The Scrying Game

Makeup and skincare vlogs are handy magic mirrors for the anxious

I took a four-year break from makeup while I lived in Montana and did nothing. I thought this was an enlightened choice, even though no one there wears makeup, and in fact the people I knew wore leggings to weddings and Crocs to court. When I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t wear makeup I felt uglier, but ugly seemed like the punishment I deserved. A coworker at the restaurant where I was waiting tables told me I would look better if I wore makeup, and I wasn’t offended. “I’m sure you’re right,” I said, but anyway my shirt was covered in spit from the bus tub and my pants were two sizes too big.

Ugly was an extension of lonely. My roommates and coworkers and the nuts on the bus didn’t care what I looked like. This loneliness was anonymity, not solitude. My friends in Montana had treated me like a precious baby and indulged me invariably. Now, moving among crowds of Angelenos who did not recognize the hot shit I thought I was, I performed rites of mortification.

I didn’t start wearing makeup again until I knew true solitude, having quit my job and begun to stare at my sublet’s walls all day. My social energy converted to self-obsession: I preened and photographed myself, tracked all my calories, and treated myself for yeast infections I didn’t have. I walked five miles a day like I was my own pet, trying to tire myself out. I became familiar with many kinds of self-consumption. During anxiety attacks tiny itchy blisters would erupt on my hand, or sometimes, the appearance of these blisters would cause an anxiety attack.

Wearing makeup for the first time in years, my face broke out dramatically. My skincare routine grew and shifted to stem the ugly, which only seemed to expand; I picked and popped my acne compulsively. I found that my body was vertically integrated, and products begat products as anxiety begat anxiety. If you need a palliative for your scientifically modified body, I have recommendations: Too sad to go to work? Use NYC Liquid Eyeliner to create the perfect wing. An eczematic rash covers your torso when you go off of birth control? Try the Body Shop’s Hemp Body Butter.

What makeup gave me was primarily relief: in my selfies I look like a different person, and a different person is exactly what I could have used in my life. My beauty regime was a way of keeping myself company. It’s strange how we think of makeup as armor, a woman “putting on her face” to meet the world, when there is so much pleasure in making yourself up to stay at home, when sometimes the most sympathetic gaze in the world is that of the mirror. As usual, the standard vision of gender under capitalism — makeup as a requirement as constricting as a corset, a mating ritual announcing femininity to brainwashed heterosexual men — ignores the spiritual. Like Emily Dickinson, icon of everyone who is her own best friend, said, “It might be lonelier/Without the Loneliness.”

My cohort in this solitude were beauty vloggers on YouTube, women and girls (mostly) who make review videos where they describe the smell, color, texture, consistency, and performance of makeup and skincare products at eccentric length, and makeup tutorials that provide the narcotic pleasure of watching a fluffy brush drag back and forth through an eyelid crease. These channels are calming in their changeable sameness: there is always a new mascara just like the last one, a new company has released a new peachy-pink blush, new tutorials for a warm smoky eye look with a nude lip come out every day of the week. There is more where that came from, and it is less a binge than a morphine drip. Makeup gurus make haul videos, where they detail recent purchases from Sephora or the drugstore, and stash videos where they tour their gigantic makeup collections — often broken up into installments for time’s sake.

Too sad to go to work? Use NYC Liquid Eyeliner to create the perfect wing

From beauty vloggers, I learned which products to buy and how to use them, and which products would counteract and cover up the other products. Despite their advanced makeup addictions, they are first concerned with how their audience relates to them, apologizing for using products that are very expensive or discontinued, saying they know no one needs as much makeup as they own, and assuring everyone that they are never ever “bragging.” “Homemade” is the aesthetic, but many beauty YouTubers have become internationally popular and successful, with millions of subscribers, making big money not only from YouTube’s ads but from the cosmetic brands they work with and help create products for. There is some evidence that YouTube’s ad money is drying up as the amount of successful channels grows — according to Gaby Dunn, the number of channels with ads went up 470 percent last year. This makes relationships with brands more important, creating a strange dichotomy on YouTube between what is and is not sponsored content, as if recommending a global cosmetic behemoth because it tells you to calls your morality into question, more than recommending this behemoth out of the goodness of your heart does — when the real question is why you would add to a company’s millions when there’s nothing in it for you. But it also means brands dictate more of who and what on this platform gets seen — and that gurus who adhere to trends and reflect (white) beauty standards often come out ahead. Social media personalities who are this well-integrated lend themselves easily to infinity loops of thought: Are the YouTubers selling the brands, or are the brands selling them? As radical Marxist collective Tiqqun wrote of the archetypal “Young-Girl,” “She is the consumer, the producer, the consumer of producers, and the producer of consumers.”

