Somewhere in America's suburbs, 16-year-old Blair sits in her pink-walled bedroom and shows off a slew of recent purchases from the fast-fashion chain Forever 21. She bought a black blouse, a slouchy cardigan, and $6.99 jeans. "OK, so normally it would bother me if my jeans didn't have any detail on the rear end," Blair says. "But I was actually reading and they say that if there is not any design on the back pocket on your jeans … somehow it makes your butt look smaller. So way to go for these jeans!" I know this because Blair (aka Juicystar07) taped it via webcam and posted it to YouTube. She's not just posting it for her clique at school—her video has nearly 600,000 views to date.
Online videos like Blair's are known as "hauls." They involve mostly young women showing off the fruits of shopping trips. Call them a girly version of the online video phenomenon in which mostly young men feverishly dismantle the newest electronics. * But while the makers of those videos are boasting of their superior technological prowess or ability to be early adopters by tearing apart the newest gadget, the creators of the haul videos showcase their purchases as a way to relate to their viewers. That's why hauls are dominated by mass-market retailers: French Connection, Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Sephora are frequent destinations. And the haulers go to great lengths to prove to their audience that they are not bragging. "It's more like, I'm 16, I work two jobs, and this is what I've saved my money up for, and I'm excited to share it with you guys," Blair says earnestly.
Blair and her cohort are an excitable bunch. No detail is too minor and no enthusiasm is too effusive in the world of the haul video. Consider Beautycakez, a Canadian hauler who describes a knit cap as "this is a little hat thing that you kind of prop on top of your head." They are hypnotic in a Zen way: Watch as Beautycakez drinks tea, sits in her bedroom with a stuffed Hello Kitty visible in the background, and eats some cookies. This goes on for 10 minutes. In one of SoCalAshleyDanielle's videos, she regales us with color commentary like, "Yeah, I just coughed." This translates as an effortless, slightly ditzy charm. While sharing new binders she bought at Target, Ashley points out that she has chosen a photo of Sharon Tate for one: "I thought it would be really good to put her on my psychology binder," she deadpans.
With their perfectly flat-ironed hair (and there is many a commenter protest if a hauler's hair looks imperfect or out of place) and copious eyeliner, these are a beautiful, if overly made-up, group. They resemble the popular girls at any high school, which is precisely why they are so appealing to other teens. The majority of teenagers can't afford to imitate Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl, whose Chanel flats would look seriously out of place in most American study halls. But they could be another Blair, aka Juicystar07, buying those rear-diminishing jeans from Forever 21. To the average teen, her seal of approval might carry even more weight than Anna Wintour's.
Even though I am slightly out of the late-adolescent age range of the haulers, watching the videos made me oddly reflective. I found myself comparing my own shopping habits to theirs: Should I try Kinky-Curly Curling Custard on my hair like hauler AlexandraBond did? Would that American Apparel gray mini-dress look cute on me, as it did on StarDelerium? Do I need to eat more peaches? The locally grown ones hauler manolomandi got from Whole Foods looked so perfect and ripe.
After losing myself for several days down the haul wormhole, I decided the only way to truly understand their allure would be to make my own video. So I spent a normal Wednesday afternoon grocery shopping at Whole Foods. Except nothing about the trip felt normal, since I realized I was going to be sharing my purchases with the World Wide Web.
I considered a pint of ice cream, but didn't buy it because it felt too indulgent; bath salts were vetoed because I decided my potential audience might picture me bathing. At the checkout counter, I worried that I would be judged for not buying enough vegetables. I wondered if I should have made a list or bought items for a recipe. I hoped I would seem like a fully functioning adult.
Watch Marisa's haul here:
And if I'm worrying about the curation of my groceries, I wondered if other haulers were doing the same on their own shopping trips. Was Beautycakez only purchasing that FCUK hoodie because she knew her audience would approve? But in the end, my haul was a fairly accurate portrait of my dysfunctional grocery shopping habits, which are characterized by a lack of planning and a propensity for impulse purchases. I have to assume that other haul videos are a similar reflection of reality.
As I sat in a hallway outside a friend's office with her recording me while I showed off my purchases, I felt exposed. Why, again, was I inviting strangers to assess my shopping habits? And what were they going to infer about my own life? Should I have gone to a store that wasn't an international chain? I kicked myself for forgetting to bring a reusable tote for my groceries.