Researching beauty in meat space – my brush with the beauty vloggers

My PhD research centred on beauty vloggers, namely, young women who regularly produce beauty content on YouTube for a living – it’s their jobs. In my work I demonstrate how although the beauty vlogger appears solo in front of a camera, they rarely work alone. The UK (and many other countries) has a sizable beauty vlogging industry, which (in addition to YouTube and brands) also features a proliferating number of intermediaries, managers and ‘industry experts’. A significant element of the beauty vlogging ecology is the ‘networking event’. These events are highly feminised and ostensibly centred on leisure: they often featuring a ‘tea party’ or ‘cocktail’ theme, but are branded through post-feminist logics of girl-boss empowerment. In highly decorated rooms, often around a high-end centrepiece cake, stakeholders give lectures, and successful vloggers and influencers speak on panels. Beauty and lifestyle brands horseshoe around the peripheries of event locations, giving out products that they hope will be ‘reviewed’ in vlogging content. The event timetable affords significant time for chatting to brand reps in their booths, exchanging your email address for goodies. During these interactions, some more high-profile vloggers, are taken aside for a longer conversation. Even for events that didn’t have an official ‘green room’ for featured creators, the hierarchy was visible – the industry stars gathered near the stage. Wannabes (like me) hung around in clumps near the edge of the action, like pocket lint in a dryer. Although it’s easy to dismiss beauty vlogging as frivolous, I was struck by the similarity of these events to academic conferences. In particular I felt, in my bones, in the palpable nature of networking hierarchies, and that I was located outside of them.

What do beauty vloggers look like?

A List beauty vloggers are beautiful, in that they are physically attractive. They consistently represent and conform to beauty norms. But what are beauty norms, exactly? In a recently published edited collection by Elias, Schaff and Gill, entitled “Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism", the authors claim their aim is to “mark out a new intellectual terrain in beauty studies”(Elias, Gill, & Scharff, 2017: 5). In their introduction, they speak of many categories and typologies of beauty in culture, including “youthful beauty” (4) “beauty norms”(5) “politics of appearance” (6) “unrealistic beauty ideals” (8) “Euro-American beauty ideals” (11) “ “clear patterns relating to beauty” (19) “(hetero)sexual attractiveness” (25) “beauty imperative” (25) to “look good” (29) and “female beauty” (31). Ultimately, though these norms, ideals, patterns and styles of beauty are often unclear and undefined. What are, for example, “European-American” beauty ideals, and what is “heterosexual attractiveness”? At the most basic level, what does it mean to “look good”? Speaking to these gaps, I consider it important to outline the limited, but arguably culturally representative, performance of beauty within the vlogging industry in the UK. At a broad level, I argue the aesthetic architectures of beauty in the vlogging industry as hegemonic beauty. Bennett defines Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as “moral, cultural, intellectual and thereby, political leadership over the whole of society” (Bennett, 2006: 95). Building on this, I define the oft-used/rarely-explained concept of hegemonic beauty as the temporally and geographically determined, dominant cultural standards of beauty. In this vein, access to physical attractiveness and beauty are stratified within existing channels of structural power, stratified by class, race, age and gender.

