Highly Pigmented: YouTube and Millennial Expectations

A common catchphrases for YouTube beauty vloggers is this:

“The colors in this palette are so highly pigmented, you guys.”

Highly pigmented. Not works well or is smartly designed or of quality—the focus is generally on how brightly colored an eyeshadow palette is. However, just because something is rich in color doesn’t it mean it’s good. Much of this focus on “highly-pigmented” products is about immediate payoff, supposed “perfection” of color rather than the product’s reality. According to these vloggers, with a highly-pigmented eyeshadow palette, you too can have a flawless, perfect makeup experience. The palette is an extension of a desire for perfection.

Recently I have realized that the urgent, desperate need for there to be something highly pigmented in our lives corresponds to the equally desperate need to have a perfect, stress-free, problem-free life. I’m a huge YouTube viewer as it is, but it’s only when I’m deeply depressed and anxious that I look toward YouTube as less of mere entertainment and more of an escape from my reality. I watch the videos of vloggers creating, living, and performing for me and other viewers, and I feel like they live in a fantasy world that I sometimes wish I could escape to. I also start believing that if I tried hard enough, I could also create that type of perfect fantasy for myself. However, both of these modes of dealing with life can be unhealthy.

Of course, I’m not alone in wanting perfection from life. This desire for perfection has existed within every generation, but it’s only with the generations growing up in the digital era, the Millennial and Generation Z generations, that the dream of having a perfect life has been codified into an artform that not only provides the drug-like hit of “perfection,” but also pays well if you can master the steps.

Social media and YouTube have become a sort of manufactured world, in the same way that Mary Poppins used Bert’s chalk drawings to showcase a colorful escape from the social and familial pressures of turn-of-the-century London. It was a literal case of the grass being greener through the power of imagination. However, the grass-is-greener mentality present in today’s digital world has a nasty underside. That underside is present in all of YouTube, but for me, it’s at its most transparent in the world of YouTube “beauty gurus.”

The Social Media Struggle

The cast of The Stepford Wives. Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

Today’s world of YouTube beauty guru perfectionism is reminiscent of the “Stepford Wife” scenario: everyone wants to be the same while simultaneously touting their unique superiority. Unfortunately, this type of cookie-cutter perfectionism is not specific to YouTube—it is prevalent throughout all of social media. Take a look at your family and friends’ Facebook and Instagram accounts; more often than not, their timelines are replete with their accomplishments, their nights out on the town, their vacation photos. Even though social media has been designed with the notion of keeping us in touch with our loved ones, it has also done a ton of damage to our psyches.

Also in 2018, Facebook itself wrote about how social media can ruin people’s mental health, citing academic research pointing to reading about others on social media could “lead to negative social comparison,” an increase in depression among teenagers, and could be more harmful than actually meeting people in person “since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering.”

Envious lives are what the top beauty vloggers showcase to their followers on a daily basis. For instance, these top vloggers are able to support themselves solely in the silo of beauty influencing. As an example, let’s take a look at Manny MUA and Laura Lee, two of the biggest beauty vloggers until several months ago, when a scandal erupted, losing many subscribers’ trust. Even with the scandal still reverberating, Manny MUA and Laura Lee are still well off financially. Along with their Adsense revenue from YouTube, Lee and Manny MUA are part of a large group of beauty vloggers who are linked with makeup brush brand Morphe, who gives its beauty affiliates discount codes to shill to their followers. Before the scandal, Lee was not only partnered with Morphe, but also had a line of sunglasses with Diff Eyewear, a eye palette that was part of subscription service BoxyCharm’s monthly subscription box, and was in the process of launching her own makeup line with Ulta. Manny MUA has Morphe as well as makeup companies Urban Decay, Benefit and Maybelline, along with his own line, Lunar Beauty. According Girlfriend Magazine, Manny MUA’s net worth between $483,000 to $700,000. Lee’s estimated net worth is even higher: $650,000, according to Naibuzz to $970,800.

