Some people use meditation apps and ASMR videos to get to sleep. For me, it’s makeup videos on YouTube—specifically, ones where women go through their eye-poppingly abundant collections of lipsticks, powders, eye-shadow palettes, and more. There’s an appealing sameness to these videos and their creators, from their white IKEA storage drawers and mirrored vanities to the nearly identical disclaimers that introduce the videos (“I’m not trying to show off, this is not me bragging, so many of you requested this video”) to the lulling rhythm with which the YouTubers rattle off brand names and product formulations. Ten minutes into them and I’m asleep.
But the same videos that work as my ersatz Ambien are, during daylight hours, anxiety fuel, a feast for the eyes that quickly curdles into a lump in the gut. I know there’s no logical reason for me to get stressed out because someone I’ll never meet has more makeup than she could possibly use in her lifetime even if she had 25 separate faces. And yet I can’t stop picturing the compounded volume of all these products. YouTube currently hosts more than 5 million videos devoted to makeup and beauty products, and whether they’re tutorials, reviews, or collection videos, they’re almost always product driven.
You don’t need to be a professional makeup artist to become a beauty influencer (or, in the parlance of YouTube, a “guru”); with time, charisma, and the ability to consistently showcase new products, you’ll find an audience. The relationship between a guru and her audience (there are well-known male and gender-nonconforming beauty gurus, but the majority are female) is almost exclusively about buying, testing, and recommending products. Look through the comments on any beauty vlogger’s channel and you’ll see request after pleading request: “Will you be buying [name of product]?” “Please do a review of [name of product]!” “I really want [name of product], but I need to see your review before I pull the trigger!” And the interplay between beauty guru and follower is further complicated when the triad is rounded out by beauty brands hungry for exposure and aware that, in an increasingly crowded market, they need influencers more than influencers need them.
So it was a relief to find an equally overwhelmed kindred spirit in Kimberly Clark, the anticonsumerist, feminist, drag YouTube beauty guru responsible for the rise of the “anti-haul” video. The alter ego of musician/dancer/choreographer Chris Giarmo, Clark has made her channel a space to both celebrate makeup and interrogate the beauty industry’s insidious hold on YouTube’s community of makeup artists and aficionados. From her name—a reference to the multinational corporation that owns Kleenex, Kotex, and other personal-care brands—to the bursts of song that begin her anti-haul videos, Clark has made a vivid impression on beauty-vlogger culture. After all, anyone can point out that the emperor has no clothes, but the observation resounds a lot more when it’s coming from someone who’s gone shopping with him.
Understanding anti-hauls requires rewinding to YouTube’s early days, when “haul” videos helped put the video-sharing site on the cultural map and establish it as a place for amateur creators to thrive. Haul videos are simple undertakings: Vloggers sit in front of a camera to unpack a shopping spree’s worth of purchases, holding each item up for inspection while providing a running commentary on prices, colors, and other details. Some of YouTube’s first breakout stars were haulers such as Blair and Elle Fowler and Bethany Mota, teens whose bubbly youth typified the platform’s straightforward directive—broadcast yourself—and set the tone for media coverage of the haul phenomenon.
Hauls had their antecedent in unboxing videos, a genre waggishly dubbed “nerd porn,” in which viewers could log on and watch the unpacking and setup process of computers, game consoles, and other gadgets. Haul videos built on that base of anticipatory voyeurism: The name itself suggests an unfettered, Carrie Bradshaw–esque decadence underscored by teaser images of overstuffed shopping bags from H&M and Hollister. Haul videos were certainly, at least initially, about displaying the fruits of disposable income, but their creators were mostly girls perusing Forever 21 and Bath & Body Works for bargains available to the average mall goer. And many of them quickly became de facto advisers to their subscribers, debating the merits of different trends, weighing in on the inconsistent sizing at different retailers, recording makeup tutorials alongside their hauls, and more.
It wasn’t long before both YouTube executives and beauty brands took note of haulers’ potential as ambassadors and word-of-mouth marketers. YouTube offered partnerships to popular vloggers, offering them a cut of the advertising revenues their videos generated; affiliate links gave them an incentive to recommend certain products to viewers by offering coupon codes; brands regularly plied the YouTubers with heaps of new products in the hopes that they’d offer rave reviews to their loyal subscribers; and self-styled beauty gurus such as Jaclyn Hill, Michelle Phan, and Jackie Aina parlayed their status as influencers into their own product lines.
By 2017, there were more than 88 billion beauty and makeup videos on YouTube (the number nearly doubled in 2018), and it was clear that the platform had reshaped the business of beauty. Legacy names such as Estée Lauder, upstart indies such as Makeup Geek, and drugstore standbys such as wet n wild all competed for the attention of online influencers and their subscribers, rebranding their goods to appeal to younger customers and introducing techniques and products that fans didn’t know they needed until their online faves hyped them. (I still don’t know what “baking” your foundation is, and I’m cool with that.) Brand after brand began releasing limited-edition collections and repackaged “holiday” versions of their existing products, then amped up the buzz around them with exclusive partnerships—releasing one holiday eye palette from Sephora and another from Ulta, for instance, was guaranteed to result in both selling out. Vloggers shilled a dizzying number of products with breathless hyperbole, and YouTube made money off all of it.
