The Surprising Way Lipstick Has Helped Me Explore My Gender Identity

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins
Up until February, I had owned exactly one lipstick in my entire life. It was bright red, shiny and completely the wrong shade for me. It's currently hidden in the back of a drawer from where it mocks me with its carmine smirk. Even though the lipstick doesn't particularly suit me, I can't bear to throw it out. It would mean admitting to myself that I previously had no idea how to perform the femininity expected of me. Surely every woman needs to own at least one lipstick?
Of course they don't; makeup doesn't equal gender any more than genitals do. But it took coming out as trans for me to truly believe that I wasn't broken. Makeup has always confused me and, growing up, I didn't understand why the girls around me were so interested in it or why there was an assumption that I would be, too. When I was 11 years old, my friend threw a makeover party for her birthday. Afterwards, I tried to want to wear makeup but it didn't work out and I realised that I could never be 'normal'. I couldn't make myself care about sparkly eyeshadow.
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Throughout my teens I was constantly asked, Why don't you wear makeup? The more I didn't, I felt the pressure and confusion of my peers grow. Discovering feminism helped; it showed me that not wearing makeup is a valid choice. Even today, though, I still unpack my internalised misogyny around 'other women' who choose to wear makeup. I shamed the people who liked it because it scared me. I clung to my feminist superiority to hide the fact that I felt broken because I didn't wear lipstick or shave my legs. Worse, I didn't want to.
As I got older, I grew frustrated with the increased gender performance required of me, especially when I began high school and dance shows meant heels and fishnets rather than leotards and soft, split-sole shoes. It was then that I bought my first lipstick to match a borrowed blusher and foundation, but it felt wrong. I wasn't comfortable and it reminded me that I was different.

I thought, What if makeup had never fit me because the gendered expectations of being a woman hadn't suited?

In today's world, society puts so much pressure on women and feminine-of-centre folk to have a wealth of knowledge about makeup and fashion, but somehow I missed out on that. It wasn't until I allowed myself to explore my gender identity that I began to feel curious about makeup for the first time. I thought, What if makeup had never fit me because the gendered expectations of being a woman hadn't suited? Maybe makeup wasn't the frightening thing at all; perhaps it was the idea of being a woman. And perhaps, actually, lipstick could be part of how I performed my new, queerer gender.
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The first time I visited a makeup counter after coming out, trying to find a lipstick that worked for me, I felt like myself in a way I never had before. I was wearing jeans and a badge which stated my pronouns ('ze/hir', often used in the trans community by non-binary and genderqueer people instead of 'she/her' or 'he/him'). In that moment I didn't care if someone thought I was a woman. I felt like an excited child among the beautifully packaged reds and pinks. Instead of a confusing expectation which oppressed me, I could use makeup – in particular lipstick – to express my fluid gender.

Makeup went from representing a way in which I was failing at being a woman to something that's fun and playful. Realising I'm trans has allowed me to embrace some of the femininity that I've feared for so long.

After years of feeling broken, it's amazing how easy it has been to flip the switch. Makeup went from representing a way in which I was failing at being a woman to something that's fun and playful. I no longer skirt around the makeup counters in Boots and I don't have to be ashamed that I've never mastered how to apply blusher. I can approach makeup with curiosity and experimentation, trying it on like a denim jacket or stomp-on-the-patriarchy boots. I'm still finding my style but without all of those expectations, that exploration has become fun. Realising I'm trans has allowed me to embrace some of the femininity that I've feared for so long.
Now I no longer shoulder the weight of expectation that a young woman should know how to apply mascara or be a dab hand at winged eyeliner. Makeup makes me feel trans. I want to navigate using lipstick while packing (wearing padding or a phallic object in the front of the trousers or underwear to give the appearance of having a penis) and binding (the act of pushing the breast tissue down to create the appearance of a flat chest), both commonly practised by trans men, too.
Using lipstick as an expression of my gender fluidity – not an expression of being a woman – feels powerful. Today, lipstick doesn't make me a woman; lipstick makes me a fucking badass.

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