In a New York cab on a rainy afternoon in Union Square last June, an hour before I was to appear on British national television, I opened the travel makeup palette I had just bought from Sephora while the car was stopped in traffic. In the clean, untouched mirror, I looked at my unremarkable face, and tried to decide whether to make myself beautiful.
I was on my way to the BBC America studios on the West Side, for a live segment on BBC Newsnight about Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover. I hadn’t worn makeup since the previous year, after I resolved to give it up in 2015. But the idea of going on TV in front of millions of people without any makeup on filled me with both excitement and terror.
It was especially ironic, that fear of being seen bare-faced, given that what I was about to discuss was a magazine cover that instantly became the iconic image of transgender glamour as soon as it was revealed. Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover would eventually ignite debates over how trans women are expected to fit cisnormative beauty ideals, but on the day the cover came out, the Internet’s response was overwhelmingly positive; many people fawned over Jenner’s beauty and compared her to Jessica Lange.
The February before, when she came out as trans in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Jenner appeared without makeup on, and kept referring to her female self in the third-person like she wasn’t in the room. It was as though the person in front of Sawyer couldn’t fully be a woman without women’s makeup and clothes. I deeply identified with Jenner then; I felt the same way when I started transition. I needed to look as glamourous and conventionally beautiful as possible just to believe in the possibility of my womanhood, because that’s what the world had taught me.
The high that makeup gave me was temporary, and I depended on it more and more to feel whole.
All women go through a lot to be perceived as acceptable in society, but what trans women go through is particularly terrible. It’s one thing to fear being called ugly if you’re not wearing makeup, but another to be afraid of being called the vilest of slurs, beaten up, or worse. Even when Jenner has made a huge amount of effort to present herself according to conventional beauty norms for cisgender women, she continues to endure transphobic comments denying her womanhood, whether by Internet trolls or by prominent feminists like Germaine Greer and Elinor Burkett.
Early in transition, when the world perceived me as male but I wanted to be seen as a woman, makeup was a fundamental step in getting other people to see me the way I wanted to be seen. I bought several makeup books and converted an old computer desk into a dedicated vanity. I used eyeshadow to pull focus away from my strong brow and contouring to soften my angular chin. Lipstick highlighted my pouty lips, the most feminine part of my face.
With effort, I found that makeup gave me the means to have some control over how other people perceived my gender. And for an early-transitioning trans woman whose daily life was beset with moments when other people policed a womanhood I felt deeply within, I became addicted to the control that makeup gave me.
Like a drug, the high that makeup supplied was temporary, and I depended on it more and more to feel whole. I would walk down the street to the admiring gazes of men, but every once in a while, someone would notice something – the hardness of my face or my Adam’s Apple, maybe – and the admiration so easily turned into disgust. And my reaction was to cover up even more, find even more ways to shroud myself in makeup so no one would see the ugliness they saw and that I saw in myself.
I became less self-conscious as the years went by, and I relied on makeup less as hormones softened my face. But whenever I needed to make a good impression or feel better about myself, I still picked up my makeup case and spent those hours painting my face, to become momentarily intoxicated with the image I saw in the mirror, even though I knew that the makeup only masked my unhappiness. That’s why I found myself with a strong urge to separate my sense of self from the makeup I’ve been so dependent on for such a long time.
So when a friend asked me to contribute to an article about New Year’s Resolutions in 2015, I publicly resolved to give up being conventionally feminine, and the first thing I put away was my makeup. After years of living in fear of my bare face, I wanted to assert that there’s nothing wrong with who I actually am. I wanted to exist without constantly thinking I was only acceptable if people saw me as beautiful and normal. I wanted to spend time without makeup so that I could better understand my relationship to it — what it gave me and what it took away.
Those first few weeks I stopped wearing makeup were remarkable not in what people said, but what they didn’t say. People no longer called me fabulous or gorgeous, or mentioned my full lips or high cheekbones, those parts of my face I used to overemphasize because people who knew makeup advised me they were striking.
In subtle ways, the power I felt from being perceived as attractive began to dissipate. People smiled at me less on the street, and men no longer opened doors for me. The small privileges of attractiveness I’d gotten used to over my years of womanhood, from baristas making extra sure I got my coffee quickly to clothing store owners occasionally giving me discounts, no longer applied.
Because I’d been living as a woman for such a long time, a lot of the things that happened to me after I stopped wearing makeup were more typical of cisgender women’s experiences, even though I often still felt self-conscious about being trans. It was as though my image of myself in my head had not caught up with what people actually saw. One of the immediate benefits of living my life without makeup was the realization that I no longer had to rely on it to be gendered female, and was not subjected to the kind of harassment I experienced early in transition.
