I Hate Myself and So Can You: Cosmo YouTube Tutorials

Boilerplate Magazine’s editorial staff, writers, and readers hold discussions regarding our most recent articles at our weekly General Body meetings. Many people felt that although the article touches on important issues of sexism, cis-centrism, and heteronormativity, it didn’t address issues of race and was assuming a white, cis-gender point of view. We do not mean to put blame on the writer, but onto all the editors meant to ensure that Boilerplate articles do not assume any race, sexuality, gender orientation, or class to be the “norm.” Boilerplate as a new publication and as a group of students is working to edit – even retroactively – our pieces and to listen to feedback from our readership. We asked our writer to locate herself in the article and she added the last two paragraphs.

Over the summer I found myself in the nucleus of what, in most situations, I would consider to be enemy territory: Cosmopolitan Magazine’s YouTube channel. It seemed (borderline) innocent at first; I began by watching a tutorial on how to achieve the perfect winged eyeliner by using a household spoon. But a few hair tutorials later, the content I was exposed to went from being possibly helpful to undeniably harmful.

Cosmo’s series titled “Sexy vs. Skanky” features videos teaching women how to make themselves commodities to men and how to do it the right way. The advice: stay sexy, not skanky. Most of these videos consisted of a panel of cis-females and, at times, a cis-male, judging and comparing female celebrities for their clothing choices and deeming their outfits either “sexy” or “skanky”. In addition to objectifying these women and boiling down their worth to their outfits, the panelists put their “subjects” in competition against each other to see which outfit gained the highest positive response from men.

While I was undeniably offended by Cosmo’s videos titled, “Man Magnet Outfits: How to Get a Guy’s Attention,” “Sexy Makeover,” “What Guys Think About Eye Makeup” and even “Beauty and Hair Makeover to Make Your Ex Jealous,” I was by no means surprised to find these videos. Nor was I surprised to see that these videos receive hundreds of thousands of views. These videos and magazines similar to Cosmo perpetuate the frustratingly impossible culture of pursuing physical perfection.

It’s no secret that Cosmopolitan Magazine’s cis-centric content reeks of internalized sexism and heterosexism. Though in recent years the magazine has made an effort to infuse body-positivity into their content, publishing articles like “Stop Dressing For Your Body: Because Every Trend is for Every Body,” Cosmo is incredibly harmful to people of all ages and gender identities.

Their now infamous attempt to appeal to queer readers with a visual lesbian sex guide features idealized female figures in unrealistic positions, further alienates them from the queer community. The magazine has committed so many faux pas that it is now commonplace to declare Cosmo an anti-woman publication.

Yet, it is a point still worth making. The toxic videos I came across are neither atypical of Cosmopolitan nor are they uncharacteristic of YouTube videos geared towards women. Make-up tutorials are one of the most popular and lucrative genres of videos on YouTube, with the average “beauty guru” receiving millions of subscribers and hundreds of millions of views.

The most successful of these gurus is Michelle Phan, who boasts seven million subscribers as well as over one billion views. To put that into perspective, the city of Los Angeles has a population of about 3.8 million people. Michelle Phan’s subscribers equate to roughly double that number. With such massive popularity, Phan and other beauty gurus like her have the ability to affect a substantial segment of the population. Using her YouTube popularity as a catalyst, Phan has launched her own beauty line and advertises many of her products in her instructional videos. In addition to enforcing a certain standard of beauty, Phan’s videos drive beauty and sex appeal as products of consumerism. In fact, many of the beauty videos are products of consumerism. Make-up haul videos—an exceedingly popular type of video in which YouTubers show viewers their most recent beauty purchases—tighten the gap between consumerism and beauty, and, in effect, set up confidence and beauty as direct effects of consumerist culture, removing personal agency from confidence and self-worth.

As shown by the proliferation of gurus like Phan, Cosmo’s videos are in good company. They are part of the culture of commodifying women and judging their worth based on physical appearance. This culture has found a new medium in the form of YouTube tutorials. Much like women’s magazines – a label that makes it seem like these magazines are for the benefit of women – these videos are both misogynistic and heteronormative, simultaneously creating the expectation for women to tailor their lives according to what men want and perpetuating heterosexuality and cis-gendered people as the norm in mass media.

These videos are part of another culture, too, a culture that elevates Western beauty. Phan’s most popular videos idealize Western – that is, white – standards of beauty to an almost extreme extent. Her tutorials instructing viewers to transform themselves through make-up into Barbie and Lady Gaga are racking up views in the 50,000,000s, meaning millions have watched Phan transform herself into blonde, white women through the magic of make-up. These videos are receiving the most views, far more than Phan’s other tutorials about “natural looking” make-up or eyeliner. Although these videos focus on specific individuals and characters who are idealized because of their fame, the number of views they receive has as much to do with race as with a culture of celebrity worship. Or it might be better to say the celebrity worship is inherently about race, since that which is often worshipped about celebrities – besides their lifestyles and wealth – is their appearance, which is judged according to white norms. The majority of women’s magazines, YouTube videos, and other sources that discuss beauty assume white women as their audience and proliferate whiteness as the standard of beauty by glorifying attributes like straight hair or using primarily white models or lightening the skin of people of color in advertisements. I, myself, am a white, cisgender female and most “beauty gurus” are white, cis gender females, but I am still made highly uncomfortable and am offended by the stagnant ideals of Western beauty perpetuated by both those who put out these videos and those who watch them.

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