Though beauty ideals change with trends and seasons, they’re often concerned with conforming to traditional ideas about gender and sexuality — how “men” and “women” ought to look, or how to make us more desirable to the “opposite sex”.
As a researcher at the University of Melbourne, I’d know. I’ve dug deep into the world of beauty culture and how hair and beauty salons can impact our identities. Most recently, I've interviewed and surveyed countless people to understand how our beauty routines impact our identities.
While I didn’t set out to explore the relationship between beauty culture and queer identity specifically, as I progressed, I discovered that hair and beauty rituals are incredibly significant to LGBTQIA+ people’s sense of self and identity.
But that’s not because they’re buying into the prevailing heteronormative beauty ideals. Rather, the LGBTQIA+ community has created their own version of “queer beauty”, often challenging — or completely rejecting — traditional beauty ideals and instead seeking out hairstyles and makeup trends that subvert traditional expectations.
What Is “Queer Beauty”?
Obviously, queerness is more than skin deep. However, when it comes to appearances, many LGBTQIA+ people find themselves in a bind. While there are no “right” ways to signal queerness, being able to be recognised as queer by other LGBTQIA+ people goes a long way — it can help queer people make friends, find romantic partners, and validate their identities. But how exactly do LGBTQIA+ people signal this queerness?
One queer non-binary person I interviewed, Sage*, told me: “the idea of ‘I don’t fit in a box’ has always been what I’ve tried to express…with how I present”. Sage was assigned female at birth and as a young person, had long hair. With their initial gender presentation, they felt like they were invisible in the queer community and that people judged them as not “queer enough”.
But when they cut their hair short for the first time, they said it was for “the queer community gaze” — not the male gaze. As Sage reflected, “salon workers were telling me, ‘Oh, but boys won’t like you looking like this.’” For Sage, that was the whole point.
While that's not to say that cutting your hair short is a queer-coded action, there's a particular emphasis in queer beauty on questioning identity boxes. Because being straight and gender-conforming is still considered the norm, many straight cisgender people take the identity boxes that they have been assigned for granted. In contrast, most LGBTQIA+ people inevitably reflect on questions about identity in relation to their appearance, and how they are received in the world.
Is Queer Beauty Always About Subversion?
Not necessarily. Even though there is no such thing as a queer haircut, Sage’s story is a common one in queer communities. It was through cutting their hair short that they felt more able to signal to the world a kind of gender rebellion that had queer ramifications.
But some LGBTQIA+ people can feel caught out by the assumption that queer beauty has to be about subversion. For example, queer femmes might feel like their queerness is invisible because of their feminine presentation.
When we’re talking about LGBTQIA+ experiences, the relationship to beauty also varies widely across different individuals. For example, Ash, a transgender woman said she didn’t want outlandish hair or makeup styles and didn’t want to always signal her transness. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it or uncomfortable talking about it, it’s just – it’s just the least important part of me to me,” she said. "It’s my reality, not my identity.”
A queer approach to beauty doesn’t always have to mean subverting expectations of appearance. It might involve taking a more playful and experimental approach that understands beauty practices in terms of self-expression and autonomy, rather than striving to achieve narrow ideals that are about heterosexual attractiveness or gender conformity.
How Can Salons Affirm LGBTQIA+ People’s Identity?
When confronted with a world that constantly reiterates the importance of binary gender and heterosexual attractiveness, it’s vital for queer people to find and assert a personal style that feels right for them and can give them agency over their bodies and identities.
As Jade, a queer woman I interviewed suggested, getting a haircut that feels identity-affirming is particularly crucial for “how you connect with yourself and how you connect with your body”, as well as feeling “autonomy over your body”.
But it’s still difficult to figure out how to communicate one’s inner sense of self with how they would like to be received by others. This can often have larger existential implications for queer people.
Ash spoke about how hard this alignment was before she realised that she was trans. “When I’d see a hairdresser in the past, I’d sit on the chair and they’d ask me what I want… I struggled to articulate what I wanted, or even understand that, or know what would work for me”.
What Happens If Queer People Don’t Have Access To Beauty Spaces?
Even though lots of people (LGBTQIA+ included) cut their hair at home and have daily DIY beauty routines, hair and beauty salons can still be important places for some queer people. This was felt the most when salons were shut down during pandemic lockdowns.
Alex, a bisexual transgender man told me, “Going to the barber really affirms my gender identity as a trans man. It’s hard when I can't go.”
Similarly, Sally, a bisexual cisgender woman, also noted, “My appearance is a big part of my identity. Not being able to have regular salon time…and look the way I want makes lockdown life even harder.”
While many people spoke about how “liberating” the closure of salons was as a way for them to be freed from beauty expectations, the same can’t be said for many LGBTQIA+ people. Instead, many queer people saw this loss of space as a loss of the ability to practise identity-affirming beauty rituals.
Another person I spoke to, Jade, recalled seeing a “pampering day” event run by a queer youth service. “To see young queer people or young queer trans people walk into a space where they know they don't have to worry about what they’re asking for and then walk out with what they envision in their head displayed on themselves in real life. That’s some cool shit.”
Why Queer People Need Safer Beauty Spaces
But it isn’t as simple as walking into any old hair salon. For some queer people, it can be challenging to have conversations with salon workers who aren’t well-versed in queer beauty. Walk into most hair salons and you will still see services and prices divided by binary gender (with “women’s” haircuts usually being more expensive). This, plus the cost of accessing services, is perhaps why so many people in the LGBTQIA+ communities insist on good old DIY haircuts, colours, and beauty treatments.
However, in recent years, an increasing number of gender-neutral and queer-specific salons have popped up, mostly around cities. These spaces are designed to create safer spaces for LGBTQIA+ people to access hair and beauty services without judgment, and often with more equitable pricing.
When Jade first went to a salon that specifically stated that it was for the queer community, she felt “weird to feel so affirmed” by her hair, especially given her negative views of regular salons. As she reflected, she found that the importance of queer-specific salons lies in their feeling of normality. “You’re not a spectacle, you’re just a person trying to fucking get something done for yourself,” she said.
But there is a fine line between providing services for queer people to feel comfortable in salons, and financially preying on or exploiting the queer community. Just as queer salons have emerged, so too have many brands and products which seek to take advantage of LGBTQIA+ people as a “market”. They package up and sell queerness and gender non-conformity back to the community.
The Beauty Behind Queer Expression
When we think about queer beauty, it’s clear how hair and beauty practices are essential to how LGBTQIA+ people communicate and affirm their identities. Queer beauty can help challenge everyone to reflect on their own identities and question which boxes we’re expected to conform to.
Yes, it’s about subversion. But it’s also about playfulness, experimentation, or simply having autonomy over what you communicate to the world through your appearance. And it’s something not just queer people can benefit from — we could all do with thinking differently and critically about what hair and beauty routines we subscribe to and how these might influence our own gender, sexuality, and identity more broadly.
So next time you look in the mirror, I urge you to question: what are you trying to communicate? How is the world receiving you? Has your beauty routine been handed to you through a set of expectations you’ve never really reflected on, or is there something different you could try?
*Note that pseudonyms are used throughout this piece.
Dr Hannah McCann is a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. You can find out more about the Beauty Salon Project here.