Make up, my bane and saviour

I was recently told by someone close to me that I “don’t need make up.” This is nothing new; this good-willed sentiment is not unfamiliar to most women. Well-intentioned people, particularly men, like telling women that they are beautiful as they are, blah blah. After the feeling of being validated wears off (I am farrrrr from being immune to white patriarchal standards of beauty), I interpret these “compliments” as unsolicited advice on what I “need” and “don’t need.” Here is a to-the-point visual of this very common phenomena:


Source: unfortunately unknown.

The thing is, as much as it does make me feel good to know that someone else thinks I am beautiful “the way I am,” I want make up to be a part of “the way I am.” And this is incorporation of cosmetics into my “way” is actually really tough for me. I think about wearing make up a lot. I am around cosmetics often. I spend hours on the internet, watching Youtube make up tutorials. I re-blog photos of interesting and innovative ways of doing make up on Tumblr. I like to stop by cosmetic stores and counters after work, just to have a little browse (I’m at the MAC counter at Yonge Station all the fucking time). This is pretty much as close as I get to make up – in my head and around me. I have a number of tubes of lipsticks, but I don’t use them often.

Two thirds of my entire make up collection.

I love make up, but I’m scared of it. Aside from not really being able to wear any eye make up due to some eye conditions I have, I have some internalized shit around gender and drawing attention to my body (particularly my face). I remember being in grade six or so, and spending my saved-up allowance on a shitty ring from Ardene. I used to  only wear the ring in the safety of my bedroom, where no one could see me taking pleasure in admiring my ring-clad hand. I never, ever wore the ring in front of my parents. I felt ashamed of adorning myself in this way. The ring symbolized some sort of feminine maturation that I was uncomfortable with. As a boy-ish girl whose chose baggy t-shirts over little tops, but simultaneously wanted to explore a realm she was unfamiliar with, I didn’t know how to reconcile those things. Instead, I hid that gender curiosity in fear of being asked what I was trying to do and feeling embarrassed. And now, well into my adult years, I can still feel that same shame when I step out the door with bright pink lipstick on: I feel like a fraud; I think my lips are “too wrinkly” for lipstick; I never used to wear lipstick, why am I starting now?. I ultimately feel like I have to justify why I am doing what I’m doing, even though I know I don’t have to.  (doesn’t help when I nervously decided to Skype my parents one night wearing dark burgundy lipstick and they asked me, “what’s on your lips?!?”). So. I’m scared of indulging myself in this way.

But what helps me move through this internalized shit, bit by bit, is knowing that, I think, for queers, make up is not only about correction and emphasis; it’s also about exaggeration, breakthroughs, and self indulgence. Exaggeration is about making things bigger and more prominent. Exaggeration takes up space. Breakthroughs come with the boldness to try things unthought of. And self indulgence is about treating ourselves well in a world that doesn’t pay us enough (money) nor treats us with all the respect we deserve. We are not always only interested in covering up certain parts of ourselves and then accentuating what we think are our assets. Queer make up isn’t always neat, natural, and pretty; it can also be trial-and-error, freaky, and totally unnatural. It’s like, I love blue and yellow, I should wear them all the fucking time, so why not put it on my fucking face??? And in queers’ fearlessness in pushing the boundaries of aesthetics, I am finally starting to feel like I can “come out” with my make up-obsessing self. In their confidence that is fueled by risky boldness, there is so much to appreciate and to take delight in.

Where would we be if not for lo-fi lesbians, dangerous drag queens, femme warriors, badass mamas, aunties, and grandmothers?

One of my favourite make up and style goddesses is Arabelle Sicardi aka Fashion Pirate. She coincidentally just wrote a short piece about the best lipsticks for “girl monsters” (girl monsters!!! omg, I love it.). A green-haired, blue-eyelined, purple-lipped feminist writer, Arabelle recently wrote about what it is that she wants in fashion:

I want ridiculousness in fashion. I want ugly. I want destruction, I want imperfection, flaws, ripped seams, extra armholes, mutated glory that when people walk by me they whisper that they just don’t get it. [Source: Fashion Pirate]

