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In Praise of BuzzFeed’s Beauty Videos

Its update of the genre is inclusive, chatty, skeptical—and doesn’t try to make you feel bad.

Makeover BuzzFeed video stills.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by BuzzFeed/YouTube.

Beauty is a social experience. That’s the insight that’s fueled the explosion of makeup videos online—and the growth of YouTube as a whole, where the genre remains one of the platform’s most popular categories. The typical eyeliner tutorial, for example, relies on several kinds of social relationships: the symbiotic one between creator and viewer, the mimetic link between consumer and idol, and the sororal bond between friends (or big and lil’ sisses). So what happens when those connections are multiplied on-screen? BuzzFeed’s routinely viral beauty and lifestyle videos—which frequently feature two to four narrator-cum-guinea-pigs trying out, say, dollar-store makeup, the Whole30 diet, or Ariana Grande’s Rapunzel-like extensions—suggest that more is only better. One-on-one is an intimate experience. Four-on-one is a party. And as a result, BuzzFeed’s videos have almost singularly excelled at updating beauty coverage for the needs of today.

In the 1920s, Listerine—then sold as a floor cleaner and a remedy for gonorrhea—was reintroduced to the masses as a mouthwash. Mean-girl advertising copy like “they talk about you behind your back” promised that a fresher breath would make consumers more liked by friends, suitors, even their children. So beauty-adjacent content in the media has always featured a social dimension—the chiding warning about bad breath is the kind of harsh truth you’d only hear from a family member or a close friend. Listerine’s rebranding has become marketing lore, but its vulturish exploitation of insecurities remained the rule for decades. Google “women’s magazine articles” from any decade and you’ll find plenty of bonkers tips under the guise of helpful maternal advice (like an interdiction on eating apples and pears on a date, as “fruit causes some embarrassment.”) The messaging is softer now, but articles like “12 Budge-Proof Gel Eyeliners You’ll Swear By Every Single Time,” published earlier this month on Cosmopolitan.com, still assume a dissemination of good-intentioned expertise from author to reader.

But these are skeptical times. And diverse times. Traditional beauty goals no longer hold because beauty standards are shifting toward inclusivity, as are the motivations for applying mascara and curling one’s hair. Heterosexual marriage isn’t the driving force for new lipstick purchases that it once was. Meanwhile, beauty trends—all the ways one can alter one’s appearance via means big and small—are exploding. BuzzFeed’s beauty videos are addictive—at least for this generally reluctant YouTube viewer—because their producers understand and amplify the social aspects that make cosmetics, makeovers, and physical modifications fun, even progressive.

Praising BuzzFeed’s video output is not unlike handing Goliath a trophy. In 2017, the digital giant dominated web videos, with 65 billion views on YouTube and Facebook. BuzzFeed’s most popular channel is Tasty, which produces those sped-up, disembodied cooking videos you’ve no doubt seen on social media. BuzzFeed’s beauty content is trendy enough for at least one of their personalities’ faces to appear on merch. (Once under the Boldly banner, then the Ladylike label, it’s now known as As/Is.) The videos’ appeal lies largely in the group-hang feel that lone-wolf creators—like BuzzFeed defector Safiya Nygaard, who has since set up her own channel—would likely find challenging to reproduce. It’s one thing for a vlogger to put on a bald cap to see how differently people might react to you. It’s another to share the experience with a friend and to compare notes afterward.

My YouTube history page tells me that I first got sucked into the bottomless BuzzFeed video hole through an experiment called “Korean Americans Try Korean Fashion Trends,” featuring two presenters, one male and one female. (With just under 2 million views, this video appears to be among BuzzFeed’s less-seen, though smartly micro-targeted, yield.) The content of the three-minute video is self-explanatory. Naturally, the lure lies partly in the makeover (from hip creative workers in a casual office to softer and prissier versions of themselves, according to prevailing East Asian trends). But it’s just as entertaining to witness the reactions of the hosts’ co-workers (a near-ubiquitous segment in BuzzFeed’s beauty and lifestyle videos). “You look amazing!” one of co-host Rachel Kang’s colleagues tells her, immediately after she decides that her new face makes her look “sad.” (Kang and I aren’t related.) It’s hard to decide whether she’s flattered, dismayed, or both—all the thrill of watching makeovers compacted into three-and-a-half minutes.

