Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
In 2002, while filming a tour documentary in Mexico City, Britney Spears got ready. A clip from that film, uploaded to YouTube in 2009 and titled “Britney Spears wakes up,” shows a then-20-year-old Britney as she drinks tea in bed, opens her curtains with a flourish, then pads over to the bathroom, tiny shirt knotted at her perfect belly.
With a camera trained on her face, she applies her makeup: BB cream to the nose, mascara to the lashes, shadow to the eyelids, and kohl to the waterline. Britney is confident in her methods and beautiful enough for us to presume that her life is perfect here: She’s a proto-beauty guru.
The clip is aspirational and utopic above all else, not dissimilar to the thousands of “Get Ready with Me” (GRWM) videos currently scattered across YouTube and Instagram. Pretty, thin, blonde, white, and influential, Britney’s femininity seems so un-tortured you want to emulate her. You might buy her perfume (you probably did) or spend hours studying pictures of her — anything to gain momentary access to the joy of her conventional beauty.
For the uninitiated, the premise of the contemporary “Get Ready with Me” video as pioneered by Britney is this: A woman walks you through her morning skincare and beauty routine, listing and demonstrating the products she uses to become beautiful, or merely presentable, to the world. These videos wrangle a rapt and large audience. The search term “get ready with me” yields over 44 million results on YouTube, while its acronymic hashtag, #GRWM, produces 78,000 Instagram posts.
Today, both professional and nonprofessional beauty “experts” abound, but, for a group of women born in the 1980s and ’90s, it all started with Britney.
Like many girls around my age, I’ve thought about Britney Spears for as long as I’ve wondered whether I’m pretty or not. Maybe those two things exist on a linear spectrum of cause and effect; maybe they don’t. The fact is, she once represented the pinnacle of beauty for a microgeneration. Her ubiquity; constant proximity to drool-y male attention; and thinness, blondness, and whiteness made her ripe for this kind of projection. Even though most of us would never fulfill all or even any of the beauty standards that she did, we wanted to be her.
I often wondered about the mechanics of Britney’s beauty when I was little. How did her stomach remain so taut? Her lips stay so frosted? The internet didn’t exist as it does now (I was also a poreless baby), so there wasn’t a whole lot to go off of with respect to her beauty routine. I assumed that her looks were “natural” or that perhaps she was just lucky. Neither were true.
While watching Britney Spears — a pop star on whose face and body millions of dollars and dreams hung — get ready is one thing, one wonders why something as mundane as a layperson’s morning routine might interest the people who devour GRWMs in droves.
It’s likely the same reason why anything happens these days, which is social media. Hack and hokey as it sounds, Instagram teaches and forces us to market ourselves in the same way that a celebrity like Britney might’ve done 15 years ago. We disseminate our own images via Snapchat (or Instagram Stories, if you’re not afraid of change) all day in the same way paparazzi agencies used to do to famous women, beholden to the camera with a relentlessness once reserved for public figures.
Dr. Renee Engeln, a Northwestern University psychology professor, focuses her research on how cultural practices negatively impact women’s conception of self, most recently with her book Beauty Sick.
“It used to be only celebrities who had to worry about how they looked every time they stepped out the door. They never knew who might take a photo of them and make it public,” Engeln says. “Now that burden has trickled down to the rest of us. Women face pressure to present the same perfected type of look we associate with models and celebrities and to post images of that look on their social media feeds. We see the same tricks that used to be limited to celebrity photos — airbrushing, retouching, special lighting — now used by girls as young as 10.”
As a symptom of the public nature of our existence, I am acutely aware of what my friends and acquaintances, even the ones I haven’t seen in years, look like. I don’t look for inspiration in the pages of People, but on my Instagram feed, filled with my friends and semi-anonymous makeup vloggers whose beauty secrets I crave.
“There’s nothing wrong with being curious about other people’s beauty routines,” Engeln says. “But our culture already places so many appearance-related pressures on women. [GRWM content] just adds to that pressure.”
Though we’re all too happy to share our tips and recommendations, the act of publicly laying out one’s beauty routine, as one does in a GRWM video or in an IG post of one’s beauty cabinet (a #shelfie), is more performative than prescriptive. It’s not so much about looking great as it is about affirming to others, but mostly ourselves, that our serums, toners, foundations, etc., give us the power to control the way the world sees us — even as there are ever more outlets for us to feel constant shame (and occasional delight) about the way we look. We try to convince ourselves that we’ve cracked some merciful formula in which our best intentions are rewarded in a way that’s proportionate to our effort.
“Get Ready with Me” videos appeal to this cocktail of fear, hope, and dread. The name alone — get ready — connotes some sort of armor. Echoing this defensive undertone, Glossier founder Emily Weiss (whose own GRWM singlehandedly convinced me of the virtue of hot lemon water, but that’s my problem), says that “beauty routines, morning and night, are a personal reflection of how you get ready to take on the world.”