Kyisha Williams, director of the short film Red Lips [Cages for Black Girls], insists on accentuating her lips with red lipstick as an anti-racist statement. In talking about Red Lips, Kyisha says:

In the film, I talk a little bit about how I came to start wearing red lipstick. It was a really hard thing for me. I had made this decision when I was a really young girl that, well, my lips are too big and I can’t call more attention to them . . . Later on, when I was an adult, I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I do this?’ and I remembered. It just popped up as a memory, the reason why I wasn’t doing that. I thought to myself, ‘That’s totally racist! I should totally do this if that’s something I want to do. My lips are beautiful, and they can be accentuated!’ and all of this stuff. Obviously, I had that knowledge [only] later on in life. When I did start wearing red lipstick, people reacted really weirdly to it. Men on the street would catcall and be really forceful. I would reject them, and they didn’t understand. They would get upset. It was like, ‘I’m wearing red lipstick, but it doesn’t mean that I’m available to you. It doesn’t mean all of these things that you think it means.’ For me, wearing red lipstick is an anti-racist statement. [Source: Xtra!]

And this is not a blog post about queer make up, queer aesthetics, and boundary pushing if calloutqueen, Mark Aguhar, is not remembered. Mark committed suicide in mid-March of this year because the world is fucked up and did not have enough space for them. Mark once wrote this simple poetic manifesto:

These are the axes:


Bodies are inherently valid


Remember death


Be ugly


Know beauty


It is complicated






Reconstruct, reify


Respect, negotiate

Mark Aguhar, 1987-2012

And so, I’m remembering the fabulous queers for whom the world was simultaneously too much and too little. I’m grateful for all the queers who put on blue lipstick and don’t give two shits what people are whispering about them as they sashay by in all their gloriousness. I’m thankful for the queers who are, similar to me, just starting to wear any make up, particularly accentuating parts of themselves they have been told was disgusting or ugly. Thank you for making it feel easier for me to put on that pastel pink lipstick a la mid-90s I bought on a whim. I might only ever put it on a couple of times this summer, but having y’all feel like my personal cheerleading squad (1-2-3-4, “natural” make up is a bore! 5-6-7-8, yr green eye lids look fucking great!) is a blessing to my 27 year-old self.


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15 responses to “Make up, my bane and saviour

  1. this is such a beautiful testament to your relationship with makeup, and to some of the best queers i’ve gotten to know via the internet.

    i’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about the earliest moments i’ve had with makeup and why i always tell myself i’m “bad” at it. one of my best friends growing up had the most expansive makeup collection i had ever seen, but never looked like she was wearing makeup… at sleepovers she would spend a half hour applying powders to my face, and i was always disappointed when i looked in the mirror afterwards to see nothing looked much… different. “the best makeup makes it look like you’re not wearing any at all,” she used to say. ironic that my feelings now are completely opposite – i love the playfulness, the exaggeration, the creativity and the TALENT and guts it takes to rock blue lipstick or over the top.

    there’s also definitely a working class aspect to my relationship with makeup for me – i’ve never had enough money to really invest in quality makeup, so i felt left out for many years… until i realized you can make some makeup go a long way by being creative about it.

    • ‘best makeup makes it look like you’re not wearing any at all.’ A creepy and classic way of telling women, and especially women of colour, disabled women, poor women, working class women, to tone it down.

      • Emma Eaton

        I also really resent the “you don’t need makeup” comment because it implies that SOME people REALLY SHOULDN’T be leaving the house without it. I also resent other people telling me what I do and don’t need to do/participate in feel good about myself.

  2. also have you seen the “feminist makeupping” tag on tumblr? lots of interesting conversations going on there too…

  3. Emma Eaton

    You’re awesome. I really identify with the sentiment you had about feeling a fraud when you wear makeup, particularly lipstick. I recently have decided to start wearing lipstick (OK, full disclosure, my mom did my makeup when I was home a few weeks ago and gave me four super fancy expensive lipsticks that she thought didn’t suit her but look good on me) and whoa.

    Safety hazard: I love looking in my rear-view mirror while driving with lipstick (and my new awesome glasses) on, but hate getting to work and worrying about what people (colleagues AND clients) are thinking about it. (What might they be thinking about it? I think probably something along the lines of “that’s a bit odd, what a lipstick faker… which is odd, because that’s not a thing).

