How YouTubers Like Zoella Capitalize On The Self-Care Movement


As popular YouTubers like Zoella and Ingrid Nilsen expand
into mental health videos, it’s increasingly difficult to
tell whether we’re watching a video diary or an ad.

Posted on August 23, 2017, 15:07 GMT

Laura Breiling for BuzzFeed News

Trendy copper fairy lights hover just out of focus
behind Zoe Sugg (known on her YouTube channel as Zoella), who
sits perched on a smooth white duvet, her hair settled in
immaculate blonde waves. She smiles at the camera and greets
the audience with a friendly, conspiratorial “Hello
everybody! Today, I wanted to do something a little bit
different.” It’s as though the viewer is an old friend who
has settled in for another chat in her warmly lit bedroom.

The intimate venue belies the reach of Zoella’s audience. The
British YouTube star has a subscriber count of nearly 12
million, while videos like this bring in more than a million
views. Her monthly earnings are said to hover around £50,000. But in this particular video she
isn’t doing her usual makeup tutorial or clothing haul — the kind of content that
brought her fame and considerable fortune. Today Sugg wants
to talk about “ways that people de-stress, or just kind of
switch off and have a little bit of me time.” For the next 15
minutes, she happily ruminates on the importance of “winding
down” and offers suggestions for doing so. These include
investing in new bedding and “buying cute little home
finishes,” that makes her “feel happy and relaxed and just
very content.” She also recommends candles — and shares a
link to her own Zoella Lifestyle branded candle line. Writing
things down also helps, she says, and on cue there’s a
cutaway shot to Sugg picking up her Zoella Lifestyle writing
journal. And as for a restful sleep, Sugg recommends the This
Works pillow spray to help you drift off.

In a booming beauty vlogger industry, videos like Zoella’s
“Winding Down & Mindful Minutes”
capitalize on a growing interest in mental health and
heightened emotional literacy. What is especially notable,
however, is how these videos intersect with young female
YouTubers’ commercial interests and business ventures: Their
channels are incredibly lucrative and often bankrolled by
corporate partnerships. These self-made beauty gurus have
seamlessly linked their entrepreneurial savvy with the newest
trend: self-care.

These self-made beauty gurus have seamlessly linked their
entrepreneurial savvy with the newest trend: self-care.

So, just as a young viewer might look to YouTube for advice
on perfect eyeshadow application, they might now watch a
video on how best to deal with their burgeoning anxiety
disorder. But while these gurus might have mastered the art
of the smoky eye, it’s not clear whether they’re actually
equipped to offer expert advice on mental health. A quick
perusal of YouTube’s more popular beauty vloggers’ channels
finds a shift toward this content, such as
beauty-cum-lifestyle guru Ingrid Nilsen’s “How I Get Ready on a Bad Day.” In the
video, Ingrid, with a tearful voice and blank eyes, tells the
viewer she is truly having a bad day today: “On days like
today, it can be really hard to just get out of bed,” but
that doing hair and makeup “allows me to invest time in
myself … Just doing something as small as putting hair powder
on my hair makes me feel … a little better.”

As Nilsen runs through the myriad products in her “routine,”
links to purchase are listed in the description box below the
video. And hidden away in the last line of the description is
this note: “Thank you so much to my friends at bareMinerals
for sponsoring this video.” A collaboration between YouTubers
Arden Rose and Estée Lalonde entitled “De-Stress and Anti-Anxiety Routine”
focuses on face masks and bubble baths as antidotes to
chronic stress. And in “My Evening Routine to De-Stress,” Niomi
Smart opines, “Sometimes life just gets so busy and crazy …
and before you know it you haven’t given yourself any time to
yourself. And it’s so important to recharge and
de-stress.” Her recommendation, other than cooking, cleaning,
and yoga? A pamper session with Burt’s Bees skin care —
indeed, the video is sponsored by the skin care corporation,
and discreetly marked “AD.”

Many of these videos follow a similar pattern: YouTuber
reveals her hidden struggles with anxiety, or stress burnout,
and suggests a routine to the viewer to combat this struggle
in day-to-day life — with recommended products to purchase.
Many gurus make their money off of YouTube through brand
deals and collaborations, product placement, in-video
advertisements, and affiliate links (e.g., YouTuber
recommends a product, then places a link to the product in
the video description box, and then makes money off of all
the clicks).

screenshot / Via YouTube

A screenshot of Zoe “Zoella” Sugg in a YouTube video.

It might be overly cynical to suggest that vloggers
have simply found in the mental health advocacy phenomenon
another avenue through which to peddle products. Perhaps
young female media creators, formerly relegated to the domain
of makeup and clothes, want to stretch the boundaries of what
they can talk about online. And naturally they want to do
this while still earning money and forming lucrative
corporate partnerships. (None of the YouTubers BuzzFeed News
reached out to were available for comment on this story.) But
regardless of intent, the lines have become blurred over
what, exactly, the audience is to assume they are watching.
Is this a commercial, a tutorial, an honest analysis of
products, or simply a video diary of a girl talking to her
fanbase?

