I have vivid memories from my childhood of sloppily smearing her lips pinker, pinkest, inaccurate with laughter. I didn’t know why I felt so pink about it later. Have you ever felt a color? Do you know what I mean? What I mean is that I loved sleepovers, the safe intimacy of girlhood before I knew that’s what I’d want, forever. To hold another girl’s face, the trust and control implied in the gesture. The power another girl can give you. It’s such a fragile, precious thing.
Makeup is that power: the manipulation of it, the result of it. It’s always been a way for me to redeem power that was never supposed to be mine in the first place. According to some, I wasn’t supposed to like girls, let alone fall in love with them and steal their lipstick. But makeup is a love letter as much as a tool or warning: red eyeshadow to scare men from me walking home from a party, black lipstick for goth girls, being drawn to the toughest-looking woman in the room. It’s a homing beacon and a warning sign.
Makeup is by no means natural. That’s the point. If I work hard to survive, you will pay attention when you see me, and you will see the work. Because it is work: to survive, when others would wish otherwise. They want us to disappear if we can’t be what they want. But beauty lets me see myself the way I need to be seen; it is redemptive in ways that I often don’t have the courage to be verbally. I let it speak for me, at least the preliminaries of getting to know me: This is weird, you might not like it, but if you do — come here, you see me as I am. Hello.
That’s what fascinates me about makeup: its ability to help you actively become, however temporarily. It’s making what you need to survive out of what you have to work with. Ask the girls who don’t feel quite themselves without doing routine, filled eyebrows before they leave the house. This processing of potential, pushing past the point of expectation of who you have to be for other people to reach who you want to be for yourself — that’s beauty, gone queer. Because queerness is sexuality, yes, but it’s also an identity that implies resistance and reaching for something else. Something better for us than what we’ve found in a society that would have us be anyone but ourselves.
The struggle to get from what we’ve been given to where we’d hope to be is the core of beauty practice as much as it is queer theory. Both imply promise — even if the promises are often contradictory and complex.
These are those promises: first, this is who you really are. Hint at your true self with the right perfume — something primal that will have them following the fumes. Second: This is who you could be, if you only knew how to blend out that blush. Watch these tutorials; subscribe to learn more. It’s an anxious ritual of deciding which version of you is real, which one you want to be on any given day of the week. A few months ago I read an interview with an anonymous lipstick user who describes this anxiety perfectly: “Lipstick plays into our confusion of identity. Makeup ads are always asking who the real you is, and how you should let the real you shine through. Put on a lipstick and let the person inside come out. But who’s inside? And why don’t I know who they are?” Of course, the answer is simple enough: All versions of you are real. You’ll never know quite who you are, not entirely. Makeup just helps you find your way around — but no one said it was a reliable guide or educator. It’s merely there for us to help us revise the bodies we’ve been dealt.
The constant makeup-facilitated revisions are as exhausting as they are exciting. Bending over backwards to make material things mean something else — to rewrite a history — is not without effort, and queerness is always about effort. A resistance. A grit in your heart.
And what gives me pause is that I would like to just be seen for once, without having to rewrite the story on my own. Building a bridge on body politics with lipstick is exhausting. If this purple lipstick tenderly, tentatively signals my queerness and androgyny – following the histories of Leigh Bowery and David Bowie, my Other-wise nature — it is because the exhaustive efforts of other queers like me who need it to mean as such. We take the things not necessarily meant for us and continually redefine them as something (however temporarily) our own.
But these things are never always and only ours. They’re temporary comforts, quick occupations. What I am looking for, more desperately, is permanence, construction, production for queer women by queer women. I want — and need — to see queer girls in beauty history. Visibility is important, we know, and so the irony of a business of identity hiding a group is laughable. Where are the queer makeup chemists, queer creators of these tools that we use? They exist — so where are their stories, their companies?
History has forgotten “lipstick lesbian” CEOs, if you will. I’ve looked. And I came up with drag kings, drag queens, amazing and talented gay men in the industry, heavy histories of queer men occupying this feminine space (temporarily, profitably) — but no girls. Not a single one. Not even a rumor of one. Performers and artists plenty, but when you look into the history of queer aesthetics, and most specifically the history of beauty itself: Queer girls disappear, somewhere far off. No trace of perfume to follow.
I’m not saying the makeup industry should be designated for women only. But it is troubling that beauty is equivocated to the female kingdom, and yet the queer women are left noticeably (pardon the pun) “out.” It feels strange to me that there’s so little evidence that women before me have found a bridge between love and lipstick in the same way before, and built upon it, made towers and empires of products for us to cling to. Where are their lipstick marks?
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