The week of October 18, 2015
Illustration by J. Longo

YouTube’s ‘My Daily Routine’ is a beautiful lie

By Roisin Kiberd

A YouTuber’s morning is better than yours. While you’re still hitting the snooze button, they’ve made a healthy breakfast, put together the perfect outfit for the day, walked their dog, and tweeted a flawless selfie to hundreds of thousands of fans. I know this because I’ve seen it, in a “My Morning Routine” video.

The “My Morning Routine” video plays like this: Our heroine—routine videos are almost invariably shot by female YouTubers—wakes early to the sound of an iPhone alarm, or a small adorable dog arrives and licks her face. She narrates the motions in a voiceover: She gets out of bed to let the dog out, then she puts on a pot of coffee and prepares a pious breakfast invariably including chia seeds. She washes her suspiciously already-perfect face and applies makeup. She smiles, scrolling through alerts on her phone, pausing to snap a selfie, then leaves for the gym, or college, or work. (The “night routine” is its inverse: The subject changes back into pajamas, chamomile tea instead of coffee in hand. We see her tucked up in bed clutching her phone, still perfectly made up but yawning, before the lights go out.)

YouTube is full of “routines”: “My Morning Routine,” “My Night Routine,” “My Routine for School,” or “Morning Routine: Fall Edition,” with “My Daily Routine” being the most generic, filmed almost exclusively by teenage girls and women in their 20s in the U.S. and the U.K. Over 500,000 results surface for the query “My Daily Routine.”

Some feature product placements or a Cribs-style fridge tour. Some contain knowing shots of their subjects in the shower, framed to cut off anything below the shoulders. Others play like soporific instructionals for life, narrated in a benign yet blathering style common to ASMR videos. We watch our heroine walk into the bathroom, then into the kitchen to make coffee and oatmeal, informing us at every step of what she’s doing in pedantic detail:

“I head over to my Keurig, and while that’s heating up I make breakfast… While that’s cooking I’m going to get my coffee ready. I’m going to go in our cupboard and pick out a mug, which we’re lacking as we just did dishes. I’m going to put in a K-Cup. I love hazelnut coffee…”

The routine video presents itself as self-expression, a way to get to know its maker and her individual quirks. Yet almost every routine is the same, telling us more about the culture they exist in than about an individual subject. They repeat a series of Stepford-esque domestic tropes, a retrograde vision of online femininity.

Almost every routine is the same: They repeat a series of Stepford-esque domestic tropes, a retrograde vision of online femininity.

Yet there’s something undeniably comforting to the daily routine video: It plays like Pinterest in motion. Slights like “basic bitch” carry no weight here, because what’s basic is rendered aspirational. Simultaneously, each example brings you closer to the YouTuber who makes it: Beforehand, they’ll do “homeware hauls” and make their world beyond the initial video setting camera-ready. Then they’ll progress to routine videos, as if to declare that they live, now, on the Internet rather than IRL. Their life will become more and more “managed” even as the access granted increases. Finally, every day will be a good day.

The job of YouTubers is to perform a more down-to-earth role than mainstream celebrities (or their cousins, reality TV stars.) The routine video sees their box-shaped world expanded: It raises and addresses the question of what a YouTuber does all day beyond their videos. The most honest clips feature their subject slouched for long periods in front of a computer screen, getting up at some point to reassure us that they see sunlight and go to the gym. Those moments of on-screen screens are the most interesting; there’s something eerie and obviously fake about the YouTuber who portrays herself cheerfully reading comments, rather than censoring and weeding out the inevitable abusive ones.

But “routine” videos can be so twee as to be insufferable. The subject has reached such a point of satisfaction, comfort, and security that she can commit her “routine” to video. Even if she still lives at home with her parents, here she rewrites her life as independent. The video acts as an exercise in curated perfectionism, a demonstration that its creator has her shit together. They offer a 360-degree vision of competitive normality, auditioning their star as a trainee housewife.

This vision of life is also a commercial one. Given the advent of “beauty gurus” schooled in PR and sponsored by companies, the daily routine has become a parody of real life where every moment is opportunity for product placement, paid or unpaid. Starbucks, Netflix, and iPhones feature as standard items. Other placements include face wash, toothpaste, makeup, and iPhone apps. Life is dismantled into a series of products and processes.