The reaction from viewers of these videos is decidedly mixed.
While there is a strong demand from the audience for fresh
content that feels genuine, many viewers are reluctant to see
themselves as mere consumers in this relationship. Those who
have watched YouTubers for years develop a unique sense of
affection for and personal investment in these personalities,
which helps guard them against some criticism. It’s a
connection that YouTube gurus have carefully cultivated.

And so, when advertorials are presented not only as brand
reviews but as stories that connect to the YouTuber’s
real-life issues, it can provoke strong but conflicting
feelings in the audience. Nilsen’s aforementioned “How I Get
Ready on a Bad Day” video was met with criticism in the
comments section by a viewer who saw it as a disingenuous
play for money. “As if when you’re going through a hard time
or have depression all you need to do is spend money at
bareMinerals. … Gross emotional exploitation at its finest.”
Yet those who came to Ingrid’s defense were invested in her
personal story and defensive of her right to monetize. As one
reply reads: “Makes me sick to see that ‘her own fan’ sends a
mean comment to her when she’s having a bad day. So what if
it’s sponsored?”

screenshot / Via YouTube

A screenshot Ingrid Nilsen in a YouTube video

Longtime viewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this
story were all quick to point out that brand deals were a
legitimate way for young women to make a career from YouTube.
Kate Hughes, 28, a communications coordinator from Ontario,
Canada, who has watched YouTube tutorials from numerous gurus
for about five years, says “I naturally have my guard up when
I see a video is sponsored,” but she still maintains a belief
in its inherent honesty. “I would hope they would only do so
for brands [and] products which they believe in and use
themselves,” she says. Hughes believes a good YouTuber can
provide an “expert” opinion on a product to an audience
seeking their particular makeup savvy — something that a
simple commercial cannot do. The discussion of personal and
social issues is a good thing, she contends, as gurus have a
wide network of viewers who can benefit from honest advice.

Abby (who asked for her last name not to be published), 15,
from Toronto, agrees: She is an avid fan of Zoella in
particular, whom she credits as a “strong female role model”
for her discussion of anxiety and mental health. What Abby
most appreciates in YouTubers are those “who aren’t afraid to
really be themselves… REAL people… who try to help
others.” For Abby, who has watched YouTube with friends since
her preteen years, it is when YouTubers become “fake …
unoriginal, and boring” that they are no longer worth
watching. She mentions Bethany Mota, a guru who professed
self-acceptance to her fans but would then, Abby believes,
photoshop herself in her own photos. (Mota did not respond to
BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.) Abby prefers intimate
glimpses into real life.

Viewer Ashley Chew, 19, a student from Singapore, allows that
sponsored content is inevitable in that gurus “need to make a
living after all” — but she does not share other viewers’
opinions about YouTubers’ inherent genuineness. Chew has
noticed a rise in personal and mental health–based content
and believes it’s partly a “marketing strategy” to earn
money, one exploited by those who she feels aim to make money
by playing up the idea of a personal relationship with their
audience. When it comes to paid-for product placement, the
videos she doesn’t like are the ones “that are fixated on
advertising throughout.”

Indeed, a common refrain among viewers is that advertising in
videos is reasonable as long as it’s not too overt — if the
content and YouTuber still seem real enough. Thus, selling
things through videos can be acceptable as long as the guru
can still sell herself as genuine to an audience that demands
sincerity. Offering personal, intimate stories to promote
products allows them to maintain a “real girl” image while
obscuring outright financial ambition.

Is this a commercial, a tutorial, an honest analysis of
products, or simply a video diary of a girl talking to her
fanbase?

The interest in this content from young women speaks to what
scholars of girls’ studies and youth behavior have dubbed a
“bedroom culture” — that is, a recognition of the private
spaces and networks in which girls create their own
sociocultural norms. Girls’ studies scholars Angela McRobbie
and Jenny Garber use the notion to explain seemingly
insignificant practices among young women (talking about
makeup, learning about clothes, even just gossiping) as
“alternative ways of organizing their cultural life.” And
they assert that the goal is “to gain private and accessible
space. This in turn allows … girls to remain seemingly
inscrutable to the outside world.” The popular YouTube beauty
subjects (how to apply a bright lipstick properly, for
example) also carry the unspoken “this is just between us
girls” connotation, and with it an implicit trust. The more
open and honest a girl gets on YouTube, then surely the more
trustworthy and “real” she must be.

