As long as we see them as a form of entertainment, something to be inspired by, as opposed to mindlessly mimic, then there’s no harm.