Kelly Nguyen gets ready for a performance following a Christen Dominique tutorial. (Photo by Natalie Nguyen)
Walnut High School

Column: The beauty community has become toxic

I was feeling the usual pressure to dress up with my friends. Throughout the year, the girls in my show choir would regularly encourage everyone to dress according to specific themes for “choir spirit” days.

As fun as wearing crazy socks and ’80s clothes were, I never bothered to participate since it seemed impractical to me.

When Halloween came just around the corner that year, my choir friends had made plans to wear matching costumes and pestered me to join them.

However, I had insisted on staying in to watch horror movies that evening instead of going out with them. Halloween wasn’t very appealing to me — I already hated getting stage ready for my show choir performances, but my show choir clique loved to get glammed up.

I knew they were going to shoot for elaborate makeup looks for Halloween that I could never emulate even if I wanted to. They playfully chided me for my reluctance to join in the festivities; after all, the plan was to take some “Insta-worthy” group pictures at school that day.

Not wanting to feel left out, I begrudgingly Googled makeup looks that were attainable within my admittedly limited makeup skillset. 

Logically, I took my search to the internet. Scrolling through YouTube and eventually coming across Michelle Phan’s “The Beautiful Death” makeup tutorial. I was immediately drawn to the gorgeous skull makeup, with its vivid colors and intricate accents.

Although I knew that my window to complete the look would be short, with the help of a good friend I was able to rapidly transform myself into a living embodiment of a “Día de los Muertos” sugar skull. When I arrived at school after the morning’s efforts, my friends were shocked to see that I had managed to pull off a convincing costume.

Many girls in my show choir who I’ve only been loosely-acquainted with approached me to ask about what products I had used and which tutorial I had watched. They even began chatting with me about their favorite makeup brands and beauty gurus, using cosmetic lingo that I pretended to understand.

In the end, I loved how aesthetic our pictures looked. Although everyone’s makeup looked overdone in person, the looks really came through in the pictures from that day.

For as hesitant as I was initially to even participate, that Halloween experience was an important step in allowing me to feel more comfortable wearing makeup and trying out new looks for myself. After that, I used every occasion I could to be creative with different powders and creams, going to YouTube for new makeup looks to recreate.

As my makeup collection gradually grew, my passion for makeup did as well. I saw YouTube as an online beauty school. A small, inconspicuous community that was a safe, open environment for makeup enthusiasts to share their art. I now understood why girls in my show choir loved makeup and bonded over it.

However, as the years have gone by, I slowly watched the beauty community change dramatically. As I grew up, I was sad to see the once loving, interconnected virtual community gradually chip away.

In recent years, my favorite beauty influencers have focused less on posting beauty-related content. As they’ve gained more clout over the past years, they’ve influenced viewers to focus on the vain, superficial aspects of makeup which conflict with the artistry that makeup used to be associated with — the artistry that had originally sparked my interest in makeup.

This unfortunate pattern has not only negatively impacted my love of makeup as a form of self-expressive art, but has also rendered the YouTube beauty community a toxic place filled with animosity and deception. 

As people have turned to beauty YouTubers for makeup reviews and advice, makeup companies have employed influencers’ perceived credibility to their advantage.

While they seem to genuinely care for their viewers, beauty influencers ostensibly promote products that they claim to enjoy, deceiving their loyal subscribers with biased reviews, when in actuality many are approached by makeup brands to promote their products for affiliate codes or other benefits.

The repeated failure to disclose this established business partnership between beauty creators and mainstream brands creates an environment which ends up being predatory in nature.

James Charles is a highly renowned 20-year old beauty influencer who originally gained fame through his YouTube channel, which now boasts nearly 20 million subscribers. While attending Coachella last year, Charles promoted SugarBearHair gummies on his Instagram in exchange for the promise that he would be offered a security team to protect him at the crowded music festival.

In doing so, however, he not only misused his popularity in the beauty world for self-serving motives but also imprudently destroyed his long-time friendship with Tati Westbrook, who owns SugarBearHair’s rival vitamin company Halo Beauty.

In my impression, Westbrook slandered him in her 44-minute response video, exaggerating half-truths to defame James since she was insulted by his utter disregard to her and her company.

All told, the community was given insight into the nature of these beauty-guru relationships, highlighting the often-tenuous and usually financial basis of so many popular collaborations. 

Although the dispute was later resolved, it perfectly demonstrates the toxicity that results from sponsorships in the beauty industry.

As I’ve watched Westbrook ever since she began her YouTube channel in 2010, I was shocked by her coldness in her “Bye Sisters” video, and how she twisted and exaggerated certain truths about Charles to create the impression that he had deliberately wronged her.

Given that she’d always supported Charles before, even when he had made mistakes and had been publicly criticized, I thought that she would understand the overwhelming situation that James was in when he attended Coachella without security.

While others saw Charles’ scandal as “backstabbing” Westbrook, I understood that James did it out of necessity to avoid being bombarded by his “sisters.”

While the “tea” and the drama that erupts on YouTube does not directly affect viewers like myself, the resulting toxicity has alienated viewers like my friends and I, who are primarily interested in the makeup tutorials, rather than the drama.

Although we used to squeal every time our favorite guru launched a new makeup product or hosted a meet-and-greet, we’ve increasingly become detached from beauty YouTubers.

Before, I loved to watch makeup tutorials to hear about what’s going on in beauty gurus’ lives, but now, I’m rather indifferent toward everything except for the products and techniques that YouTubers choose to highlight.

When we get ready together for a concert or competition, my show choir friends and I skip the long prologue that accompanies every makeup tutorial and instead focus on learning to recreate the makeup look, simply treating it like an informative lecture rather than a chance to catch up with old friends. 

Although there remain certain beauty YouTubers that I absolutely love and support to this day — a core requirement to make it on the platform will always be audience engagement.

The formulaic approach to creating a relationship with their audiences has resulted in many YouTubers saying and doing similar things to appeal to their audiences; giving shoutouts, giveaways and creating Q&A videos to get to know their subscribers all serve fundamentally the same purpose: creating the impression of a connection with the viewer.

As close and personal as it may sometimes feel, I now regard these efforts at cultivating a relationship with subscribers as something that is trite and to be avoided.

In the end, I will always view my computer screen as an impediment to engaging with these platforms on YouTube. Since it is in their best interest to appeal to their subscribers, it is difficult to differentiate between YouTubers who genuinely care about their work and subscribers and those who only ostensibly do. 

I still love makeup and I still find value in getting to share my passion for the artistry with similarly-minded folks. I just wish that the community itself could focus on what originally made it great for viewers like me: the authenticity of the connections offered by creators, rather than the brand integration and “tea-spilling” which currently dominate the platform.