A couple of months ago, I had brunch at a café. The café’s toilets were labelled ‘men’ and ‘women’, and I went into the one that was free: the men’s, of course. I decided to apply some makeup while I was in there. I filled in my eyebrows, applied eye liner and a touch of mascara, and styled my hair.
Then it hit me. I was putting on makeup in the men’s bathroom. That was a rite of passage for me, as a non-binary person still figuring out my gender expression.
I went back to our table and told my wife about it. “That was such a weird feeling,” I said. “I loved it.”
“That was such a weird feeling,” I said. “I loved it.”
It made me think back to the first time I went on a dedicated cosmetics shopping expedition. I was meant to be heading into my university, and the journey in led me past a shopping centre, which beckoned to me and seemed infinitely more appealing. Also, the bags under my eyes had been reaching the stage I think of as “storage space”.
I walked into one of the giant cosmetics shops and was mesmerised. Previously, I had bought mascara or eye liner at the discount chemist, supermarket or sale rack at a department store, not a dedicated beauty boutique.
I walked in, feeling a bit shy, and busied myself by trying to make sense of the displays.
“Just let me know if you want any help,” one of the retail assistants said in a friendly tone, not getting too close.
Reverse-psychology works on me, so I found myself saying, “I’m just looking for concealer.”
Of course, there is no way to go into a beauty boutique and just buy concealer.
Of course, there is no way to go into a beauty boutique and just buy concealer. By the time she was done with applying a concealer, she had me agreeing to try just a little foundation and powder as well.
The store was pink and perfumed, and soon my expensive new items were being wrapped in luscious pink tissue paper. Other than Janelle Monáe’s song, my only association with pink was capitalism’s saleable version of femininity.
I ended up leaving with a lot less money than I went in with, but I looked at my face in the mirror and felt damn good.
Figuring out how I feel about the ‘female’ and ‘male’ parts of myself, not that the gender binary means much to me, has been something of an experiment over the last few years.
I was assigned female at birth and raised as a girl. Growing up, I was fascinated by my mum’s makeup collection. I would watch her apply even a small amount and marvel at how she looked.
Growing up, I was fascinated by my mum’s makeup collection. I would watch her apply even a small amount and marvel at how she looked.
As a teen, I would sneakily use Mum’s eye liner. I was too embarrassed to ask to buy my own, or to talk about my interest in makeup. It makes no sense to me now, because Mum is an artist and fashion designer. Aesthetics is her thing. We could have had a lot of fun with beauty products, but I was weirdly closeted about my interest in them.
After coming out as queer, I resisted makeup and beauty products for years. It wasn’t that I had anything against them, they just didn’t seem important. They felt like the territory of high femmes, which I was not.
Over time, I began to realise I could experiment with gender. Being playful with makeup, nails and hair isn’t the sole territory of femme women and men. I already knew this, and loved to see cisgender male friends experimenting with nail polish and makeup, but I had been enforcing strict rules for my own appearance.
A few different things enabled me to make peace with my awkwardness around beauty products and feel safe and comfortable expressing my gender identity authentically.
Reading Nevo Zisin’s book Finding Nevo was extremely significant and helped me figure out a lot about my identity, particularly when they say “I experimented with make-up, dresses and different ways of expressing myself. It was nice to feel so comfortable in my body that I could do these things without feeling it invalidated my gender. People were confused, but for the first time, I wasn’t.” The book’s Afterword, where Nevo imagines meeting younger versions of themself, sends chills down my spine every time I read it.
I have transgender, non-binary and gender diverse friends who are role models, providing me with beautiful examples of how to celebrate our identities and bodies, and how to feel gender euphoria.
Beauty can be an important part of identity and self-expression. While there is plenty to criticise about the beauty industry, the importance it can play in gender expression cannot be overstated.
While there is plenty to criticise about the beauty industry, the importance it can play in gender expression cannot be overstated.
Many cultures have long histories of gender fluidity, but it has taken a long time for social and cultural understandings of gender to broaden in Western societies. Even now, there is a general lack of knowledge about non-binary identities. This impacts on us from a young age, and is pervasive.
I realised I had been repressing my gender while following a socially enforced gender binary. I began to play around with makeup and physical expression in a way that hadn’t felt comfortable or safe when I was living as a woman.
Once I started wearing my hair short and experimenting with aspects of trans-masculine identity, I felt emboldened to play around with accessories, fashion and makeup in a way that is right for me.
Sometimes I wear a dress and no makeup at all. Other times I might wear flannel, shave my hair off, and put on a full face of makeup. There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than intuition, self-expression, fun and play.
I also started chatting about makeup with my mum. Before the pandemic, we realised that we had both been doing a fair bit of cosmetics shopping. We had some great conversations about beauty as we tried each other’s new products. It was so validating to have an ungendered, safe and comfortable version of what society views as a ‘girly’ experience. During isolation, since we live in different states, makeup has been a fun and very bonding topic of discussion to distract us from missing each other.
The last time I saw my hair stylist before physical distancing set in, he had some words of wisdom to share. Ocram Si, at Cherry Bomb in Collingwood, is quite the character. His clothing and hair are always show-stoppers, and he is a gentle and kind human being.
As he shaved around the edges of my hair, he explained why people were still coming in to get their hair done despite fears of the coronavirus.
“At times like these, nails and lashes no longer matter to people but hair is still crucial. Having your hair cut can make all the difference.”
“At times like these, hair is still crucial. Having your hair cut can make all the difference,” he said. “There’s so much fear at the moment, and getting your hair done grounds people. It makes them feel like they’re living their normal lives.”
He is right. When I am down, and struggling with my mental health, bringing colour back in takes effort but is necessary. When I suffer from depression, I feel like a muted version of myself, and anything that brings playfulness and fun back into my life is good for my health. Doing my hair, nails or makeup can be the difference between feeling some motivation or staying in bed all day.
Now more than ever, we need to focus on both our mental and physical health. Feeling good, however you achieve that, is no insignificant feat; it can make all the difference.
Roz Bellamy is a freelance writer and is working on a memoir about gender diversity, Jewish identity and mental illness.