Gwen Moritz

The $500 Billion Question

Gwen Moritz Editor's Note

The $500 Billion Question

I didn’t use the lockdown to learn a second language or take up painting. But, as I’m now in the last year of my 50s, I did set out, belatedly, to upgrade my skin care and makeup, which had ossified decades ago. And that, dear readers, led me into a foreign land with a language and culture all its own: the YouTube “beauty community.”

Makeup has been a regular part of my life for 45 years — I’m a professional woman in the South, after all — and what I knew about the subject wasn’t wrong, but the limit of my knowledge of the subject was humbling. (Having only sons probably perpetuated my ignorance.)

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I can’t begin to estimate how many makeup and skin care “influencers” have “channels” on YouTube — hundreds, for sure, and maybe thousands. It is literally a cottage industry for many women and a few men, virtually all of them working at home, recording and editing videos of themselves testing and reviewing products and demonstrating techniques. Predictably, the production values range from impressive to embarrassing.

To my amazement, this world has existed for so long, a decade or more, that standard video genres show up on channel after channel: “first impressions” of new products, “wear tests,” eyeshadow tutorials, head-to-head comparisons of luxury brands and “drugstore dupes.” I found those helpful and instructive, as there are videos for every skin color and type, every age, every skill level.

A common genre, presumably because it requires the least preparation and editing, is known as GRWM — “get ready with me.” The influencer sits at a vanity and puts on makeup, identifying each product while chatting amiably about her life. I got bored with those in a hurry, probably because makeup is never going to be an art form for me.

I find other beauty video genres profoundly disturbing. These are the ones that celebrate makeup as a possession rather than a tool. There are “hauls,” videos celebrating big purchases from a single company or a single retailer. In the YouTube beauty culture, preparing for and then indulging in Sephora’s annual sale is a holiday season, not unlike Christmas on the Hallmark Channel. (I’m not making this up.)

Hauls lead to “tours” of the gurus’ massive “collections” of eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner, foundation, concealer, blush, highlighter, contour and powder (setting and finishing, which turn out to be different things). Then there are videos dedicated to “decluttering” these collections, since makeup isn’t designed to last forever. It would be physically impossible for even the most dedicated makeup artist to make a dent in these drawers and cabinets crammed with makeup in a lifetime, much less in a year or two. (The ultimate endorsement of any product is to “hit pan” — to actually use enough of the powder or cream to reveal the bottom of the container.) The waste makes me want to weep.

Many influencers make clear that they have received much of this makeup free from cosmetics companies wanting free publicity to help them get a bigger share of a global industry that generates nearly half a trillion dollars in annual revenue. But their millions of viewers do not. There are enough women willing to pay $75 or $100 or $125 for a dozen or more eyeshadows that new “palette” releases from high-end brands are as anticipated as blockbuster movies. It’s all about the “color story,” you see.

It was both disturbing and refreshing to discover Hannah Louise Poston, who spent so much on beauty products in 2017 that, in 12-step recovery fashion, she started her channel in 2018 to document “My No-Buy Year.” It took months of deprivation for her to accept that she, an aspiring writer sewing custom tango costumes for a living, should not have “rouge” status at Sephora (meaning she spent more than $1,000 in a year).

“It doesn’t matter how much I love beautiful things. It doesn’t matter how much I love fancy things. It doesn’t matter that I feel like I was a princess born into the wrong body. It’s not my place to be buying those things,” she said in a confessional that I found strangely moving.

And then she asked the $500 billion question:

“I have to wonder how much of the luxury economy ... depends on tricking people who literally cannot afford luxury goods into thinking that overspending on luxury will add value to their lives.”

There is one YouTube beauty guru who makes GRWM videos that are never boring: Bailey Sarian. Instead of talking about her kids or shopping, she puts on over-the-top makeup while recounting grisly true crime stories. You better believe I’m one of her 1.5 million subscribers.

Gwen Moritz is the editor of Arkansas Business.