This article appears in our 2017 Winter issue, Devotion. Subscribe today!
Lexie Lombard is a bright-eyed 21-year-old from Virginia with a trendy bob, oversize thrifted fur coats, and a cool Manhattan apartment. She just finished an internship with the indie makeup brand Milk Makeup and uploads the occasional “day in my life” vlog onto her YouTube channel, which has more than 430,000 subscribers. Her videos are a collage of interesting, quick-cut clips pieced together to create a brief yet intimate narrative.
In a vlog from late May 2017, she layers three- to five-second clips: her bright blue nails type at a computer, her professor assigns a write-your-own-eulogy project to her class, she rides her bike through NYC. Finally, she shares her outfit of the day (“OOTD,” in YouTube parlance) in her bedroom mirror: Adidas sweatpants, a t-shirt that reads “Powered by Pussy,” and pink fuzzy slides.
Lombard has been making YouTube videos since October 2009. When she first created her channel—and before Google bought the platform and allowed its users to change their display names—Lombard went by the handle beautyrush315. One of her earliest videos, which she’s since taken down, was “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You About Thongs.” (As a subscriber of hers when I first discovered YouTube, I remember when this video went up.) In it, a 15-year-old Lombard ranted about the horror of panty lines under leggings. In an anecdote about shopping with her mom, she spoke about a truth most girls learn in their early teens: Our bodies always run the risk of being sexualized. Lombard says, “A lot of people think that thongs are kind of controversial. Like, ‘Oh, you wear a thong? You’re a slut!’ So they don’t like to show it off. I don’t know—to me, it’s just a piece of cloth.”
For lots of girls who grew up in the early 2000s, the internet offered an appealing anonymity: Online journals, message boards, and video-hosting sites were places where they could share parts of themselves and their lives that they were instructed not to talk about elsewhere. That silence is implied even in Lombard’s video title: “What Your Mother Doesn’t Tell You….” Lombard was left on her own to figure out why thongs were considered an unacceptable undergarment for girls her age. But thongs are just the beginning. In the past decade, young women have been using YouTube to pass along advice on similarly confounding, “unacceptable” topics: dealing with their periods, choosing birth control, discovering their sexualities. In a current political
climate that aims to silence, shame, and control all aspects of young women’s reproductive health and choice through legislation, these intimate one-on-one videos are filling silent, crucial gaps.
Many of the young women alongside Lombard (some of whom are now among her closest friends) got their start during YouTube’s first wave, when vlogs dominated the young platform’s trending lists. Lombard and her friends, stationed all across the nation, juggled the work of moderating two separate channels: a main channel and a vlog channel. Main-channel videos focused primarily on content that cemented their status as “beauty gurus”: outfit-of-the-week videos, clothing hauls, and first impressions of new beauty products. Their second channels were devoted solely to vlogs where they filmed all aspects of their everyday lives: on campus, grocery shopping, out with friends.
As these beauty gurus grew older, their content matured as well. At the height of their main channels becoming empires of brand deals and sponsorships, they began tackling topics such as sex, relationships, and “story time” videos. The latter are characterized by the exaggerated, sometimes over-the-top tone a YouTuber uses to explain an otherwise pretty mundane story. It’s in these where young women push back against dominant cultural narratives around what girls “should” be doing, and in particular the expectation—put forth in Disney princess movies, teen magazines, and Bachelor episodes—that the key to personal fulfillment is a relationship. One of YouTube’s most notorious story-timers is Vanessa Gabriela, or SimplyNessa15; in a recent q&a that focused on the topic of relationships, she shared that when it comes to love, she’s taking it easy. “As of right now, I’m not really trying to talk to any boys, I’m not trying to talk to any girls. I’m trying to focus on myself, ʼcause before I try to focus on someone else, I need to try to fix me and really do me right now.”
The world of YouTube sees trends cycle in and out of the creator circuit. For a while, everyone was making diy slime tutorials, and Mukbang, or “eat with me” videos, where YouTubers would literally eat their meals, typically takeout, on camera while “chatting with their viewers.” One of YouTube’s hottest trends at the moment—made popular by rapid-fire, BuzzFeed-style cultural reporting—are period-hack videos. One video, by Aspyn Ovard, is titled “Period LIFE HACKS! Make Your Period EASIER!” In it, Ovard recommends doing yoga to alleviate cramps, staying away from salty foods to avoid bloating, and downloading (cue sponsorship) the Clue period-tracker app on your phone. Ovard’s last hack, however, she presents with hesitation. “This is the number-one thing that is, like, my top life hack, tip, trick—the thing that has helped me the most. And that is going on birth control. I don’t know if that’s bad to say, I’m just sayin’!” Ovard is aware that a majority of her viewers are tween and teen girls, and the messages she’s sending are being consumed instantly through phones and tablets, anywhere, at any time. Her hesitation, like Lombard’s, speaks to the resounding silence around reproductive health, a strange new realm that too many young girls are left to navigate on their own.
And then there are the YouTubers who go further in breaking down this silence. Meghan Hughes, a happy-go-lucky, good-vibes type of gal, has a video titled “THE SEX TALK I WISH I HAD,” in which she addresses masturbation—an activity that has historically been viewed as exclusively the realm of teen boys, and in many ways remains so. “So basically clitoral stimulation is the best thing in the entire world,” says Hughes. She urges her viewers that penetration alone won’t bring them the O, but then clarifies, “Who am I to say that there’s a right or wrong way to masturbate? All I’m trying to say here is that it feels good.” She also admits to watching porn “from time to time” since being shown her first porn video at the age of 9 by her childhood friend one day, a very typical introduction to the world of porn by curious young girls. This is perhaps an even more taboo subject than young women masturbating; she addresses this controversy by acknowledging that people have all kinds of opinions on porn, but the fact that she didn’t edit that bit out of her video shows that she’s committed to being open about her sexual interests.
