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My Problem with Youtube

Kristen Shi, Toronto, Canada


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Behold; the most generic photo of clothing imaginable.

I feel like as a kid, a lot of old people told me I was going to be influenced by fashion and figures that I found in magazines. Once again, boomers have failed to characterize my generation at all, because neither I nor anyone I know has ever picked up anything close to a fashion magazine (okay, maybe the occasional Seventeen on the occasional Walmart trip). Still, I would hardly say my concept of self, my appearance, my fashion taste, or my shopping habits are attributed to anything I’ve found in print.

Instead, I attribute it to Youtube.

I was just around 10 years old when Youtube started becoming a thing. At the time, I was just graduating from CD-rom computer games, and starting to browse the Internet beyond Neopets. (We’re only a paragraph in and I feel positively ancient.) I was permitted about an hour of Youtube usage each day, because my parents were fairly convinced Youtube was a video platform for pornographic purposes.

At first, I remember watching a lot of cute animal videos and Nigahiga, but watching pandas roll around in a cage gets old after a few hours. So it was only a matter of time before I saw this.

Juicystar07, aka Blair Fowler, a Tennessee-based Youtube makeup guru.

I watched one video from her, on how to do a blue-ish smokey eye. And then one video turned into many.

Her videos were fascinating. I couldn’t pinpoint at the time why — but I liked listening to this girl. She was older than me, and it seemed like she was confident and assured of herself. She wore clothes that I wanted, had a colourful and abundant makeup collection, and a bedroom bigger than my kitchen and living room combined. She was pretty, she was in high school, and she had a boyfriend. She lived a life I wanted.

But, most of all, through the screen, she was talking to me.

At least, that’s how it felt. In reality, she was talking to a multitude of people on the Youtube platform; but it didn’t feel that way. Whenever I opened one of her videos, it felt like I was in a private conversation with a big sister; she was a role model who was here, giving me advice on how to look and feel pretty. Little old me.

And who was I at the time? I was a gross 10-year old on the cusp of puberty who was just learning not to giggle every time I heard the word ‘penis.’ I wore the same hoodie and embroidered jeans to school every day. And, I wore chains.


Yeah, buddy.

Though my g@ngsta chains might’ve suggested otherwise, I wasn’t confident, and I was scared of what was coming next in my life. Elementary school felt safe, where I knew the rules, and where teachers were there to protect me. But junior high, and high school, felt different; teachers couldn’t protect me from the mean things people would say. They couldn’t stop if people vandalized my locker with taunts, and called me a loser or a lesbian or a weirdo or a hobo or any number of discriminatory slurs. No one could be there to nurse my ego if people made fun of my hair, my clothes, my face, what have you. It felt like I was living in a jungle of wild animals who were all out to get me, and were out to prey on any type of vulnerability I showed.

But it seemed like Juicystar07 understood me. So when the days at school were long, and when I came home feeling ugly and worthless, she was there to talk to me.

Youtube grew in the years to follow, especially around 2009–2012. I became exposed to more types of videos; gaming, cooking, collections, song covers, dance. But my favourite at the time was beauty.

The number of girls (who are now often referred to as ‘gurus’) that I followed grew exponentially. Pretty soon every day I was coming home to watch the newest video posted by Michelle Phan or Bubzbeauty. Their tutorials were warm and welcoming, and even though their personalities and lives were different from Juicystar07’s, the feeling was the same. I no longer had just one big sister; I had many.

I wasn’t wearing makeup, but I was learning how to apply it anyways. And I wasn’t just learning how to apply it one way; I was learning how to do it for daytime, for my hypothetical ‘night out’, for Halloween costumes, and for full-on facial transformations. Their tutorials were less for information and more for escapism, more for my enjoyment rather than education. It was about experimentation and fun with a virtual friend, rather than a how-to manual.

The famous ‘Bad Romance’ tutorial by Michelle Phan.

The way they applied makeup made me look at my face more carefully, and think about how I would apply makeup if I had it.

Pretty soon, ‘if I had it’ became ‘when I have it’. And I started feeling the urge to wear makeup at 12 or 13, even though there is literally no God-given reason one should ever wear makeup and destroy their skin at that age.

And it’s true, there was nothing wrong with me. The few times I had worn makeup at that point (re: childhood dance recitals) convinced me that makeup was time-consuming, expensive, annoying and difficult to put on, and felt strange and suffocating on my face. But somehow I still wanted it. These gurus were convincing me to re-evaluate my relationship with beauty, and whether I wanted to be on their bandwagon or not. So I got on.

