I watched a makeup tutorial the other day. The girl pulled out a primer she admitted she had never used before — “Mm, smells so good” — dabbed on some foundation, concealer, a touch of eye shadow, and mascara. Every product was either “amazing” or something she was “in love with.” The end result: her skin looked a bit more airbrushed and her eyelashes a bit thicker, nothing that a makeup virgin like me couldn’t have learned by skimming the back of a makeup product package. So why had over 400,000 people watched this YouTube video?

The girl I watched and other teenage beauty YouTubers, including Summer McKeen, Chelsea Crockett, Maddi Bragg, and Amanda Steele, are probably unfamiliar to anyone who is not one of the millions who subscribe to them on YouTube. Collectively, however, they and their adult counterparts hoard a growing influence over makeup, hair, and fashion trends as well as approaches to body image, relationships, and career choices.

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Either you recognize all of these people or you’re wondering why they’re all staring at you like that

They post videos — often filmed in their home and feature a cute dog that they totally did not plan to randomly interrupt them — of makeup tutorials, clothing hauls, DIY projects, outfit “lookbooks,” morning routines, night routines, after-school routines, weekend morning routines… Occasionally, they branch out and post comedy sketches or boyfriend tags, depending on what their viewers request or what they personally enjoy. A Pixability study published in 2015 revealed that these beauty channels have racked up over 45.3 billion views, published 1.8 million videos, and garnered 170 million Facebook shares — numbers that have likely exploded in the last year.

The cream of the crop, the girls who use high-quality cameras and attract hundreds of thousands of followers, inadvertently become the idols of females around the world. Their viewers follow them on Twitter, like their Instagram pictures, and open every Snapchat, lusting over the details of their daily lives and their advice on everything from boys to bullying.

Sponsor? What sponsor?

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I may or may not have been one of those females, I confess. In middle school, I had a phase over summer break where I would spend literally hours watching morning routine after morning routine and every “Locker Essentials EVERY Girl Needs!” video that you could imagine. Growing up with Chinese parents, I was mesmerized by how typical American girls spent their mornings (smoothies for breakfast?!). More inexplicably, I watched way too many amateur makeup tutorials by white girls when I didn’t own any makeup, didn’t want to wear makeup, and didn’t boast over a millimeter of eyelid space.

I wanted to get to the bottom of why I spent hundreds of hours of my tween-hood watching other girls powder their faces instead of, say, training to become a ping-pong champion who gets interviewed on ELLEN. Even more, I wanted to know why millions of other girls (plus some guys!) have been similarly sucked into this corner of the internet. What did these amateur “beauty gurus” — who share weight loss tips pulled from WikiHow articles and encourage the use of colored pencils as eyeliner – offer that was so important to us?

So, behold the coming-of-age story you never wanted to hear, told through a short list of unscientific explanations of my YouTube obsession. As The New York Times called it, “Weird, and vaguely depressing.”

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They were nothing like me

I had invested myself in the beauty community at the tail end of eighth grade as a scared girl about to enter high school. Knowing this was my best chance to rebrand myself as a new-and-improved genius/social butterfly/kind person who only has good things happen to her, I was hooked by the temptation of learning these girls’ secrets. They led such different lives from mine: they spritzed on perfume every morning and never stayed up late doing homework, unless they’d been partying at a bar mitzvah or something, and put things like Moroccan oil in their hair. I — and I suspect many others — mainly desired to look happy on the outside like they always did.

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I know you’re hiding your inner turmoil beneath that happy facade

In middle school, I felt like everyone was maturing faster than me: other girls were wearing makeup, dressing nicely, and always smelling like sugar cookies. My parents grew up in such a different world than I did, so they reasonably couldn’t understand why getting skinny jeans instead of bootcut was so important to me. I felt the urge to keep up with my peers, to not stand out in any way I didn’t have to. So I turned to YouTube to learn the ins and outs of what I thought “being a girl” meant.

I just wanted to know things, like which body lotion turns your skin into airbrushed smoothness, how to get long eyelashes naturally, and how skinny girls exercised. Things that I felt like everyone except me already knew. (Hint: it rhymes with “schmenetics.”) As I got deeper into YouTube, watching more and more morning routines and hair/makeup/outfit videos, I kept clicking the “subscribe” button. I watched girls put on makeup even though I had completely different facial features and refused to touch that stuff. I learned about backpack essentials and skin-care routines. And I also realized that I was supposed to wear deodorant every day, about two years too late.

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One takeaway I got was that it’s very important to light a candle as you get ready for bed.

Sure, it was extraordinarily superficial. The beauty gurus marketed themselves as it-girls, and I and hundreds of thousands of others played right into their hands. I eventually grew out of my obsession with becoming my best outward self and weaned off the beauty channels. They did change my life, though, in a good way, I think — I learned how to become a more put-together, confident girl, and I can scale myself to fit whatever I’m comfortable with.

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They were authentic

There was a legitimate Variety survey in 2014 that showed that YouTube stars were more popular among teens than mainstream celebs like Jennifer Lawrence and Betty White. Betty White!

