Why Is Enjoying Beauty When You’re Non-Binary So Hard?

Illustrated by Bee Illustrates
As a non-binary person – someone who doesn’t identify as male or female – my relationship with beauty has always been a battle of never fitting in (nor wanting to). Growing up, I was an awkward, brown emo kid in a body I wasn’t sure was my own. I donned a choppy, Avril Lavigne-esque haircut and smudged black eyeliner to stray far away from the assigned idea of femininity which society had attributed to me and my vagina. Soon, alternative beauty became a solace and allowed me to reject very 'girly girl' ideals. But I often thought, How many obstacles can I create to help me run away from being a girl before I admit that I don’t want to be one?
For me, makeup has been a safe haven for experimenting with gender expression. I could test the waters of masculinity and femininity, knowing that if I didn’t like it, I could simply wipe it off. But the beauty industry – how it's marketed and advertised, not to mention how brands cater to the needs of 'woman' or 'man' – is struggling to catch up with the mainstream understanding of gender fluidity. We’ve always lived in a world of binaries and though beauty has positioned itself as an inclusive space, subconscious notions of gender pervade: if you wear makeup you’re a woman, and if you’re husky and hairy you’re a man. These ideas keep the way we navigate hair and makeup nailed to the past. 
Drag artist Effy Raine says that they get misgendered instantly if wearing makeup. "It’s truly exhausting to not only be misgendered," says Effy, "but to see how others react to masculine-presenting people who wear makeup. They assume sexuality and gender solely on this." Refinery29's junior operations manager Lauren shares Effy's frustration. In fact, the way they wear their hair and makeup during the pandemic has changed as a result. Lauren says: "I opt for more muted colours because that feels a lot more gender expressive as opposed to wearing pink, which I probably would have done before." Lauren continues: "I’ve dialled it down a lot just to try and avoid the whole 'she' thing. A lot of people think that if you wear makeup, you are female. It’s still very black and white for people and there's a misconception that because you don’t identify as female, that’s because you identify as male; there’s no in-between. It gets to a point where you put makeup on and wait for someone to say, ‘Oh, I thought you were more male.' I was never very feminine in the first place so now I’m even more conscious of [my hair and makeup]."

I've muted my makeup to try and avoid the whole 'she' thing. A lot of people think that if you wear makeup, you are female. There's no in-between.

It isn't just individuals; the beauty industry has a lot to answer for, as it is failing non-binary people by leaving us out of the conversation entirely. Sure, the makeup world is embracing online makeup artist entrepreneurs like trans YouTuber Nikkie Tutorials and openly gay YouTuber Bretman Rock, for example. But the industry still operates strictly within the constructs of gender, which trickles down into wider society and how individuals view non-binary people who have an interest in beauty. Think 'male' and 'female' razors, skincare 'for men' or product packaging which features solely male or female models. Even when brands strive for inclusivity, the community doesn't always welcome change. Superdrug's sanitary line for "people who menstruate" was met with an online storm of backlash from transphobic commenters claiming the brand was "erasing" women.
Jack Oliver, a recent contestant on BBC Three's Glow Up (and one of the first openly non-binary participants who uses they/them pronouns), explains that even in 2021, the beauty industry still mostly caters to one gendered group. "A huge chunk of the industry is pushed on one audience," Jack says, raising an important point: all non-binary folk are tired of the question, "But you don’t look non-binary?" Similarly, Lauren says that they are not completely androgynous but it's what some people tend to believe about being non-binary. "A lot of people say to me, ‘I look at you and I can’t tell [that you’re non-binary] immediately," Lauren explains. For Lauren, it results in beauty experimentation and trying to get the look 'right'. "It's so people don’t think you’re one way or the other," they say. "You can never win. Even when I had blue hair last year, there was never any question on people’s minds. We need to get past the idea of 'I see, so I know the answer' [in regard to someone’s gender]. I’d rather someone asked than say, ‘Oh, you’ve got pink hair and tits and you’re wearing eyeliner, so you’re obviously female’. Genetically, yes, but that’s not my identity. I think that’s what people need to separate."
"You don't look non-binary" is an inescapable phrase that’s haunted my career as a journalist. Trolls will flood my mentions saying that I’m falsely claiming the non-binary title because a lack of representation in mainstream media has left very little to the imagination of cisgender people. I want to make things crystal clear: being non-binary is a gender identity; it’s how you feel inside about yourself and your place in the world. We don’t simply put on dungarees, cut our hair short and boom: gender crisis. I like the colour pink and wear it often but that doesn’t automatically mean I identify as a girl.

The beauty industry's goal is to make you feel 'pretty' and for some reason, their idea of pretty is feminine [...] I do find it very fun and relaxing but the way it makes people perceive me feels very wrong.

As a result, many non-binary folk find themselves spiralling down the rabbit hole of imposter syndrome, constantly doubting whether they’re 'truly' non-binary, all because they still enjoy things which are traditionally assigned to one specific gender. Beauty, in particular makeup, is one of these things. "I definitely feel like I’m in a constant state of chronic self-doubt because of my interest in beauty," says makeup lover El. "It can be hard as feminine-presenting individuals to be interested in beauty as it is extensively targeted towards women specifically, and has been for centuries." Lauren also finds navigating this irksome. "The longer my hair is, the more feminine that apparently makes me. But the shorter my hair is, the more masculine that makes me. You can never get it right or be what people think you will be."
It’s easy to point the finger of blame at billion-dollar beauty brands but as Effy explains, even when efforts are made towards inclusivity, our 'inclusive' communities are often the unsafest places. Referring to the intersection of beauty with gender norms, Effy says: "It’s ingrained at such a young age. You see parents stop their children from playing with makeup because it has feminine undertones. The change needs to start at home." Effy is right. From households to beauty stores, we need to hold ourselves accountable and recognise that the infrastructure of the industry wasn't built for gender inclusivity. A prime example is YouTuber Nikkie Tutorials, who came out as trans to 13.5 million subscribers in January 2020. Though met with an overwhelming amount of love, Nikkie's coming out video (which has now amassed a whopping 37 million views) was bombarded with thousands of dislikes and hateful comments – including from Too Faced employee Lisa Blandino, who mocked the star. Lisa was eventually fired from the company.
TikToker and small business owner Kellin details their complicated relationship with beauty. They explain that in the process of creating their own eyeshadow palette, they realised that a lot of the products in makeup and skincare are feminising. "[The beauty industry's] goal is to make you feel 'pretty' and for some reason, their idea of pretty is feminine. I don't wear makeup or wigs as often as I used to. As I become more comfortable in my masculinity and more dysphoric in my femininity, I shut out beauty for myself. I do find it very fun and relaxing but the way it makes people perceive me feels very wrong." While it may seem like a challenge to change people's perceptions, Effy says that beauty advertisement and marketing has come a long way in terms of championing neutrality. "Drugstore makeup aside, we're seeing a change in packaging (compared to when I was younger where there was pink, floral and generally 'femme' packaging). It’s nice to see a lot of brands opt for neutral packaging now. It even looks more professional in an industry setting where makeup artists will be doing makeup on everyone."
For cisgender people, being non-binary can be an overwhelming concept to grasp. A lot of us have always known a world of just two parts so it's difficult to understand anything beyond that. Slowly but surely, though, society is freeing itself of the limitations of gender roles – and the way we view beauty must change, too. Brands have to embrace inclusivity but we also need to look within our communities and create safe spaces for non-binary folk to play and experiment in the world of hair and makeup without judgement.

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