It’s no coincidence that morning routine scenes introduce the notably materialistic leads of CluelessLegally Blonde, and American Psycho. Patrick Bateman talks us through his shower products and the food he eats for breakfast, maintaining a studied image of good taste and self-control. But this tips viewers off to a degree of narrative subjectivity—we cannot trust the plot of American Psycho, because we’re hearing it only from the Psycho himself, who has revealed little beyond his carefully curated shopping list.

Exercises in curated perfectionism, they offer a 360-degree vision of competitive normality, auditioning their star as a trainee housewife.

Routine videos are ostensibly shot in YouTubers’ real homes (I have yet to hear of any YouTuber show homes, though I wouldn’t put it past them), but their confusion of the commercial and the commonplace takes self-branding to new extremes. The effect is twofold: They propose a view of “real” life while tailoring that life to the camera’s lens. Does anyone actually live like in these videos? That doesn’t matter; the point is that their subjects have chosen to portray themselves this way. More than any other YouTube tag—“TMI,” “Draw My Life,” and “Get to Know Me” among them—“My Daily Routine” reveals the subject’s aspirations and how they see themselves.

This aspirational normcore tradition arguably begins with Jennicam, aka Jennifer Ringley, who filmed herself 24/7 with webcams between 1996 and 2003. “Lifecasters” like Ringley (and camgirls, her pornographic successors) catered to a fascination with the Internet’s girl-next-door. They blended work and everyday life just like YouTube does, overlaying the already substantial work of being a girl with a new layer of performance. The YouTuber’s “morning routine” and “night routine” bookend her online existence, implying that there is no lived life that is not online. They live both for and on the Internet, finding sustenance in clicks (and, if successful, off the resulting ad revenue). At the end of every “My Night Routine,” somebody holds the disembodied camera to watch over the subject sleeping. Sometimes it is revealed in a mirror to be held by that girl-blogger staple, the put-upon Social Media Boyfriend. He acts as a surrogate “eye” for the online public.

This is what gives the daily routine video its political subtext. If the selfie is a feminist act, the male gaze reclaimed and foisted triumphantly on a selfie stick for purposes of female self-expression, then the daily routine video addresses something even more pervasive: The surveillance that young women live under. That surveillance has been internalized now. Girls perform from the moment they wake till when they fall asleep at night. They perform not just for boys, but for themselves, for other girls, and for the Internet.

A common trope among “daily routine” videos is that they either begin, end, or begin and end with a shot of the subject in bed, implying that surveillance continues even while sleeping. It brings to mind the closing scene of Julia Leigh’s 2011 film Sleeping Beauty, in which Emily Browning plays a student so consumed by debt that she engages in a kind of niche sex work, allowing older men to sleep beside her drugged and passive body. These scenes are memorably sinister, leaving the viewer complicit in her client’s voyeurism. But on YouTube the camera is a welcome companion, and to watch a subject sleeping—a near-pornographic level of personal invasion—is presented as something normal.

On YouTube the camera is a welcome companion, and to watch a subject sleeping—a near-pornographic level of personal invasion—is presented as something normal.

Still, every trope will have its backlash. Parodies where the “routine” doesn’t go to plan, often made by male YouTubers, serve to highlight just how gendered the genre is, urging its female stars to reinforce order while their male counterparts cheerfully wage chaos. Similarly, a spate of “My REAL routine” or “My daily routine: expectations vs. reality” videos have recently appeared, created occasionally by the very same accounts that posted the original unreal routine videos. “My Realistic Morning Routine” sees YouTuber MyLifeAsEva admit, “My house is a mess, my bedroom’s a mess, and I’m not perfect.” (Her house looks perfect, for the record.)