One reason is because they are not reined in by their publicists or contracts. According to the Variety article, “Teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros…They appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.”

The person who conducted the study commented, “If YouTube stars are swallowed by Hollywood, they are in danger of becoming less authentic versions of themselves, and teenagers will be able to pick up on that. That could take away the one thing that makes YouTube stars so appealing.”

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It’s true — behind the makeup brushes and clothing deals, the beauty gurus I subscribed to injected a surprising amount of fun and personal glimpses of their lives into their videos. They can create whatever they want, talk about whatever they want, and they would share it all with me like a one-sided friendship.

TV shows and movies rarely spotlight teenage girls. And when they do, they’re fictitious characters written by adults, and the actresses are too old and far too glamorous. There really wasn’t any other way I could get to know a cool eighteen-year-old who lives in LA or a hilarious thirteen-year-old from Britain besides following their YouTube channels. Like reading books, watching their 50-facts-about-me videos and “chit-chat” makeup routines showed me worlds I didn’t know existed and introduced me to types of people I would normally never get to know.

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Lori Loughlin’s (actual) daughter, for instance.

Seventeen-year-old Amanda Steele, who has 2.9 million subscribers, was one of the girls I enjoyed watching purely to learn about her lifestyle. When she started to produce more professional quality videos, clearly shot on a set by a film crew, I unsubscribed to her. She wasn’t authentic to me anymore. It felt like I was watching a commercial.

For a few months, her videos in this new style received visibly more dislikes and comments from people expressing how they “missed the old Amanda,” who would sit in her house and film herself with one camera. Steele then posted a grainy video titled, “THE OLD AMANDA IS DEAD” where she explained how she felt pressured to take a new direction with her channel that didn’t feel authentic and that she’d go back to making videos the way she enjoys. She reverted to a single-camera format, the same one Zoella (11.5 million subscribers), Carli Bybel (5 million), Ingrid Nilsen (4 million), and most other successful beauty YouTubers use to speak directly and honestly to their viewers.

I and the 400,000 who clicked on the earlier video weren’t actually looking for makeup artists at the top of their field who could give us professionally-recorded beauty advice. We were looking for a community, for people we can relate to and keep coming back to, for an escape from the awkwardness of social life, without being alone.

They were just like me

Successful beauty YouTubers sometimes seem to be living perfect, completely unrelatable lives. They’re rich, they live in beautiful homes, they’re adored by hundreds of thousands of fans, they get invited to beauty conferences and fashion shows, they’re beautiful, they get paid by corporations to tell people how good their eye creams smell. For some, though, I was able to see that they faced the same struggles that I did — and maybe worse.

Something about watching these girls sit down in their rooms with their bare faces at the beginning of the makeup tutorial — some with acne, others with perfect skin — made me feel connected to them, even once they finished applying their makeup. I didn’t want to wear makeup, but I was still insecure about my looks. Getting a behind-the-scenes look at how other girls prepped their faces, like watching a celebrity get ready for a photoshoot, made me feel less insecure about my own appearance because I didn’t have to compare myself to them.

A few gurus even openly discuss their insecurities and how they overcame them. Cassandra Bankson’s 2010 video on her acne foundation routine is particularly memorable.

Even though she’s a model, she wasn’t immune to aggressive acne. When she shows her bare skin on camera for the first time, she admits, “This is possibly the most nerve-wracking thing I could possibly do.” Major cliché warning, but it was the first time I realized that even if someone looks like they popped out of the womb drop-dead gorgeous, they still wrestle with their self-image like the rest of us.

And it wasn’t just about their appearances: many beauty YouTubers I watched would share how they dealt with issues like bullying and unrequited crushes, and in some cases, rape or the loss of a family member. There was a trend of “Draw My Life” videos a few years back, and I haven’t forgotten Michelle Phan’s. With over 1.1 billion total hits, she is the most-viewed beauty YouTuber and a highly successful entrepreneur at 29 years old. Even though she has an enviable life now, I teared up when I heard her share her struggles growing up.

I started watching these girls because they seemed to be straight from a shampoo commercial: flawless, free of worries, hair with 10% less breakage*. I kept watching because I saw that this wasn’t true. They were just some amazing, funny people who followed their passions.

These channels may seem a little vapid or pointless. But they did teach me how to take care of myself, and their encouraging, friendly atmosphere helped me find my footing in my early teenage years. I enjoyed the representation, in a way — YouTube was the one place our adolescent perspectives could join together and be heard across the world.

Ironically, indulging in so many makeup videos might have caused me to never want to wear makeup in my life (too much time that could be spent watching TV and money that could be spent on food). I still enjoy clicking on random question-and-answer videos and listening to them while I’m getting ready to go to bed, sometimes. They make me feel less alone, less like I’m barely keeping my head above the water. (Shoot, New York Times, you were right.) No matter where I find myself in life, I know my digital gurus will always be there with some words of wisdom — or at least a good nail polish recommendation.

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