The phrase “get[ting] ready to take on the world” offers a sense of finality and assuredness about one’s methods, but our bodies, skin, and needs change so frequently that we constantly fight against our own beauty secrets’ obsolescence. We can hardly commit to a morning moisturizer for more than a few months or keep powder on our noses long enough to make it to Starbucks. We’re constantly sent back to square one, and the labor of getting ready and defending ourselves against criticism, time, and front-facing cameras never truly ends.
It’s not just the threat of a suddenly faulty routine or immediately diminishing results that scares some of us, but a sense that we are resisting what we tacitly know to be true: that 1) the products we use are negligibly effective when pitted against our own biology and that 2) there’s no getting around eventually not being beautiful, of having one’s own 2007 Britney moment.
To watch a clip like the one mentioned above — of Britney preparing her perfect face and body for the world — is to wince at the memory of the five years that followed it and unraveled the myth of Britney’s preternatural perfection.
By 2007, Britney had divorced twice, had two children in rapid succession, and become the inverse of the white/blonde/thin beauty standard over which she’d once presided. She shaved her head, was deemed “white trash” (read: closer to blackness), and developed a bit of fat on her body (a sin in the mid-aughts gossip landscape). The face and body that had helped make Spears millions (Diane Sawyer once referred to her abs as the “most valuable square inch of real estate in the entertainment universe”) suddenly signified poor impulse control and decay instead of, say, the reality of having children, grieving, eating, and/or being a human.
“There is this really pernicious desire and belief that women's bodies are beautiful and perfect unless [a woman has] committed some egregious lifestyle error rather than acknowledging that perfection is extremely difficult to maintain for years on end,” says author Alana Massey, whose book, All the Lives I Want, dedicates a chapter to examining public perception of Spears. “We can’t accept that women who look ‘imperfect’ are doing nothing egregious.”
Watching Britney publicly unspool 10 years ago was an exercise in anxiety for anyone beholden to the flimsy hope that we might all escape the inevitable “ugly” excesses of womanhood: the “bad” and unwanted hair, the dark circles, the puffiness, the fat.
Thirteen and pubescent at that time, my friends and I saw Britney’s lost beauty as a cautionary tale, a fate that could be avoided if we learned how to weaponize and perfect our own developing beauty routines before biology could think to betray us. The week following Britney’s infamous 2007 VMAs performance, we spent an afternoon sitting in the magazine section of Barnes & Noble, reading every cover story about how and why this woman failed in ways we hoped we wouldn’t.
Though the media’s treatment of Britney and famous women like her has softened since the absurd cruelty of Perez Hilton’s heyday, we still cling to the fantasies that feed our expectations of pristine beauty from female celebrities and, of course, ourselves.
The need to put a finger on the habits that make or break a woman’s attractiveness endures. It’s what makes watching 2002 Britney get ready in the morning feel as fascinating as it does sad as it does hopeless and precarious — the knowledge that this physically flawless woman’s efforts (hardly fully encapsulated by a makeup routine) were never going to be enough.
It’s a crushing reminder of the futility of everything the “Get Ready With Me” video promises — control, escape from the ravages of time and iPhones — yet, even when I call bullshit on the practice, I watch these videos with equal parts ambivalence, enjoyment, and pride for the women who find purpose in a task as Sisyphean as remaining presentable.
While Zadie Smith bemoaned the hours women and girls lose to the kinds of beauty regimens performed in something like a “Get Ready with Me” video, the reality is that “natural” beauty has never served more than a small slice of women — the thin and pretty and mostly white — or assuaged our most deeply ingrained fears of a racist, misogynistic, and image-obsessed world.
But beauty vloggers like Nyma Tang and Melanin Rich Nyajal are dark-skinned women whose vlogs give information to women who’ve historically felt mystified by and excluded from the beauty industry and the feelings of control that its products occasionally provide.
So, while GRWMs trade in myths about the infallibility of beauty routines, I can’t help but embrace their hopeful impulses and the blissful delusion they breed in me and all my friends.
When we get ready, we embrace what feels superfluous, what feels like knowledge, and what feels at times like feminine identity. Skepticism should give way to some joy whenever women get a temporary reprieve from the weight of whatever’s going to happen to our bodies.
Nowadays, most of my exposure to Britney Spears’s face comes from her Instagram, instead of TMZ. She posts her workout pictures and experiments with Snapchat filters — a public life, but one whose performance appears a little less demanding.
On September 7th, she posted a cheeky selfie with the caption: “Got my roots colored today!!! But now I think I want to CUT it!!!!” I hope she does whatever she wants.