Similarly, anyone can learn how to mimic Kim Kardashian’s makeup routine. But BuzzFeed’s version tells you what matters: How the people around you might react to your Kim K. lewk. Per BuzzFeed’s formula, three different employees star in the Kardashian video, in which three subjects wear $907 of product on their faces for a week. The racial diversity among those women—one white, one black, one Indian American—goes unremarked upon, but is the other key element that I’d argue makes these videos so popular. The multiple test subjects in this video and others generally offer varying responses, and the racial, gender, sexual, and size diversity among them represent a wider cross section of society, which beauty companies serve unequally. “What the Same Outfit Looks Like on Different Body Types,” for example, feels like it visualizes a conversation you might have in a text chain among girlfriends, where different individuals weigh in on what a piece of clothing might look like on their own bodies. Here, you can actually see it.

The variability of what beauty looks like and means to different people—and the sharing of those differences—is showcased in “I Got The Perfect Suit for My Wedding.” Part of BuzzFeed’s seven-part Wedding Season series, it offers a peek into what the Say Yes to the Dress moment might be for a gay, Asian American woman. Clocking in at around 1 million to 2 million views each, the Wedding Season videos—in which producer/bride Niki Ang preps for her big day at the gym, the dermatologist’s office, the hair salon, and so on—are far from BuzzFeed’s most popular, but they make for some of its most surprisingly poignant and ambitious. Friends and co-workers are seen being supportive (and reactive) as Ang slowly transforms herself over six weeks. As with many of the makeover videos, the fun is in going through the journey with the various personalities, as they video-diary themselves at home and invite the camera to record procedures in the moment—say, the Botox chair—for an immersive experience. That Ang has an actual purpose to all these experiments, combined with the relative scarcity of people who look like her in pop culture, adds to her series’ inspirational mood.

There’s an obvious wish-fulfillment aspect to these videos: Wouldn’t it be nice to ask your employer to foot the bill for your pre-wedding makeover? But just as striking is the immediacy of these tightly edited and structured stories. You can hear about microblading, a semi-permanent eyebrow-tattooing procedure, from a friend or a vlogger, or read about it from a writer. But there’s something intimate and fascinating about watching a familiar personality go through the process in front of you, narrating her every thought while a specialist makes tiny incisions on her face. And because hearing different perspectives on any procedure will always be more revealing, “A Guy Gets Microbladed Eyebrows for the First Time” offers a less conventional take, with an exploration of what modifying his brows might mean in the context of an Asian immigrant family, where bodily modification, like tattoos, is generally regarded with greater suspicion. (Parents occasionally pop up on these BuzzFeed videos, but they seem to appear more frequently in the ones with Asian American hosts, in a way that reflects the generally tighter bonds between Asian parents and their grown children.)

BuzzFeed’s colossal stature in the dizzying online video hustle isn’t without its critics. The company has been accused, somewhat convincingly, by at least one high-profile YouTuber of stealing ideas. And the past two years have seen a small exodus from the video team, with some former employees complaining that a demanding production schedule has lowered quality. Indeed, there’s no shortage of videos I personally find less-than-illuminating, like “We Style Each Other for Under $150 in Vegas.” (Cool, I guess?) But if more niche content serving underrepresented populations, like Asian Americans, is one of the side benefits of abundance, as a consumer I can’t complain. Even with the infinitude of beauty content online, BuzzFeed’s stands out because it uses its size to showcase the social dynamics that make beauty such a fluid, unpredictable, and possibly joyous experience—while highlighting how different people will wear and feel things differently. Beauty is to be seen. But in BuzzFeed videos, we see how fun it is to share.

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Inkoo Kang writes about technology and culture for Slate.