A Theory of the Young-Girl, published in the original French in 1999 and translated into English in 2012, describes the archetype of the perfect consumer, the “Young-Girl,” who could also be named after her other incarnations: The book could have been “the Theory of the Fratboy, Theory of the Chelsea-Boy, or Theory of the Hipster,” as the LA Review of Books’ Adam Morris puts it, though I disagree that The Theory of the Young-Girl could have had these alternate titles “just as easily.” Tiqqun’s treatise, a neo-Situationist work of “trash theory” that is distinctly and infuriatingly French in its hyperbole, vulgarity, jargon, and neologism, is also distinctly oracular on the ways that people have since learned to sell themselves on social media. “The Young-Girl never creates anything;” they write, “all in all, she only recreates herself.” Nevertheless, vloggers are known to YouTube as “creators.”

Tiqqun, with the Young-Girl, prefigures the average beauty vlogger, describing the “closed horizon of her vapid quotidian”: like these YouTubers’ Target hauls, “What I Eat in a Day” videos, and evening skincare routines. The Young-Girl “sees liberty as the possibility of choosing between a thousand insignificances,” like a video of a woman sorting through her 23 face powders. Teenage YouTube commenters have come to a simpler conclusion about the problems dramatized by Tiqqun: no one needs that much stuff.

Vlogger Tati once had a momentary meltdown when she realized the lipstick she had been recommending was called “Basic.” “I’m kind of offended by that,” she says. “Sometimes being basic is good. ‘Classic’ maybe.” YouTubers are uncomfortably aware of the specter that haunted 2014, the Basic Bitch. This was an insult that white women repurposed from black slang to level at each other, a way of telling someone that, as Anne Helen Petersen wrote in BuzzFeed, “she consumes boringly.” She, being “basic” and stopping there, has not done enough to cover the fact that her identity is constructed by consumption and mediated by the internet. We all scramble to be global capitalism’s model citizens, and there is a basic model (with her dumb doll accessories: tiny Frappuccino, tiny Eat Pray Love) with available upgrades (tiny pour-over coffee, tiny Lydia Davis’ The Collected Stories). In the case of beauty vloggers, they consume not only boringly but tediously: Jaclyn Hill sometimes goes on tangents where she describes her intricate Starbucks orders, down to the number of pumps of sweetener.

In the flattened versions of themselves available through the internet, beauty gurus are truly basic, with open templates for personalities, and they not only reproduce themselves in images and videos — they proliferate. There are new beauty gurus all the time, women who learned from and modeled their looks after other gurus, and who are rewarded by brands for looking and acting like them: the ideal beauty guru is glamorous and cheerful, with a chiseled contour and highlighter beaming on the tip of her nose like a film of cocaine. “The Young-Girl relates to herself in the same way in which she relates to all of the products with which she surrounds herself,” Tiqqun writes, because she is her own product, in a more straightforwardly personal way than the rest of us who sell our time for money. Maybe this is why it is jarring that gurus speak in the language of love: they are “obsessed” and “in love” with every new concealer and eyeshadow palette; once I watched a video where a vlogger said “I hold it so close to my heart” about a face primer.

But maybe we are talking about love after all. Vloggers are not only passionate about products — if they were, they would be doing their makeup like the rest of us, alone and silent. They love the synthetic language of beauty, like products’ contradictory names: “matte glosses” or “blushes” that are bright white. They chase exact descriptions, revising their diagnoses of undertones, textures, finishes, consistencies, talking and talking and talking. Their world is encoded using a predetermined and precise lexicon — products are “creamy,” “pigmented,” “glowy,” and “blendable,” or, if they are unacceptable, “patchy,” “streaky,” “chunky,” and with “low color payoff” — as soothing as the frigid gray light of every Starbucks everywhere.

Anxiety is basic, in that it seems to be the default. Anne Helen Petersen wrote that “basic” was another word for class anxiety, but it is maybe more simple than that — criticisms of conformism are accusations of cowardice, saying that basics are afraid to be different. And of course they are. Individuality is exhausting. When I wrote the opening to this essay, returning to the space of that harrowing anxiety had me chewing a hole inside my cheek. All I found myself wanting to do was put on makeup and watch makeup videos, to forget myself in beauty YouTube’s wide river of words.

Anxiety is a constant, quiet theme in makeup videos, usually appearing as its socially acceptable avatars: the perfectionist, the neat freak, the homebody, the shopaholic. Beauty YouTubers advise that you start packing for vacations two weeks ahead of time and blend your eye makeup looks “literally forever.” I recognize in them the same itchy dread that made me hoard products in the first place. Though I am sloppy and disorganized in almost every aspect of my life, I know compulsion when I see it.

One might guess that beauty vloggers’ fussiness covers up real mental illness, and that guess would be validated again and again. Zoella, one of the most famous beauty YouTubers, who has over 10 million subscribers, has made two videos about dealing with panic disorder, where she describes how she panics in tube stations, in hair salons, at doctors’ offices, at family gatherings, at school, and sometimes just lying in bed at night. Her panic attacks made her avoid restaurants, parties, taxis, buses, and driving — she avoided air travel for eight years because she was afraid of getting a panic attack on an airplane.

