On Wednesday night, I was honored to be a guest on CUNY TV’s Brian Lehrer Live, a weekly current events show filmed here in New York. I was there, along with Marisa Meltzer, the author of Girl Power: the Nineties Revolution in Music and Rob Walker, who writes the NYT’s “Consumed” column and is also the author of Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are. I was there to talk about the YouTube phenomenon that is the haul video. If you’ve never seen a haul video, it’s basically a person doing on camera what you usually do when you come back from a shopping trip: excitedly show what you’ve bought to anyone who’ll listen. Except in a haul video, you show it in front of your webcam and then post it on YouTube for an audience of thousands. Most haul videos are made by teenage girls, and most of the items been shown off are clothing or makeup, though a thorough browsing of the genre reveals that there are haul videos about a whole range of products, including groceries.
It was a really interesting discussion, one that touched on issues of consumerism, teenage belonging and self-identity and on the cultural emphasis placed on women’s beauty and the products we’re encouraged to buy to achieve it. As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about haul videos in the last few days, and I think there are a few noteworthy things going on here.
First, I think it’s important to note that these videos are predominately made by teenage girls, and that the vast majority of the money they’re spending is on clothes and on makeup. As I mentioned in the segment, the average American woman will spend over $20,000 on cosmetic products alone between the ages of 13 and 29. And that doesn’t include manicures, pedicures, haircuts or colorings – that’s just for makeup products. Once you add in those services and include other services like tanning and waxing, the number goes up over $40,000. Over the course of a lifetime, the average American woman will spend about $500,000 on making herself beautiful. Half a million dollars. That’s a studio apartment in New York. It’s two full rides to medical school. And while a lot of women never go tanning or get a pedicure, and while products and services obviously cost less depending on where you live, as well as a number of other factors, that’s still an enormous percentage of women’s collective earnings being spent on making ourselves beautiful. As I said on Wednesday night, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to spend their money, but I think it’s important to take a moment and imagine all the other things we could do with that money, and to carefully examine the reasons why we spend it on making ourselves beautiful.
I should clarify that I don’t think these women are buying these products because I think they’re vain or vapid. I think they’re buying them for the same reason we all do: this is what our culture tells us, as young women, that we should be spending our money on. We’re not told to invest it or give it to charity or spend it on more functional things – we’re told, every day, by mass media and advertising and even by fellow women, that we need to be beautiful and that we need to buy products to achieve that beauty. I should note that I don’t think that these women are vapid or vain for showing off their purchases in front of the camera for thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of strangers to see. As I said in the segment, I think they’re doing it because that’s how you get famous as a young woman in America. Kim Kardashian isn’t famous because she’s publicly intellectual; she’s famous because she’s public beautiful, publicly consumes things, and is willing to open up her private life for the camera and for public consumption. It’s no wonder, then, that these young women are emulating the only kinds of role women models that US Weekly and The Hills provide.
To be fair, there is a valid argument to be made here that building yourself a YouTube and Twitter following in the hundreds of thousands, simply by doing what you love and are good at in front of a camera, is something to be valued. Some people who make haul videos, like Lauren Lake in the UK, will be able to monetize and make a career for themselves out of those videos, and that’s fantastic. There’s definitely an argument to be made that buying these products can be a form of self-expression, and that these videos can be empowering for the young women who make them. And again, I’m in no position to tell anyone what is and isn’t empowering. But where are the young women doing book hauls or music hauls or, heaven forbid, sporting goods hauls? Where are where are the young men talking about their clothes and their hair products? Are those videos getting 600,000 views a piece? If this is indeed a form of self-expression or empowerment for young women, I think it’s no coincidence that the expression comes in the form of makeup and disposable fashion.
At the end of the day, the beauty industries and fashion industries – and soon, it seems, the haul video industry – are just that: industries. They’re not about making you the best you that you can be, or the prettiest or best-dressed you that you can be. They’re about selling you a need that, conveniently, they’re also able to fill – for a price. There is a real need for young women to find ways to express themselves and to feel empowered, but personally, I’m of the belief that self-expression and empowerment can’t be bought. You can’t put a price on them; that’s what makes them so precious.