I started spending whatever allowance I was given on makeup. It was cheap, drugstore makeup, but it added up. The products they mentioned in their videos ended up on my wishlist, and pretty soon every cosmetic I owned was something one of them had directly recommended to me.

But it wasn’t enough. I spent my money as fast as I received it, but I didn’t have as much makeup as I wanted. I wasn’t even wearing all of it; half the time the products were poor quality and didn’t suit me. After half a year they ended up rotting in the back of some drawer, never to be used again. And for all the videos I watched, my makeup application was lacking, to say the least. But the urge to spend continued.

They churned out videos once a week, then twice a week, then multiple times a week. Then more gurus joined the platform. Every day there was a new video to watch, a new guru to subscribe to, some new trend that I had to be catching up with. They all liked different brands, and different items within those brands. And the types of videos they produced diversified; no longer was it just the old tutorials of 2007. Now there were ‘favourites’ videos. Then ‘monthly favourites.’ Then ‘first impressions.’ Then ‘hauls.’ Collaboration videos. Brand sponsorships. Beautycon. Every video mentioned anywhere from 7–20 products. I tried to keep up anyways.

I bought and consumed obsessively, spending money on low-quality but high quantity makeup, neglected skincare, and repeated the cycle over and over again. And I did it with my friends; we all watched these gurus together. We all respected them, and deep down, wanted to be like them. We fed each other’s obsession on what to buy and when, and always looked to gurus for the final word of approval.

I bought new makeup when they told me to. I stopped using products when they stopped using them. And why wouldn’t I? They were my big sisters. They told me what was right and what wasn’t. They had my best interests at heart. They wanted me to feel and look as pretty as them. And that was what I wanted, right?

Somehow, it never occurred to me that I was falling into an obsessive trap. My parents told me I was watching too much Youtube, but it didn’t feel harmful. I wasn’t doing drugs. I wasn’t watching anything inappropriate. But without even realizing it, the videos were changing me.

I had never been someone who even wanted makeup beforehand. I actually disliked the feeling of it, and disliked the way it extended the amount of time it took to get ready. I hated how it was positively melting off my face by the end of school, how I had to be concerned if I was sweating or crying and how it would affect my appearance. But everyone else was wearing it, and by the unspoken laws of shitty pubescent life, I had to wear it too.

Beauty gurus expanded beyond just makeup, by this point. Fashion bloggers; who for many years, just ran their own blogspots or personal websites, with photos of their outfits, migrated to Youtube. On top of makeup, there was a whole new genre of fashion videos, and with it, new categorical subsets. OOTDs. Seasonal outfits. Clubbing outfits. School outfits. Ways to style a scarf. Jewelry collections. Denim haul. And also, buy the denim using my code.

I was watching Youtube less by the time I reached high school, but never realized how much it had been affecting me up till this point. My shitty spending habits remained, but I assumed that my poor budgeting and urge to spend was a personality trait rather than a societal pressure. On top of that, as I started to become go through ‘womanhood’ (the word tastes like vomit in my mouth), it felt like shopping was an obligatory sort of social bonding; like, if I didn’t like shopping with my best friends, what kind of girl was I? Don’t all the women on TV do this together anyways?

My money shifted towards clothes. And as my mom, and practically any roommate I’ve had can tell you, I had, and have, a lot. I’m not even a particularly fashionable person, but I was spending my money on it as if my life depended on how relevant my next outfit was. Again, I bought poor quality, fast fashion, convincing myself that if the individual price of the clothing was cheap, it wouldn’t affect my spending. I strayed away from expensive and higher quality items, since I wanted to be ‘frugal’ — only to instead find myself buying poorly made trash from H&M and Forever21 instead.

I would look at my closet, my bursting-at-the-seams closet, and feel so dissatisfied. I didn’t feel fashionable or pretty in any of these clothes. No matter how much I had, it always felt like I had nothing to wear, and it always felt as if I couldn’t compare to Jenn Im or Chriselle Lim on Youtube. Their outfits were different every video, sometimes showcasing 5 or 6 in one video alone. They vlogged their daily lives too, wearing a new outfit each time. How come I didn’t feel the same, even when I was buying new clothes?

We all know fast-fashion is harmful, not least of all because it undercuts retailers who actually invest in making good quality clothing. It’s also harmful because it endorses dubious and abusive labour practices, because the old clothes don’t last and eventually end up in landfills, and because clothes, even when donated, can stagnate local fashion economies from growing organically. It’s counterintuitive to the originality of fashion, which is about wearing what you want, and finding something that is timeless or makes a statement; fast fashion is all about wearing whatever everyone else is wearing, and how fast you can get it before them.

