Exploring YouTube as a Transformative Tool in the “The Power of MAKEUP!” Movement

Ümit Kennedy

Abstract


Introduction

Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has fast become one of the most popular video sharing sites, one of the largest sources of user generated content, and one of the most frequently visited sites globally (Burgess and Green). As YouTube’s popularity has increased, more and more people have taken up the site’s invitation to “Broadcast Yourself.” Vlogging (video blogging) on YouTube has increased in popularity, creating new genres and communities. Vlogging not only allows individuals to create their own mediated content for mass consumption—making it a site for participatory culture (Burgess and Green; Jenkins) and resembling contemporary forms of entertainment such as reality television—but it also allows individuals to engage in narrative and identity forming practices. Through filming their everyday lives, and presenting themselves on camera, YouTubers are engaging in a process of constructing and presenting their identity online. They often form communities around these identities and continue the practice in dialogue and collaboration with their communities of viewers on YouTube. Because of YouTube’s mass global reach, the ability to create one’s own mediated content and the ability to publicly play with and project different self representations becomes a powerful tool allowing YouTubers to publicly challenge social norms and encourage others to do the same. This paper will explore these features of YouTube using the recent “The Power of MAKEUP!” movement, started by NikkieTutorials, as an example. Through a virtual ethnography of the movement as developed by Christine Hine—following the people, dialogue, connections, and narratives that emerged from Nikkie’s original video—this paper will demonstrate that YouTube is not only a tool for self transformation, but has wider potential to transform norms in society. This is achieved mainly through mobilising communities that form around transformative practices, such as makeup transformations, on YouTube. 

Vlogging as an Identity Forming Practice 

Vlogging on YouTube is a contemporary form of autobiography in which individuals engage in a process of documenting their life on a daily or weekly basis and, in doing so, constructing their identity online. Although the aim of beauty vlogs is to teach new makeup techniques, demonstrate and review new products, or circulate beauty-related information, the videos include a large amount of self-disclosure. Beauty vloggers reveal intimate things about themselves and actively engage in the practice of self-representation while filming. Beauty vlogging is unique to other vlogging genres as it almost always involves an immediate transformation of the physical self in each video. The vloggers typically begin with their faces bare and “natural” and throughout the course of the video transform their faces into how they want to be seen, and ultimately, who they want to be that day, using makeup. Thus the process of self-representation is multi-dimensional as not only are they presenting the self, but they are also visually constructing the self on camera. 

The construction of identity that beauty vloggers engage in on YouTube can be likened to what Robert Ezra Park and later Erving Goffman refer to as the construction and performance of a mask. In his work Race and Culture, Park states that the original meaning of the word person is a mask (249). Goffman responds to this statement in his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, saying the mask is “our truer self, the self we would like to be” (30). Beauty vloggers are engaging in the process of constructing their mask—their truer self and the self they would like to be—both through their performance on YouTube, and through the visual transformation that takes place on camera. Their performance on YouTube not only communicates a desired identity, but through their performance they realise this identity. The process of filming and the visual process of constructing or transforming the self on camera through makeup brings the subject into being. 

Scholarship in the fields of Life Writing and Digital Media including Autobiography, Automedia and Persona Studies has acknowledged and explored the ways narratives and identities—both online and offline—are constructed, created, shaped, chosen, and invented by the individual/author (Garner; Bridger; Eakin; Maguire; Poletti and Rak; Marshall; Smith and Watson). It is widely accepted that all representations of the self are constructed. Crucially, it is the process of documenting or communicating the self that is identity forming (Richardson; Bridger), as the process, including writing, filming, and posting, brings the subject or self into being (Neuman). The individual embodies their performance and realises the self through it. Park and Goffman argue that we all engage in this process of performing and realising the self through the roles we play in society. The significance of the beauty vlogger performance and transformation is the space in which it occurs and the community that it fosters.  

YouTube as a Transformative Tool and Mirror

The space in which beauty vloggers play with and transform the self on camera is significant as digital technologies such as YouTube invite exploration of the self. Networked digital media (Meikle and Young) invite multiplicity, heterogeneity, and fragmentation in/of identity performances (Bolter; Gergen; Turkle, "Parallel Lives"). These technologies create opportunities for defining and re-defining the self (Bolter 130), as they allow people to present a more multi-mediated self, using both audio-visual components and text (Papacharissi 643).YouTube, in particular, allows the individual to experiment with the self, and document an ongoing transformation, through film (Kavoori). Many scholars have described this ongoing process of identity construction online using the metaphor of “the mirror” (see Kavoori; Raun; and Procter as recent examples). 