Zoe Sugg aka Zoella (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
It is helpful to think of beauty vloggers through the cultural lexicon of the Disney Princesses, who serve as extreme examples of representations of normative and hegemonic beauty. That beauty vloggers share more than a passing resemblance to Disney Princesses has not gone unnoticed. MTV ran a feature in which they hired illustrators to draw popular beauty vloggers as Disney princesses, drawing from the Snow White canon by stating, “we would happily watch a feature length film of Tanya Burr doing a makeup tutorial and instead of using foundation brushes and stuff, birds applied her brushes instead” (MTV, 2015a). Burr is a UK based beauty vlogger, cosmetic entrepreneur and actress with 3.6 million subscribers on YouTube. MTV also published a piece about the most popular beauty vlogger in the UK, Zoella, who has 12 million subscribers. The article is entitled “9 reasons Zoella is basically a real life Disney princess” explaining that this is due to her red lips, her eyes being the “size of Mars” and that “her hair is always flawless” (MTV, 2015b). The Telegraph observes “[Zoella] looks like a Disney Princess” (Audley, 2014)  and lifestyle blog The Debrief called her “a pint size Disney princess made flesh” (Tsjeng, 2015). Historically, Disney Princesses illustrate societal hegemonic beauty, the attractive women in popular culture at their particular time. Snow White draws from a flapper girl aesthetic mixed with Betty Boop, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora is reminiscent of 1960’s Brigitte Bardot and the then-newly released Barbie doll, and the Little Mermaid parallels Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (Do Rozario, 2004). Bell (1995) argues “Disney artists sketched the flesh and blood on these folktale templates with contemporaneous popular images of feminine beauty and youths”  (Bell, 1995: 110). However, despite drawing from the (very slightly) diverse beautiful women of their times, the Disney Princesses become transformed by a specific Princess look. The princesses adhere to “a common set of feminine beauty norms, regardless of their individual ethnicity: hourglass-shaped body, glossy hair, long-lashed eyes, and heart-shaped face; hair colour and style are emphasised as the primary distinguishing feature” (Wohlwend, 2009: 23). In other words, despite Princesses being of seemingly diverse ethnicities, the Disney princess look is ultimately raced European and white.

Similarly, the A List beauty vloggers in my study are painted from this very narrow palette of beauty: saucer-shaped big eyes, small button noses and heart-shaped faces. The beauty vloggers in this case study embody what I describe as a healthful glow. Borrowing from Deleuze, McRobbie observes “luminosities are suggestive of post-feminist equality while also defining and circumscribing the conditions of a status… within this cloud of light, young women are taken to be actively engaged in the production of the self” (McRobbie, 2009: 60). Similarly, the cloud of light beams around the healthful and glowing beauty vloggers, a glow can be constructed and managed using products and lighting, however, the ability to perform the glow as authentic and natural is stratified by skin colour: light skin will always glow brighter.

Researching beauty

I don’t want to be a beauty influencer – or at least, I don’t have the industry hook-ups, skills, tools, and temporal dedication that this career necessitates in 2018. Why then, did attending beauty influencer events consistently make me feel so bad? Yes, I am a researcher with an ostensive distance, but it’s very hard not to care when what you look like, when your meat-case determines how you move in the world, and where you can go. Everyone knows this, but aesthetic industries write it up in neon lights. For each event I tried to piece together a self-presentation strategy that would help me fit in – this was expensive and time consuming. I probably couldn’t really look like a beauty vlogger, but maybe I could look like a hip talent manager, or a brand rep of an up and coming face scrub. I wasn’t trying to hide my identity as a researcher, but to maximise the chance that I looked like I was supposed to be there, that other attendees would speak to me. The struggle then becomes one for legitimacy, or maybe it’s a self-confidence thing. When all attendees are coiffed, groomed and freshly laundered, my PhD uniform of leggings and a baggy shirt just didn’t feel right. It never worked though; I have a vivid memory of being literally yanked out of one networking event by events organisers because I had lipstick on my teeth. I was instructed to go and sort it out in the event’s dressing room. This is the kind of basic faux pas that you can’t really recover from at a beauty vlogging event. We are experts at applying makeup and you literally look like you’ve eaten a tube of MAC Ruby Woo – who the hell are you? Why are you here?