However, their net worths are among the rarer set. A 2016 study found that “the top 3 percent of channels got 90 percent of the viewership, which means that 90 percent of YouTube creators are fighting over the remaining 10 percent.” On top of that, even if you become a creator who has 1.4 million views a month, “your basic average payment from YouTube will amount to less than $17,000 a year. That’s based on an estimate of $1 per 1,000 views[.]” So dreams of becoming as big as some of the highest-paid YouTubers, who get paid between $6,000 to $200,000 a month are lofty, but with the playing field already stacked against you, it’s hard to make that dream of a perfect life a reality.

On top of all of that, not everyone in the small beauty vlogger industry are friends. In fact, tensions run so high among some vloggers that there’s now a whole separate YouTube industry, the beauty “drama channel” community, that reports on the feuds between vloggers. In short, the beauty community isn’t as flawless as it wants to appear.

Perfectionism’s Toll

James Stewart in Rear Window. Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

There has always been pressure to have a perfect life. There’s no time that has existed in which people did not desire to be free from worry, have tons of money and influence, and be liked by their peers. But with social media giving us a voyeuristic glimpse into each other’s lives, we’ve all become a little bit like James Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear Window, peeping across the garden pathway into the open windows of our friends and families’ apartments. We are all either silently judging others or instead, we take the more trodden route of turning that judging gaze on ourselves. However, the beautiful garden in Rear Window, the garden that Jeffries’ neighbors took so much pride in, was the burial site for a murdered dog. Once again, the grass isn’t always greener.

Just the same, we should all take a second look at the types of lives our favorite beauty vloggers lead. We see only what they allow us to see. Consider Jackie Aina, another big, lucrative beauty vlogger on YouTube. Her main channel and her vlog channel highlight the glitzy things going on in her life—her huge PR packages of makeup, her collaboration deal with Too Faced Cosmetics, her beautiful British boyfriend (who also has his own line clothing line), and tons of PR and YouTube events they frequent on what seems like a weekly, if not daily, basis.

However, what we don’t know is how much work it takes to keep that kind of lifestyle up. What does it take for someone like Aina, who is generally well-regarded in the YouTube beauty space as someone who advocates for darker-skinned girls? How much stress does she accrue trying to maintain her status as a truth-teller and a game-changer?

The same can be said for other types of vloggers, too. People who decide to put their families and relationships out to the world as entertainment have a certain image to keep up in order to maintain their appeal. Vloggers like Gabrielle Flowers Rader and Chad Rader of GabeBabeTV are shown simply living their lives, which includes trips to Target, visits with family and friends and Gabrielle’s numerous attempts at cooking. They’ve also done their fair share of calls to action while capturing their life—in their words, they’ve worked with around 160 brands, including Walmart, for which they filmed a national ad.

But while it seems like everything goes well in their lives and that the money flows easily for them, the Raders have made sure to curate what we see.

“If it’s negative, you’re not going to see it,” Gabrielle said when she and her family were interviewed by IndyStar. “It’s real life, so things happen in our life just like everybody else’s but we don’t necessarily show that. You can turn on reality TV and see all the drama you want to, but that’s not what you come to GabeBabeTV for. Our job is to uplift and motivate and show positivity.”

This statement has been uttered by several vloggers, possibly in an attempt to show viewers that what they see on YouTube isn’t all that’s going on behind the scenes. WhitneyBae, a popular vlogger who records her life in Korea, allows her viewers to live vicariously through her by showing the fun times—her times with friends, her various interviews and modeling jobs, and meeting up with one of her several guy friends, prompting many of her followers to search for romantic links.

However, Whitney has said on camera that she would never show her boyfriend on camera if she had one. She has said that while every day isn’t perfect, she’s only interested in showing her followers the fun times so they can be uplifted and feel positive, reiterating what Gabrielle said about her own channel. And yet, when you watch Whitney’s videos, you can’t help but get caught up in the fantasy that she weaves. The same with Gabrielle and Chad. It’s not necessarily their fault that their viewers might believe they live charmed lives, but it’s also because of what they choose to show on camera that it’s easy to believe the lie that someone out there has it better than us.