In his research on trans gender vlogging on YouTube, Tobias Raun explores the theme of the mirror. He describes vlogging as a “transformative medium for working on, producing and exploring the self” (366). He argues the vlog acts as a mirror allowing the individual to try out and assume various identities (366). He writes, the mirroring function of the vlog “invites the YouTuber to assume the shape of a desired identity/representation, constantly assuming and evaluating oneself as an attractive image, trying out different ‘styles of the flesh’ (Butler 177), poses and appearances” (367). In reference to trans gender vlogging, Raun writes, “The vlog seems to serve an important function in the transitioning process, and is an important part of a process of self-invention, serving as a testing ground for experimentations with, and manifestations of (new) identities” (367). The mirror (vlog) gives the individual a place/space to construct and perform their mask (identity), and an opportunity to see the reflection and adjust the mask (identity) accordingly. 

An important feature of the vlog as a mirror is the fact that it is less like a conventional mirror and more like a window with a reflective surface. On YouTube the vlog always involves an audience, who not only watch the performance, but also respond to it. This is in keeping with Goffman’s assertion that there is always an audience involved in any performance of the self. On YouTube, Raun argues, “the need to represent oneself goes hand in hand with the need to connect and communicate” (Raun 369). Networked digital media such as YouTube are inherently social. They invite participation (Smith; Sauter)and community through community building functions such as the ability to like, subscribe, and comment. Michael Strangelove refers to YouTube as a social space, “as a domain of self-expression, community and public confession” (4). The audience and community are important in the process of identity construction and representation as they serve a crucial role in providing feedback and encouragement, legitimising the identity being presented. As Raun writes, the vlog is an opportunity “for seeing one’s own experiences and thoughts reflected in others” (366). Raun identifies that for the trans gender vloggers in his study, simply knowing there is an audience watching their vlogs is enough to affirm their identity. He writes the vlog can be both “an individual act of self validation and . . . a social act of recognition and encouragement” (368). However, in the case of beauty vlogging the audience do more than watch, they form communities embodying and projecting the performance in everyday life and thus collectively challenge social norms, as seen in the “The Power of MAKEUP!” movement. 

Exploring the “The Power of MAKEUP!” Movement

On 10 May 2015, Nikkie, a well-known beauty vlogger, uploaded a video to her YouTube channel NikkieTutorials titled “The Power of MAKEUP!” Nikkie’s video can be watched here. In her video Nikkie challenges “makeup shaming,” arguing that makeup is not only fun, but can “transform” you into who you want to be. Inspired by an episode of the reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, in which the competing drag queens transform half of their face into “glam” (drag), and leave the other half of their face bare (male), Nikkie demonstrates that anyone can use makeup as a transformative tool. In her video Nikkie mirrors the drag queen transformations, transforming half her face into “glam” and leaving the other half of her face bare, as shown in Figure 1. In only transforming half of her face, Nikkie emphasises the scope of the transformation, demonstrating just how much you can change your appearance using only makeup on your face. Nikkie’s video communicates that both a transformed “glam” image and an “unedited” image of the self are perfectly fine, “there are no rules” and neither representations of the self should bring you shame. 

 thumbnail video

Figure 1: thumbnail of Nikkie’s video

Nikkie’s video started a movement and spread throughout the beauty community on YouTube as a challenge. Other famous beauty vloggers, and everyday makeup lovers, took on the challenge of creating YouTube videos or posting pictures on Instagram of their faces half bare and half transformed using makeup with the tag #thepowerofmakeupchallenge. Since its release in May 2015, Nikkie’s video has been watched over thirty million times, has been liked over five hundred and thirty thousand times, and has received over twenty three thousand comments, many of which echo Nikkie’s experience of “makeup shaming.” “The power of makeup” video went viral and was picked up not only by the online beauty community but also by mainstream media with articles by Huffington Post, Yahoo.com, Marie Claire, BuzzFeed, DailyLife, POPSUGAR, Enews, Urbanshowbiz, BoredPanda, and kickvick among others. On Instagram, thousands of everyday makeup lovers have recreated the transformation and uploaded their pictures of the finished result. Various hashtags have been created around this movement and can be searched on Instagram including #thepowerofmakeupchallenge, #powerofmakeupchallenge, #powerofmakeup. Nikkie’s Instagram page dedicated to the challenge can be seen here

“The power of makeup” video is a direct reaction against what Nikkie calls “makeup shaming”—the idea that makeup is bad, and the assumption that the leading motivation for using makeup is insecurity. In her video Nikkie also reacts to the idea that the made-up-girl is “not really you,” or worse is “fake.” In the introduction to her video Nikkie says,