It was this increasingly frenzied ecosystem that self-professed beauty junkie Clark addressed in her first video, “What I’m Not Gonna Buy—Holiday 2015.” In a giant, teased-out brown wig and with a furrow between her drawn-on brows, she talked about reaching a “saturation point” with buying makeup, spoke of “virulent consumerism,” and mused, “Maybe we should put the brakes on.” Over the course of the 24-minute video, she dismissed everything from the glitter content of an eye-shadow palette (“If you’re gonna use glitter? Use glitter glue, put glitter on. Boom. Glitter!”) to packaging (“This brand just seems totally overpriced. I know the packaging is like really sleek and beautiful, but it ain’t made of gold. It’s fucking plastic painted gold!”) and gave a shout-out to Reverend Billy, the culture-jamming street performer who for more than 20 years has presided over an activist ministry called the Church of Stop Shopping.
As Clark made more anti-haul videos, a broader critique of capitalism and its entwinement with sexism, racism, and homo- and transphobia emerged; she eventually created a short video series called “Listen Up” as a brief primer on anticonsumerism, gender, and white privilege outside the context of beauty products. The impetus behind anti-hauling isn’t necessarily new. Pre-YouTube, the online community Makeup-Alley was a safe space for product junkies to confess their transgressions—say, getting sweet-talked into one more red lipstick they didn’t need, or falling for the seductive promise of an exorbitantly priced eye cream. Members cracked jokes about their addictions, asked others for help sticking to “no-buy” pledges, and organized makeup swaps. But even in forums where people were honest about their desire to stop buying products, the focus was generally on budgets and self-discipline, rather than on a larger ethos of anticonsumerism.
Clark and many of the YouTube anti-haulers she’s inspired dish about, say, the subpar quality of makeup collections rushed to market, but they also offer a more holistic look at the stark facts of capitalism and consumer psychology—the manufacturing of desire, the artificial scarcity of limited-edition products, the plague of FOMO. And, of course, the inflated importance of influencers. Abby Williamson, a Seattle-based vlogger whose channel features anti-hauls alongside more standard fare, recalls that she “fell down a rabbit hole” after finding Clark’s channel. “I think the rise of anti-hauls is a direct response to the way we’re constantly being sold to by influencers,” she says. This matters in particular because beauty channels’ subscriber base is young; when they watch their favorite YouTuber gassing up a slew of new products in every video, it’s likely that they aren’t using a media-savvy lens. In short, as YouTuber Georgia Harris put it, “This is a makeup disease.”
Before the advent of the internet, beauty products were ferried into women’s lives via women’s magazines, department-store counters, and how-tos like the Color Me Beautiful MakeUp Book. All of these deployed some measure of shame or insecurity to suggest that beauty products weren’t just fixes for uneven skin or stubby eyelashes, but for your social life, your job prospects, your happiness. In many ways, YouTube’s effect on beauty marketing feels like an improvement, a celebration of what’s fun and creative about makeup rather than a tedious daily slog toward a feminine imperative built on being white, thin, young, and blemish-free. But swapping “whatever you are will never be enough” for “whatever you have will never be enough” is a lateral move at best. Clark’s catchphrase—“I don’t need it, and I’m not gonna buy it”—feels applicable to consumerism as a way of life, a mantra-like defense against self-definition via branding.
Kimberly Clark’s catchphrase—“I don’t need it, and I’m not gonna buy it”—feels applicable to consumerism as a way of life, a mantra-like defense against self-definition via branding.
The problem, of course, is that “self-definition via branding” might as well be the slogan for much of beauty YouTube, particularly in the case of the influencers whose channels have become their jobs. Top influencers, whose subscribers can number in the millions, have to balance the interests of brand sponsors with the expectations of viewers who want to know that the $35 highlighter they’re saving for is worth it. An honest but negative review already carries the risk of getting a guru bounced from PR lists or blackballed by a brand, as Aina was after roasting Tarte for a new foundation line with a shamefully narrow shade range. As anti-hauls have gained traction, gurus such as Tati (more than 5 million subscribers) and Andréa Matillano (nearing 300,000 subscribers) approach the videos less as statements about interrogating or changing consumer habits than as a trending subgenre to dip a toe into.
In an intrinsically performative medium, it’s easy to tell when beauty gurus are faking the funk: One influencer ended her first anti-haul video by admitting that she’d likely talked herself into buying one of the things she’d just made a whole video about not buying; another perkily introduced her version by repeatedly saying that anti-hauls are “all in good fun”; yet another drawled “I love a bit of shade in the morning,” before dragging one particularly overhyped brand for 20 minutes.
Clark’s channel went on indefinite hiatus in early 2018 (Giarmo is currently on tour with David Byrne, as his show’s dance captain), and there’s a definite audience for vloggers who are serious about stepping into the giant wig-shaped void she left. Williamson notes, “It wasn’t until [Clark] wasn’t uploading regularly that I got such a huge positive response.” Lucia Tepper, who vlogs from her dorm room at Ithaca College, notes that even as YouTube’s biggest beauty names shill products, many others struggle with product fatigue: “People are exhausted [by] having to spend money to keep up with what’s next.”
The prospect of anti-hauls going mainstream seems unlikely at the moment. But the anti-haul ethos—buy less, rein in your FOMO, use what you have—has found its way into other beauty-video subgenres; for example, “project pans,” in which gurus down-shift from vlogging about new products to finishing existing ones, and self-explanatory “products I regret buying” roundups. Members of Reddit forums such as r/Anticonsumption and r/MakeupRehab regularly invoke Clark as a kind of guardian angel sassily guiding them to consumer literacy and renewed appreciation for what they already have and love. And I’m happy to report that a straightforward and even confrontational anti-haul can, in the best way, help me fall asleep.