Everything about fast fashion is something of an insult to people who are passionate about clothes. The argument in favour of it often goes: fast fashion makes trendy items affordable for the everyday person. But just take into account how much money one could save if they spent $50 on one good quality t-shirt rather than buying the $5 one every year. Fashion, to me, is ultimately about making smart investments that make you feel and look good; it’s not about constant competition and weird sense of inferiority because you won’t buy the bizarre unicorn shirt from Zara.

Fast fashion — really, fast ‘consumption’ as a whole, is a huge problem.

I’ve wanted to discuss it on my blog for some time now. But I’m neither a fashion expert nor an economist. I’m not an ‘influencer’ or designer. I’m just a consumer. But perhaps that’s what makes this meaningful after all.

I was always just someone in the audience. And as a child, Youtube was my channel into adulthood, and particularly, adulthood as a female. Youtube embedded in me the expectation that I ought to wear makeup and fashionable clothes, and more specifically, that I ought to wear new makeup and clothes as often as possible. The gurus churned out new videos every day, never once explaining what to do with old clothes or old makeup. They didn’t tell me to donate, to DIY my old belongings, or to once consider making an investment. They didn’t tell me that my clothes were made in Bangladesh, or that I should even care if they were made in Bangladesh.

Because why would they? They’re not my big sisters. They’re businesspeople. Their closets are filled by sponsors, and their audience is little more than an anonymous mass whose views fill their paycheques. They profit off peoples’ insecurity; feeling discouraged? Buy a new outfit, that’ll fix it! Treat yourself! Be the girl you always wanted to be! Be like me! They lead lives that are led by shallow expectations; that you need to wear the latest trend, that you need to have new clothes, that you can’t wear repeat outfits. Their lives don’t reflect my reality, or that of my friends’.

It wasn’t until I actually worked a job in retail, where my job was to handle, fold, and care for garments on the daily, that I began to learn about what the word ‘quality’ even meant. I started to know what fabrics could last and what couldn’t. I learned how certain fabrics are more breathable than others, that some require more care when washing or drying, that some lose colour, while others don’t. I learned that some fabrics and cuts are suited to certain body types, while others are not.

No guru ever taught me any of that. Fabric or quality is never a topic in a video. They never ventured into necessary but uncomfortable topics, like how to dress yourself if you’re disabled and in a wheelchair, how to dress yourself if you’re obese, how to dress yourself if you’re impoverished. Those topics aren’t popular. But you know what is popular? Daisy crop tops! Buy now through the link in my description!

This blog post isn’t really about fast fashion. It’s about Youtube, and the shitty cycle of consumption and self-hate it drives.

If you’re anything like me, you may find that you also experience problems with spending. That watching other people wear new outfits makes you feel that you constantly need a new one. I was like that for so long. It wasn’t until I learned to care for what I owned, and stop caring for what others owned, that I felt like I could start to escape.

And it’s all really insidious, if you think about it. These are people in their 20s and 30s, who make an entire living off making young people feel shitty about they way they look, and dissatisfied with whatever they currently own. They convince you to buy, and say nothing about what to do after.

The life cycle of clothing and makeup extends beyond the point of purchase. Makeup containers end up in the trash. Clothing ends up in some Salvation Army, where it’s eventually brought to some poor country somewhere else, where it ruins the local fashion economy there. And then it ends up in the trash. The cycle continues, even if there is no need for it to. It runs on insecurity, on hating yourself, on neglecting to appreciate what you have.

Again, I feel I’ve failed to make any sort of point in my blog post. Maybe what I’m trying to say is, learn to care for your clothes. A few tips from me: cotton is breathable and good for your skin. Linen is light but crinkles and shrinks easily; wash carefully. Wool is insulating but needs to be dry-cleaned. Well-made clothes have seams that line up evenly when laid flat. Denim does not need to be, and should not be, washed regularly; also, a vinegar bath is an excellent way to preserve the colour of denim. Don’t work for your clothes; make them work for you.

Or maybe what I’m trying to say is, consume your media carefully. Think about who is communicating to you, and what. And why they’re communicating it. Assume everyone is out to bullshit you, because in all likelihood, they probably are. Even your big sister on Youtube.

Or maybe, most of all, just learn to like yourself as you are. Fashion, makeup, and appearances are all subjective; this year I started to wear less makeup and less clothes, but I’ve received more compliments that I’m beautiful than I have at any point in my life before. I can walk through a mall without any sense of anxiety or insecurity, and my closet looks the same season to season. And my money can start being spent on things that are actually worthwhile, like on seeing new places, trying new flavours, and meeting new people.

This article originally appeared on Medium. We have obtained all rights from the author to publish it on Threading Twine.

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