I’ve been noticing a lot lately that girls have been almost ashamed to say that they love makeup because nowadays when you say you love makeup you either do it because you want to look good for boys, you do it because you’re insecure, or you do it because you don’t love yourself. I feel like in a way lately it’s almost a crime to love doing your makeup. So after last weeks RuPaul’s Drag Race with the half drag half male, I was inspired to show you the power of makeup. I notice a lot that when I don’t wear makeup and I have my hair up in a bun and I meet people and I show them picture of my videos or, or whatever looks I have done, they look at me and straight up tell me “that is not you.” They tell me “that’s funny” because I don’t even look like that girl on the picture. So without any further ado I’m going to do half my face full on glam—I’m truly going to transform one side of my face—and the other side is going to be me, raw, unedited, nothing, me, just me. So let’s do it.

In her introduction, Nikkie identifies a social attitude that many of her viewers can relate to, that the made-up face isn’t the “real you.” This idea reveals an interesting contradiction in social attitude. As this issue of Media/Culture highlights, the theme of transformation is increasingly popular in contemporary society. Renovation shows, weight loss shows, and “makeover” shows have increased in number and popularity around the world (Lewis). Tania Lewis attributes this to an international shift towards “the real” on television (447). Accompanying this turn towards “the real,” confession, intimacy, and authenticity are now demanded and consumed as entertainment (Goldthwaite; Dovey; King). Sites such as YouTube are arguably popular because they offer real stories, real lives, and have a core value of authenticity (Strangelove; Wesch; Young; Tolson). The power of makeup transformations are challenging because they juxtapose a transformation against the natural, on the self. By only transforming half their face, the beauty vloggers juxtapose the “makeover” (transformation) with “authenticity” (the natural). The power of makeup movement is therefore caught between two contemporary social values. However, the desire for authenticity, and the lack of acceptance that the transformed image is authentic seems to be the main criticism that the members of this movement receive.  

Beauty vloggers identify a strong social value that “natural” is “good” and any attempt to alter the natural is taboo. Even in the commercial world “natural beauty” is celebrated and features heavily in the marketing and advertising campaigns of popular beauty, cosmetic, and skincare brands. Consider Maybelline’s emphasis on “natural beauty” in their byline “Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s Maybelline.” This is not the way the members of “the power of makeup” movement use and celebrate makeup. They use and celebrate makeup as a transformative and identity forming tool, and their use of makeup is most often criticised for not being natural. In her recreation of Nikkie’s video, Evelina Forsell says “people get upset when I’m not natural.” Like Nikkie, Evelina reveals she often receives the criticism that “the person with a full on face with makeup is not you.” Evelina’s video can be watched here.

“The power of makeup” movement and its participants challenge this criticism that the made-up self is not the “real” self. Evelina directly responds to this criticism in her video, stating “when I have a full face of makeup . . . that’s still me, but a more . . . creative me, I guess.” The beauty vloggers in this movement use makeup and YouTube as extensions of the self, as tools for self-expression, self-realisation, and ongoing transformation. Beauty vloggers are demonstrating that makeup is a tool and extension of the self that allows them to explore and play with their self-representations. In the same way that technology enables the individual to extend and “reinvent him/herself online” (Papacharissi 645), so does makeup. And in the same way that technology becomes an extension of the self, or even a second self (Turkle, The Second Self; Vaast) so does makeup. Makeup is a tool and technique of the self. 

Vlogging is about storytelling (Kavoori), but it is also collective—it’s about telling collective stories (Raun 373) which can be seen in various vlogging genres. As Geert Lovink suggests, YouTube is one of the largest databases of global shared experience. YouTube’s global popularity can be attributed to Strangelove’s assertion that “there’s nothing more interesting to real people . . . than authentic stories told about other real people” (65). Individuals are drawn to Nikkie’s experience, seeing themselves reflected in her story. Famous beauty vloggers on YouTube, and everyday beauty lovers, find community in the collective experience of feeling shame for loving makeup and using makeup to transform and communicate their identity. Effectively, the movement forms communities of practice (Wenger) made up of hundreds of people brought together by the shared value and use of makeup as a transformative tool. The online spaces where these activities take place (mainly on YouTube and Instagram) form affinity spaces (Gee) where the community come together, share information, learn and develop their practice. 