Disappointingly, these “real” routines most often mirror the originals, straying from their template only to show the subject brushing out bed-hair or eating a marginally less-healthy breakfast. They are girly online humblebrags, akin to the Mean Girls scene where the Plastics line up at a mirror for a round of feigned self-scrutiny (“My hairline is so weird.” “My pores are huge.” “My nail beds suck”). They fall into that same authenticity trap, protesting too much their subject’s “realness” and normality: YouTube stars are just like us, though they labor under constant self-surveillance.

danni online 1 month ago

Before they all made routine videos trying to be perfect and girly and tumblr. Now they all make routine videos trying to be ‘soo relatable’, funny and a mess. What is wrong with Youtubers? Can’t you just be normal.

dawlings 2 weeks ago

I don’t understand her.. Seems like she’s acting to be funny but trying to be “the usual worn out teenager” at the same time. Not to be rude but this wasn’t original just something for the camera.

The onion-like layers of false “reality” leave commenters disenchanted. And yet the tag continues to re-spawn with the seasons, Spring routine giving way to Summer routine—raising one question: Why?

I asked Emer O’Toole, academic, columnist, and author of Girls Will Be Girls, which examines what it means to “act like a girl,” about this phenomenon. She likened social media to a panopticon: Girls are now so used to being watched that they will self-police even after the camera is switched off. “There is something quite Foucauldian in the fact that now, instead of magazines, adverts, and TV shows created by corporate interests pushing the beauty myth, girls and young women are pushing it on each other,” she says. “For me, these self-recorded performances of femininity represent girls on their best behavior, performing the gendered ideals they have internalized, performing the kind of beautiful, orderly, domesticated femininity our society so values.”

Designed for a generation raised in unstable times, where homeownership and a steady income often remain a far-off dream, they fetishize routine in a world where routine itself is impossible.

O’Toole questions the new “reality” of life under the camera’s lens: “The moment we turn a camera on reality it is no longer just reality. People behave differently when they know they’re being watched.” If there is truth, then, in these videos, it’s that they convey a surprisingly conservative set of values: “It’s clear from the content and popularity of so many of these videos that the watching eye wants model 21st century femininity—domestically inclined, sweet, uncontroversial, disciplined, tidy, thin, and, above all, pretty.”

This is where the benign daily routine can turn toxic, which brings me to another “routine” I once cultivated. When I was a teenager, I was anorexic and segmented my life into routines. I was ruthless, rationing out calories for every meal at a specific hour, completing my homework to the letter and going for an hourlong walk every night. Routines gave me an excuse to stop thinking, which was fortunate because my diet of apples and dry toast wasn’t exactly a boost to brain cells. Mornings were my favorite, because they meant that the slate had been wiped clean, the calorie count reset to zero, and I had the chance not to fuck it up all over again.

But no day would ever be good enough. My obsession with routines turned me into that most un-YouTube-friendly of things: a trainwreck, whose life was all too grim for public consumption. (More recently I’ve read about research connecting the anorexic’s obsession with structure to traits found in those on the autistic spectrum, a conclusion I’d accept as very much possible.)

I bring this up not to accuse “My Daily Routine” videos of being dangerous for mental health, but to highlight the vulnerability of the teenage experience, and how the systems you build for support can be the same ones which betray you.

These videos show a curious optimism, a reverence for getting things right that can absolutely help these girls and their viewers achieve success in the future. But I have yet to see a “routine” video that is creative or even interesting. As a genre they are conformist, derivative, and usually very boring.

“Instead of magazines, adverts and TV shows created by corporate interests pushing the beauty myth, girls and young women are pushing it on each other.”

But then, the point of “routines” is that they are predictable. Perhaps these videos convey stability and repetition because that’s what their viewers want. Designed for a generation raised in unstable times, where homeownership and a steady income often remain a far-off dream, they fetishize routine in a world where routine itself is impossible.

Which leads me to conclude that the child of the online age is normcore, a social media Stepford wife so proud of her self-enforced habits that she willingly demonstrates them on video. The lyrics on the soundtrack to the “Morning Routine” of Bethany Mota, one of YouTube’s best-known beauty and style vloggers, say it best:

I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK, I just want to be OK today.
I just want to feel today, feel today, feel today, I just want to feel something today.

That wish is granted, because in the world of My Daily Routine, the safe “today” will last forever.


Illustration by J. Longo