Throughout my research, I have found researching beauty to be personal, difficult and unpleasant. Beauty can be deeply uncomfortable, as Ngyuen (2011) suggests, because it forces us to recognise its unequal distribution, and the omnipresent existence of ugliness. To interrogate beauty forces us to recognise that we live in a world of “aesthetic unevenness”, in which we are located and implicated (Nguyen, 2011: 363). Standing at the back of a beauty event forced me to acknowledge that we live in an aesthetic economy. Much as we appear to hold our object of analysis at arm’s length, beauty and styling affects our positioning, experience and marketability significantly. Although it is awkward to admit, this is particularly true within academia; we are often on public display (see: Brown, 2017; Donaghue, 2017). As feminist scholars we can shock-drop the popularity of procedures like labiaplasty into analyses with abject horror (Felski, 2006; Jones, 2017; Negra, 2009) and equally we can reason with ourselves that wearing lipstick to a conference isn’t totally submissive to patriarchal structures. To talk about the meat of beauty, as we all live in the meat-space of real life, is to discuss something that is unchangeable, and something we ultimately cannot resist. The affective experiences of ethnographically traversing a world defined by a specific form of beauty are attended to in my thesis. To be blunt: it was not very nice. However, it was essential to engage in both online and offline spaces with beauty vloggers, and feel these currents and hierarchies, the fissures that determine acceptability and legibility in these ecologies, marketplaces and economies. When we render beauty invisible, we may miss the fine lines that draw beauty into being. What is at stake here is that we miss a significant organisational element, which contributes to the political economy of beauty vlogging, and underpins the gendered economy of work and visibility in creative industries and beyond.

Sophie Bishop is a Doctoral Student and Associate Lecturer in the Department of Arts, Technology and Innovation at the University of East London. Her PhD research examines the political economy of YouTube beauty vlogging, algorithmic materialities and self-optimisation. Her work has been published in journals including Feminist Media Studies and Convergence.

References

Audley, A. (2014, October 20). Zoella IS a great role model. Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/social-media/11175254/Zoella-IS-a-great-role-model.html
Bell, E. (1995). Somatexts at the Disney shop: Constructing the pentimentos of women’s animated bodies. From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, 107–124.
Bennett, T. (2006). Popular culture and the turn to Gramsci. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 92–99.
Brown, S. (2017). PhD Barbie Gets a Makeover! Aesthetic Labour in Academia. In A. S. Elias, R. Gill, & C. Scharff (Eds.), Aesthetic Labour (pp. 149–163). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved fromhttp://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-47765-1_8
Do Rozario, R.-A. C. (2004). The princess and the magic kingdom: Beyond nostalgia, the function of the Disney princess. Women’s Studies in Communication, 27(1), 34–59.
Donaghue, N. (2017). Seriously Stylish: Academic Femininities and the Politics of Feminism and Fashion in Academia. In Aesthetic Labour (pp. 231–246). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-47765-1_13
Elias, A. S., Gill, R., & Scharff, C. (Eds.). (2017). Aesthetic Labour. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Felski, R. (2006). ‘Because it is beautiful’ new feminist perspectives on beauty. Feminist Theory, 7(2), 273–282.
Jones, M. (2017). Expressive surfaces: The case of the designer vagina. Theory, Culture & Society, 34(7–8), 29–50.
McRobbie, A. (2009). The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London, UK: SAGE.
MTV. (2015a). We Imagined YouTube Stars As Disney Cartoons, & Now We Need These Movies In Our Lives | MTV UK. Retrieved August 15, 2017, from http://www.mtv.co.uk/zoella/pictures/we-imagined-youtuber-stars-as-disney-cartoons-so-can-they-have-their-own-films-now
MTV. (2015b, August 15). 9 Reasons Zoella Is Basically A Real Life Disney Princess | MTV UK. Retrieved August 15, 2017, from http://www.mtv.co.uk/zoella/news/9-reasons-zoella-is-basically-a-real-life-disney-princess
Negra, D. (2009). What a Girl Wants?: Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism. London ; New York: Routledge.
Nguyen, M. T. (2011). The biopower of beauty: Humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms in an age of terror. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 36(2), 359–383. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/655914
Tsjeng, Z. (2015). Is Zoella A Bad Role Model? Not If You Believe That Make Up Can Be Empowering. Retrieved August 15, 2017, from http://www.thedebrief.co.uk/style/fashion/is-zoella-a-bad-role-model-not-if-you-believe-that-make-up-can-be-empowering-20141022536
Wohlwend, K. E. (2009). Damsels in discourse: Girls consuming and producing identity texts through Disney princess play. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1), 57–83.

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