Hundreds of YouTubers from all over the world took up Nikkie’s invitation to demonstrate the power of makeup by transforming themselves on camera. From well-established beauty vloggers with millions of viewers, to amateur beauty lovers with YouTube channels, many people felt moved by Nikkie’s example and embodied the message, adapting the transformation to suit their circumstances. The movement includes both men and women, children and adults. Some transformations are inspirational such as Shalom Blac’s in which she talks about accepting the scars that are all over her face, but also demonstrates how makeup can make them disappear. Shalom has almost five million views on her “POWER OF MAKEUP” video, and has been labelled “inspirational” by the media. Shalom Blac’s video can be watched here and the media article labelling her as “inspirational” can be viewed here. Others, such as PatrickStarrr, send a powerful message that “It’s okay to be yourself.” Unlike a traditional interpretation of that statement, Patrick is communicating that it is okay to be the self that you construct, on any given day. Patrick also has over four million views on his video which can be watched here.  

During her transformation, Nikkie points out each feature of her face that she does not like and demonstrates how she can change it using makeup. Nikkie’s video is primarily a tutorial, educating viewers on different makeup techniques that can manipulate the appearance of their natural features into how they would like them to appear. These techniques are also reproduced and embodied through the various contributors to the movement. Thus the tutorial is an educational tool enabling others to use makeup for their own self representations (see Paul A. Soukup for an overview of YouTube as an educational tool). 

A feminist perspective may deconstruct the empowering, educational intentions of Nikkie’s video, insisting that conceptions of beauty are a social construct (Travis, Meginnis, and Bardari) and should not be re-enforced by encouraging women (and men) to use make-up to feel good. However, this sort of discourse does not appear in the movement, and this paper seeks to analyse the movement as its contributors frame and present it. Rather, “the power of makeup” movement falls within a postfeminist framework celebrating choice, femininity, independence, and the individual construction of modern identity (McRobbie; Butler; Beck, Giddens and Lash). Postfeminism embraces postmodern notions of identity in which individuals are “called up to invent their own structures” (McRobbie 260). Through institutions such as education young women have “become more independent and able,” and “‘dis-embedded’ from communities where gender roles were fixed” (McRobbie 260). Angela McRobbie attributes this to the work of scholars such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck and their emphasis on individualisation and reflexive modernisation. These scholars take a Foucauldian approach to identity construction in the modern age, where the individual must choose their own structures “internally and individualistically” (260), engaging in an ongoing process of self-monitoring and self-improvement, and resulting in the current self-help culture (McRobbie). 

In addition to being an educational and constructive tool, Nikkie’s video is also an exercise in self-branding and self-promotion(see Marwick; Duffy and Hund; and van Nuenen for scholarship on self-branding). Through her ongoing presence on YouTube, presenting this video in conjunction with her other tutorials, Nikkie is establishing herself as a beauty vlogger/guru. Nikkie lists all of the products that she uses in her transformation below her video with links to where people can buy them. She also lists her social media accounts, ways that people can connect with her, and other videos that people might be interested in watching. There are also prompts to subscribe, both during her video and in the description bar below her video. Nikkie’s transformation is both an ongoing endeavour to create her image and public persona as a beauty vlogger, and a physical transformation on camera. There is also a third transformation that takes place because her vlog is in the public sphere and consequently mobilises a movement. The transformation is of the way people talk about and eventually perceive makeup. Nikkie’s video aims to end makeup shaming and promote makeup as an empowering tool. With each recreation of her video, with each Instagram photo featuring the transformation, and with each mainstream media article featuring the movement, #thepowerofmakeup movement community are transforming the image of the made-up girl—transforming the association of makeup with presenting an inauthentic identity—in society. 

Conclusion

The “The Power of MAKEUP!” movement, started by NikkieTutorials, demonstrates one way in which people are using YouTube as a transformative tool, and mirror, to document, construct, and present their identity online, using makeup. Through their online transformation the members of the movement not only engage in a process of constructing and presenting their identity, but they form communities who share a love of makeup and its transformative potential. By embodying Nikkie’s original message to rid makeup shaming and transform the self into a desired identity, the movement re-enforces the “made-up” image of the self as real and authentic, and challenges conceptions that the “made-up” image is “fake” and inauthentic. Ultimately, this case study explores YouTube as a site that allows individuals to play with, construct, and present their identity. YouTube is a tool with which, and a space in which, people can transform themselves, and in doing so create communities which can work together to publicly challenge social norms.

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Keywords


YouTube; vlogging; identity construction; self-representation; authenticity; digital media; autobiography; virtual ethnography



Copyright (c) 2016 Ümit Kennedy

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