Anxiety is a constant, quiet theme in makeup videos, usually appearing as its socially acceptable avatars: the perfectionist, the neat freak, the homebody, the shopaholic

Zoella’s story is echoed by KathleenLights, a beauty vlogger with two million subscribers, who talks about how her parents’ divorce triggered her severe anxiety and OCD. She became agoraphobic, believing that “if [she] left the house, something bad would happen.” Two years after her first video describing her anxiety disorder, she made another video updating her subscribers on her condition. In it, she provides the non-explanation that her anxiety is “triggered by fear” — especially of taxis, cars, planes, elevators and anywhere she would be confined to a small space. Like Zoella, she talks about giving up opportunities that her internet fame afforded her, like taking trips with brands and making TV appearances.

What is especially sad in these videos is that the vloggers seem to have found so few answers to dealing with the severity of their illnesses. Although they both have gotten medical help, Zoella and Kathleen talk about rejecting (prescription) drugs and hand out platitudes as if they’re samples at the Clinique counter. “I am strong enough to conquer this,” Kathleen says. “Never stick to a timed schedule for anything,” Zoella says, advice that is not practical for almost anyone who is not an internet celebrity. They both seem ashamed at how their illness problematizes beauty vloggers’ cult of positivity, giving advice similar to other YouTubers’ “how to stay happy” videos: think nice thoughts, stay organized, ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen. Ultimately, they have accommodated their disorders by getting a job where they don’t have to leave their houses and they have complete control over when and how they get everything done.

Making leisure your labor, an elaboration of “working from home,” can be a profound comfort. Collapsing the public and private can mean protection from both realms — stripped of some of the obligations of traditional professionalism, your public life can be more intimate and casual. And when you “be yourself” for a living, your private self can be infused with the armored posturing of a public persona. This elision can also, truly, drive a person crazy. Jaclyn Hill, a YouTuber with over three million subscribers and successful collaborations with high-end brands like Becca, made a video in winter 2016 to explain why she decided to get an office space. She says that it became impossible for her to separate her home life from her work life, and she would be working until three in the morning every night. “There would be times where three days would go by and I would not step outside,” she says. She describes suffering from derealization, a condition where one feels like their surroundings are lifeless and artificial. She was in therapy three times a week to deal with her anxiety.

There is a clear slippage between beauty rituals and the compulsive routines that are common to anxiety disorders. The world of sensation — of artifice you can touch and smell — seems to calm beauty vloggers, as they relish the gentle stimulation of brushes or clean fingers on their faces. Arabelle Sicardi, in her innovative writing about makeup and perfume, has written about the nexus of beauty products and anxiety, like how certain perfumes make her feel more secure and she is soothed by brushing her hands and face with a fluffy powder brush. Sicardi also writes how these rituals shade into the sacred in the connection between magic and makeup, as beauty vloggers imbue the colors and ingredients in beauty products with the same power as the magical correspondences elaborated by Witchipedia. She describes beauty superstore Sephora as truly witchy: “Beauty magick with your Beauty Insider Card, free potions every time you shop. Two drops of Giorgio Armani ‘Acqua di Gioia’ or Tom Ford ‘Violet Blonde.’ Cedarwood in their most glamorous forms.” It is in the ritual that the beauty industry earns its name: it shares in the mystery of arbitrary forms that somehow give life meaning.

In his lovely essay “The Face of Garbo,” Roland Barthes writes about the rapture of the close-up, “that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” In Greta Garbo’s divine close-ups in Queen Christina, “her make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster.” “Mask” would be the watchword here. It is a face mediated and abstracted by Garbo’s unearthly beauty, by her heavy makeup, by the gaze of the camera, by the barrier of the screen.

Garbo was also an icon of beauty anxiety, never giving interviews and retiring early, prone to depression and constantly on strange and torturous diets. This mess of public and private reminds me of the contradictions in the life of agoraphobic internet stars: the necessary balance of the aspirational and approachable in their personae, that social media both provides fame and isolates them, that their lifestyle gives them more freedom but also can allow their anxiety to imprison them. Fame often relies on simulating intimacy — the image of a vlogger talking to herself as if she’s talking to a friend poignantly (if cheaply) illuminates all that is antisocial about social media. This is an image I relate to, as anyone who has read my tweets would imagine. And as I sit here writing this, I am talking to an audience far more imaginary than that of any beauty guru. I know why I started watching these videos at a time when I wrote all day. Beauty vloggers seem to share something related to my writerly loneliness and writerly compulsions, which include doing embarrassing things when I’m alone and then telling people about them.

But to risk being a cornball, I chase beauty, too, and at times when I’m writing I enter an almost bodyless trance. I’m sure Garbo, like all depressives, longed to escape herself, and in a weird way she was able to. In her close-up, a woman reduced became a face transcended, expanding to embrace us all. Garbo became the essence of the face, its purest example. We all are fascinated by mirrors and are terrified of them, in the same rapturous contradiction that defines the sublime — the same contradiction that unites self-love and self-loathing. Beauty vloggers deal in the close-up, in that moment when you get close enough to the mirror to see, thank God, a face and not a self.

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls, forthcoming from Morrow/Harper Collins. She is moving to Boston soon.