When I was around eight or nine, I shaved one of my legs using my mom’s razor. We’d often taken showers together and I’d watched her precariously put the ball of her foot on the corner of the tub to get the job done — it looked fun, if only for the fact that it was something ‘adult’ people did.
After I secretly copied her routine on one of my legs, I remember flashing them in front of her, one after the other, kicking each leg back and forth off the side of the couch until she noticed. She was unhappy but said it was my punishment enough to walk around with one shaved leg. She thought I was too young, and I realized later on in my childhood that she didn’t even take her own body hair or appearance too seriously compared to a lot of people’s parents.
Although always fashionable, as I grew up, the same woman who walked the runway in Paris during the 80s — for Gaultier, Mugler, Kenzo — who literally banked her personal value on her appearance, became my sweatpant-flaunting, bald spot-showing, ratty t-shirt wearing mother. When you’re a single parent with brain cancer who lives with your child’s grandmother, I can imagine one of the last priorities is appearance — but it wasn’t the cancer that started her indifference about the general consensus on ‘beauty standards,’ it was just a great excuse not to follow them. After spending years judging and being judged for looks, my mom always reminded me that personal value shouldn’t necessarily rely on the externalities of self.
Oddly enough, I still feel like I grew up with healthy exposure to makeup, if not a little late to the scene. In second grade I got to use one my mom’s eyeshadow palettes for a play. She would let me explore her great aunt’s traveling case filled with delicate blotting papers, organic cover up, old brushes, and of course her coveted 7-day pill container filled with varying shades of brown lipstick. (Sadly enough, my grandmother thought it was chocolate and put it in the dishwasher). But I didn’t get mascara and lip gloss until almost 9th grade, and was still wearing training bras that were practically falling apart until my aunt bought me some real ones to hold my nonexistent boobs.
I saw it in her modeling photos. I saw it in the way she used bobby pins to cover her bald spot from surgery. I saw it in her favorite perfume that reminded her of Paris. But it shouldn’t take years of vetting personal experience to say that beauty products are transformational. On an aesthetic level, of course — but on a psychological level, it’s not always clear to people who don’t use makeup why it’s so mentally magical. If anything, they assume it’s about looking good for other people rather than feeling good for yourself.
Even if we are applying it for others, admitting that often leads to being debased as shallow.
Because makeup is still so ingrained in what we perceive as feminine, makeup can be a tool to present femme. Similarly, makeup can be incredibly useful for recreating “masculine” facial structures or hiding physical “imperfections” like acne and scars. Like my mom used to say, we shouldn’t weight all of our value in the ways that we look — but that’s only true when we have opportunities to feel congruence with our ‘internal’ identities or ‘self’ on a physical level.
Unfortunately in most cases buying makeup also means dealing with or ignoring completely the transmisogynistic, racist, sexist, and generally oppressive system that is the makeup industry. From Olay’s recent “#YourBestBeautiful” campaign, which insinuates the best version of yourself is one that uses Olay products, to the age-old “Maybe she’s born with it, Maybe it’s Maybelline!” slogan, the beauty industry is constantly dictating when, where, how, and who can use their products by masking them with an attitude of self-care. This same attitude bleeds into the fashion industry as well, where trends are constantly lifted, whitewashed and heteronormalized away from the communities that created them without credit for the sake of making money.
Even though I don’t shave my legs anymore, I do shave my eyebrows. I dye my hair. I am addicted to lipstick. And I’m glad I have access to these means for transformation, even if it means sticking a tube of coverup in my pocket at Kroger every once and awhile. Like I said, this sh** ain’t often cheap, which automatically makes it an oppressive commodity for the people who rely on it. Being queer, nonbinary, and trans coupled with doing drag and often being broke has brought the aforementioned transformative effects of makeup and beauty products in general into a socio-political context I can no longer dismiss as a simply aesthetic toolset.
That being said, as a white coercively assigned female at birth, in many ways I embody the “main audience” to which the beauty industry orients itself. So as I continue with this column at Polyester, I hope to explore and articulate the ways in which other queer artists, performers, and activists manipulate their physical forms using makeup and beauty products. If you’re interested in being a part of this discussion, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words by Raine Blunk
Illustration by Emma Farrant