But the loss I felt for not being perceived as beautiful was still significant, especially when I noticed any number of trans celebrities be continually praised for their looks. I also saw a direct correlation between contentment and conventional cisgender beauty among the trans women on my social media feed.
Had I grown up being perceived as a girl, it would have been drilled into me that my looks are vital to my self-worth.
By not wearing makeup, it felt like I was giving up an advantage for no good reason, and I was tempted to slather it back on. I began to wonder how much of the measure of success I had achieved up to that point – like having stable jobs and advanced degrees – can be attributed not to my intelligence or hard work, but to people’s perceptions of me as passable and attractive. But I tried to quiet these voices in my head, resolving to give myself time to acclimate and understand what makeup was really about for me.
It was during this period that I remembered what it was like before I felt all this pressure to look good. I spent an entire childhood to early adulthood hardly ever wondering whether I was attractive enough, because being attractive had little to do with my worth as a human being who was perceived as male. Being smart and talented were the most important qualities I needed to possess, and if I was cute, that was just a bonus. Had I grown up being perceived as a girl, it would have been drilled into me from the beginning that my looks are vital to my self-worth.
As I continued to go out without makeup, I began to recall some of the things I liked about living as male pre-transition (contrary to popular belief, not all trans women are constantly miserable in their assigned gender). I loved how I could get out of bed, put on sweats and go out, not caring what other people thought of my appearance.
I also began to notice a bunch of things I didn’t need to worry about when I didn’t have makeup on. I could rub my eyes whenever I want while I’m working, or munch on snacks then wipe my lips with a napkin without worrying about ruining my lipstick. I didn’t need to feel that weird weight of mascara when I blinked, or that odd texture of foundation on my skin. But most of all, I didn’t have to constantly think about what my face looked like.
So it wasn’t a surprise that the first half of 2015 was one of my most productive periods. The mere fact that I wasn’t faced with the reminder on a regular basis to think about how I looked freed me to think and write about pressing transgender issues that were so important to me. This included writing extensively on Caitlyn Jenner, from the time that she publicly disclosed her trans status to the time she unveiled her name and female presentation on the cover of Vanity Fair. My writing, and not my looks, was what landed me an invitation to be on British national television.
There’s something deeply ironic about being a trans woman who has resolved not to wear makeup, being asked to comment about a trans woman’s glamour in front of millions of people. Needing to decide whether I could actually do that bare-faced was just icing on the cake or, more fittingly, blush on the foundation.
As I got to the station, I was escorted to a waiting room and told I had fifteen minutes before I was on. I went into the restroom, looked in the mirror again, and asked myself if I could really go on without even a little bit of concealer. My face was splotchy; what would be so wrong with just some coverup on my T-zone? I opened the makeup palette I’d just bought and stared at the untouched cake of powder, the color of my skin.
I imagined using the coverup, but then it would make my skin too pale so I would have to add some blush. And if I did that I might as well line my lids to make my eyes pop, then my blonde lashes would look weird without mascara so I’d use a few swipes of that. And I can’t wear eye makeup without doing my lips so nothing wrong with a bit of liner, then –
I found myself closing the palette. I bit then licked my lips to give them color and shine, then pinched my cheeks like I learned from Jane Austen, before going back to the waiting room.
A production assistant escorted me to a small studio, where I was told to sit on a chair facing a camera and a single, bright light. The English trans presenter Paris Lees and BBC Newsnight host Evan Davis were in London while I would be plugged in from New York.
“Do you want to see yourself on the monitor?” the PA asked, motioning to a screen on one side of the camera where I saw that the show had already started. I shook my head and she turned the monitor off. When the segment started, I imagined the face of a British guy as I spoke in front of the lens, and found myself not thinking at all about my own face as I discussed how Jenner shouldn’t need to make herself up to be respected as a woman, and that the trans community has many pressing needs beyond visibility.
A few days after my BBC appearance, I woke up with the urge to use my newly-acquired makeup palette. So I did, and tweeted out a selfie with this missive: “It makes me feel pretty to fight for #transgender rights.” As I looked at my made-up eyes and pink lips, I found myself no longer feeling the same self-doubt I used to feel every time I picked up a makeup brush.
2015 didn’t end up being my year without makeup. 2015 was just the year I stopped letting makeup rule my life. If I could go on TV without makeup on, to share the screen with two incredibly glamorous women, I no longer needed whatever affirmation makeup gave me. And because of this, I no longer needed to throw out makeup altogether. By giving up control of how I looked, I ended up regaining control over my complete self.