Several years ago, a predilection among YouTube gurus for TMI
videos, about anything from period stories to pubic hair
preferences, foreshadowed this move toward videos that offer
intimacy rather than straight beauty tips. The typical TMI
video vacillates between these two sentiments: “We shouldn’t
be speaking of this,” and “Shouldn’t everyone be speaking of
this?” It affirms both the secrecy and universality of their
private experience.

And just as videos expressing intimacy and vulnerability grew
in popularity, so did a broader pop cultural movement
centered around mental wellness and emotional literacy. Much
of that trend involves or encourages commercial consumption —
think GOOP-brand health innovations and the emerging
“self-care” industry in the form of meditation apps, wellness
retreats, and even self-care kits for purchase. It was easy
for YouTube to cotton on, especially young women vloggers. A
YouTuber who had already opened up about shaving her bikini
line, for instance, could pretty naturally transition into
talking about her spells of depression.

This new focus on the more real, intimate side of girlhood
has been largely rewarded by viewers and corporate partners
alike. But what makes young women in particular so poised to
take up this conversation, and ultimately profit from the
interest of their (largely female) audience? For one,
demonstrating high levels of personal and emotional
intelligence is a prerequisite for being an idealized vision
of a successful young woman. Many of these emerging
trends in pop culture — yes, even in niche YouTube videos —
indicate society’s intense interest in women developing a
heightened awareness of the self. Feminist theory has
long held that women practice self-surveillance (and
therefore self-discipline) because of the immense pressures
they face. From the expectation that girls know their
specific body “type” (curvy on top! petite! pear-shaped!) to
find the ideal jeans fit, to the myriad wellness and
self-help circuits that focus on turning inward to find
healing, to the health and diet fads that are rooted in
self-diagnosis and self-treatment, girls and women are
believed to find success through knowing and monitoring
themselves intensely. The question is, if more and more gurus
are turning inward, seemingly more interested in taking care
of the self, then how do they continue to encourage other
people to buy products that are largely focused on outward
appearance?

A YouTuber who had already opened up about shaving her bikini
line could naturally transition into talking about her spells
of depression.

That’s where their established position as beauty experts
comes into play. Buying products is one thing — but buying
the right products signifies self-knowledge and the
ability to care for oneself. Retail spending is blended with
political and social freedom, something girls’ studies
scholar Anita Harris calls a “linking of neoliberal
ideologies about individual choice with a distorted kind of
feminism.” Girls’ ability to make purchases is often seen as
empowering, in its display of personal wealth amassed and its
demonstration of knowing oneself best. The young women on
YouTube have deftly manipulated this ethic to their
advantage. There are only so many videos one can make about
eyeshadow palettes or bubble bath before finding a new
narrative through which to talk about them.

Interestingly, when YouTube success story Michelle Phan
recently reappeared after a long hiatus from her makeup
channel and multimillion-dollar offshoot cosmetics business,
she reintroduced herself through an 11-minute animated
video entitled “Why I Left” (which has
over 8 million views and counting). Phan ruminates on the
destructive nature of her YouTube-earned fame and the
realization that money doesn’t buy happiness; she hints at a
subsequent struggle with depression. But she has found
herself again, she claims, and in the last few moments of the
video her soft voice suggests a sudden, exciting awakening:
“So what do I wanna do next?” she whispers. “Back then, I was
just someone who was showing you how to look more beautiful.
Now, I want to show you how to feel more beautiful.”
With that, the logo for her new vegan beauty company flashes
onscreen. Among the supportive, sympathetic, and adoring
comments from viewers is one that simply reads, “Did I just
watch an ad?”

screenshot / Via YouTube

Screenshot of Michelle Phan’s “Why I Left” video.

A similar conceit runs through Nilsen’s video “How to Be Authentic + Stay True to
Yourself.” With a background of tinkling piano music
interspersed with artfully faded ocean and beach shots,
Nilsen talks about how the viewer needs to “let go of who you
think you should be and step into who you really
are.
” She implores the viewer to ask themselves some key
questions, such as “What makes you feel alive? It can be
something as small as planting a garden.” But then, about
halfway into the video, she suddenly, yet seamlessly, changes
tack. “Doing this daily work in pursuit of your most
authentic self is really difficult, but the biggest privilege
… is to be who you really are.” She smiles. “And that’s why
I’m so excited to announce a jewelry collection that I’ve
been doing with Mejuri.”

It turns out that young women on YouTube have been able to do
what advertisers and corporations have long attempted:
commercialize the intimate aspects of being a girl, reach
into their bedrooms, and speak to them as friends, not
marketers. And now these beauty YouTubers are seamlessly
adapting to new psychosocial trends, taking part in the
emerging politics of the self. As mental wellness and mental
health are talked about more than ever before, YouTubers are
at the forefront of the discussion, ready to talk about the
stress epidemic with just the right bubble bath
recommendation. What’s more, they’ll convince you that buying
it enriches your authentic self — and not their bank
accounts.

Victoria Sands is a writer from Toronto.

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