Because our eyes are witnessing curated videos, we forget that there’s a whole editing and self-approval process behind the videos that we never see. But our brains, flawed by nature and trained by the lies of social media, are quick to believe that what we are actually seeing on screen is the real deal. The events on screen might have really happened, but they aren’t the totality of vloggers’ lives. Not by a long shot.

It’s not easy to maintain a public persona of positivity when you’re still a part of the real world, a place that disappoints as much as it uplifts. It’s hard to keep the business side of vlogging afloat when the cards are already stacked against creators making it big. If you can get to the top, it becomes even harder to stay at the top because the problem of keeping subscribers happy and interested persists. These are just some of the issues that can crop up when a vlogger isn’t a volatile or controversial personality; just think of how many problems hated YouTubers must face, with many of those problems being self-created. We human beings tend to assume our neighbor has it better. But we forget that while they might not share our same worries, they have worries of their own, and to them, our lives might seem easier and better their theirs.

The Search for Truth in Fiction

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Even though the entirety of the vlogging community has issues, it’s particularly poignant how the beauty community serves as a unique allegory for our eternal search for perfection in life. We constantly strive for our lives to look and feel as beautiful as we see in the movies, on television, and now online. There’s a reason why a film like The Truman Show is even more relevant today than it was when it premiered in 1998. Just as fans faithfully tuned in to see the curated world Truman inhabited, we are willing to faithfully tune into someone’s curated version of their own life just to feed our own desires for perfection.  We are completely cognizant that that type of life is a lie, but we are still easily drawn into it, willing to believe it’s true. The beauty community might be the most transparent about the lie of the curated life; in their world, perfection is just a pressed powder or eyeshadow palette away. Their ability to cover up their flaws—where those flaws are on their body or in their lives—mimics how we are always trying to cover up our own imperfections in everyday life. In many ways, we are all putting on some type of “makeup,” whether or not it comes pressed in a pan.

But as the beauty and vlogging communities show, not everything that’s beautiful on the outside is necessarily the same on the inside. What we show to the public isn’t all of who we are, so why do we constantly assume that what vloggers show us is the real deal? They are doing the same thing we do everyday—they showcase the memorable, happy, seemingly perfect moments for others, while hiding the unsavory moments from public eyes. Some even show perfect rooms, clothes and bags in order to keep up the appearance that they have life completely figured out and are excelling at it. But they, too, are worried about how they’ll come off to a judging public. They are also piling on the makeup, hoping it covers every blemish and imperfection they perceive in their lives. It’s all an illusion.

There’s always the idea that there can be a vlogger who shows the real truth of their lives, but even that suggestion is a lie. The most honest truth is this: who wants to see someone’s real life? Who wants to see the nitty gritty in what goes into being a human? We all want escapism, plain and simple, and this wish is what laces all of our insecurities about ourselves and our own lives. What we really want to see, therefore, is the illusion of the “highly-pigmented” life. We know in our hearts that it’s not true. But still, we want to believe it can be, because the vlogs, despite their curation, give us all hope that we can still aspire to overcome our own obstacles and fears. We want to see someone who has appeared to have made it to the other side so we know it’s possible for us too. We want to believe that such a life is attainable if we just keep believing the illusion of perfection until it’s true.

But just because perfection isn’t true doesn’t make the aspirations necessarily bad. Something I’ve realized about myself is that my obsession with perfection is just another expression of my desire for happiness in life. I think this is true for a lot of people. But as YouTube can teach you, perfection doesn’t always equal happiness. True happiness, therefore, comes from acceptance; acceptance of your gifts and your flaws. That’s tough for a lot of us, including me. But finding that happiness is worth the pain. It’s better to attain something real rather than fruitlessly search for an illusion.


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