    When I wear lipstick and hang out with my friends, I always have to say something like “erghm, I’ve decided to wear lipstick today, erm, for funsies”. I can never just WEAR LIPSTICK. It’s like I’ve decided to put on a pair of bunny ears or something similarly ridiculous rather than just choosing to engage in an activity that millions of people the world over engage in every day. But quite a lot of the time when I wear it, it’s in my house, on my own. And I like that. I especially like how it doesn’t come off my mugs in the dishwasher.

    Thanks for writing this article, it’s been really helpful for me to think about it and to know other people feel the same way!

    • Emma! Yes! The feeling of needing to justify why we do what we do! And even more so, for me, one of my well-practiced defense mechanisms/coping strategies is to interpellate myself before anyone else does. I will point out my bright pink lipstick before anyone else will; that way no one can say anything hurtful about my choice because i’ve taken control of the situation first. It’s tiring! Youre right: it’s hard to JUST WEAR LIPSTICK. Goddamit, marginalized people have been made to justify their actions, decisions, and presence…right down to lipstick shade.

      • Emma Eaton

        Yup, I’m all about that telling-people-I-know-I-look-odd-first thing. and then people compliment me on my lipstick/turquoise shorts/crazy hair and then I just feel sheepish for having drawn attention to it at all.

  4. Aw I’m so honored & surprised to be mentioned in this! It’s given me a lot of feels, I want to write a response :) Thank you for inspiring me to talk about my feminist makeup feels, goddess.

  5. Thanks for writing/sharing this Teresa!!!
    I was recently listening to a tape my sister and i made when i was six years old and heard this one part where i say, in a really squeaky kid voice: “I wish I had a better faaace…”. Indeed, growing up in canada, I hated my “lack of eyelids” (where do you put eye shadow?), my “big/fish” brown/pink lips, and my “horsey” nostrils (horses don’t wear makeup).

    An even more heartbreaking memory I have is that of my sister and i making fun of my mom’s lips when we were young. After all she had given up to give us a better life, she was being fed the white patriarchal racism of canada through her own children! These days I wear makeup to say: “Fuck internalized racism: I love my mom and our lips/mouths/voices!”.

    • !!!

      First of all, i am filled with joy knowing that you and your sis made tapes at the age og six.

      And second, holy fuck i totally made fun of my mom for her big lips too!!! I used to ask my mom if i was going to have lips like hers and how i could stop that from happening. I cant imagine how heartbreaking that would have been for her. Amazing the things racism can do to the psyches of young children, and then how those young children can take that internalized racism to hurt others, including adults!

      • Emma Eaton

        How sad (and a little irritating) that a feature that can be sought after by white people (darker skin, big lips, big hair) can be used to victimise people of colour, even from within communities. I’m thinking specifically about stories of culturally enforced skin bleaching I’ve been hearing about from women I work with, but I guess there are other examples too. White privilege strikes again.

  6. tallace

    I am a fledgling lawyer at 30 and just last night was explaining to my (trans man) partner that I really didn’t think it was socially acceptable for me to appear in court without make up on. I get by with the minimum partly because I work really long hours and don’t have time or energy for more and partly because I have some kind of idea that it would be best if my physical appearance was as unobtrusive as possible because the court should be listening to my words and thinking about my client.

    However, reading this and thinking again about how I try to present myself at court, I am feeling deeply ambivalent about the fact that I seem to have finally assimilated to or at least be able to simulate that smoothed, sanitised middle class aesthetic – wearing make-up that doesn’t look like I’m wearing make-up. I grew up in a poor-by-choice hippy family, with working class, country grandparents and my clothes were always weird and my hair was always fly-away and crazy and my mum certainly never taught me things I figured other girls got taught, like how to dress in a ‘tasteful’ way or put on make up or style your hair.

    Mainly I just feel sad for my poor young self that never knew how to get this look right and felt bad about my scruffy self and my now-self which is finally here, with the hard-won law degree and (relatively) smooth hair and powdered face. I am resolving to wear more lipstick. For myself, not for the court or anyone else.

  7. Pingback: Good Things: Feminist Makeupping « Bossy Femme

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