Later in the video, she shares the “terrible and just bad” story of her first time having sex, which was utterly unsatisfying and awkward, as many first times tend to be. She urges her viewers to “be picky for a reason” because it’s important to actually like the people you have sexual relationships with. This seems like more realistic advice to be passing on to young women discovering their sexuality and propensity for being sexual with other people, rather than an abstinence-only talk that often yields more shaming language than it does actual information about abstinence.
These days, YouTube is nothing like it once was. Overtaken by the directives of monetization, the platform now intentionally creates celebrities and one-person empires out of regular people making videos in their bedrooms and basements. It’s become a training ground for young women seeking (or inadvertently falling into) careers as entrepreneurs in beauty, fashion, and social media. And for the menstrual-management industry, it’s also become a way to sell and promote products from tampons to apps through the millions of views generated through YouTube. Management agencies like StyleHaul, which represents more than 6,000 “creatives” online, connect ad agencies to their clients and launch advertising campaigns. On its website, StyleHaul promises to “bring the URL to IRL, uniting brands, creators, and the style obsessed.” And it does: StyleHaul’s audience has a 500-plus-million community reach, sees more than 2.2-plus-billion monthly views, and is 76 percent female and 74 percent millennial. The social reach of these content creators alone is comparable to major tv networks.
A monetized video is easy to spot. It typically has an ad playing before the video begins, or has ads dispersed throughout. YouTubers do have the option to demonetize their videos, which some opt to do when the topic at hand is sensitive (death, mental illness) and might feel inappropriate as a vehicle for ads. A video might also become demonetized if the content is flagged as inappropriate or insensitive, either by users or content moderators at YouTube headquarters.
YouTube began monetizing videos in 2007, when it launched its Partner Program, which involved giving select YouTube pages Adsense units. Adsense units are essentially ads that play while a video runs; the appeal to online advertisers comes in how clickable content might be. Case in point: the millions of teen and tween girls scouring YouTube high and low for fashion and beauty advice. Slowly but surely, teenage “beauty gurus” began to make videos announcing their induction into the partners program. While Ovard and Lombard might have very brand-friendly aesthetics and channels, YouTube has the right to remove their content if it’s deemed inappropriate, which it has done to some of their more mature content—including, of course, videos on sex. YouTube is often the main source of income for a lot of its more serious users; and women like these take big career risks by creating authentic content that reflects their lives, knowing that it might cost them the only paycheck they’ll receive that month. YouTube loves content on which it can easily capitalize for views and reve-nue: beauty hauls, shopping vlogs, anything that has potential to link YouTube itself with an outside company for promotional content. But when it comes to more complex content—which young women discussing sex certainly is—the platform isn’t nearly as interested in their ideas.
Some YouTubers have used this cost-per-click basis of payment to their advantage, and have taken an interesting turn in creating sex-positive content. In Breland Kent’s (GlitterForever17) video, “25 Period Life Hacks For Back to School: Period Phone Case, Tampon Baby Lips, diy Menstrual Cup Rug!” Kent transforms her home studio into a high-school hallway and portrays a nervous freshmen on the first day back to school while on her period. Unlike Ovard and Lombard, her tips are less on the self-soothing side and teeter on shaming the young menstruating person: hiding a tampon in an empty hairspray bottle, keeping an air deodorizer with you after using the bathroom, scenting your pads with lavender oil. In an especially horrendous video titled “10 SMELLY VAGINA HACKS! How to Smell Fresh ‘Down There’!” Kent lists off 20 alternate names for your “down there area”: “conchzilla,” “fermented mermaid tail,” and, probably most disturbing, “rigor-mortis penis coffin.” The juvenile language Kent uses to describe vaginas and their natural processes is reminiscent of the once-ubiquitous “Confessions” pages in teen magazines where girls shared mortifying experiences of bleeding through white pants, accidentally dropping tampons in front of crushes, and other expressions of the idea that girls should be sexy without the embarrassment of actually inhabiting imperfect bodies.
And just as such print stories ran conveniently across from ads for pads, tampons, or pain relievers, Kent’s crude videos are a vehicle for making money. Smack dab in the middle of her video, she quickly drops in a small promotion for her fan merchandise, and lists a link in the description box. With attention-grabbing video titles and a subscriber base of 3 million, Kent is peddling—and profiting from—both misinformation and shaming language.
The power of YouTube is in the numbers. With so many young girls watching thousands of videos a day, and even uploading their own content using iPhone cameras, a new avenue of sex education is on the rise. It’s difficult to open up to healthcare practitioners for fear of shame or ostracization, especially if a parent is in the room. Pop culture has produced some of the most regressive and sexist representations of everything surrounding sex, from individual acts to the very concept of desire; often, young women aren’t sure what to expect from their menstrual periods, their first time having sex, and everything in between. When one of your favorite YouTubers—someone you trust for makeup advice and who you follow on all platforms of social media—starts to share her own experiences with you, you feel as if you’re talking to your older sister’s cool friend. Perhaps lawmakers can take a cue from some of the internet’s most famous YouTubers, and start implementing legislation that allows women to experience the fullness of their reproductive health, rather than slamming it down with a fistful of silence.