There was a time when I smeared this cream foundation on my face because I had been at my boyfriend’s house all night and had to be ready for carpool in 30 minutes. I remember the smell of that foundation. Cheap convenience store make up that covered up depression, sex, sadness, lust and deceit.
Jet black eyeliner was the only thing you could always count on me for, some days only think inside my lower eye lid and others all around, a halo to keep me from crying or seeing or feeling lost. So much so that when we wrote our names on our cigarettes mine were labelled solidblacktears for the mark left behind by non-waterproof liner and mascara.
I got smart, though, and found liquid. These days, these fucking cat eyes are bulletproof.
Lipstick smeared on wine glasses or on the necks of McCormicks vodka gallons always left a trace of something, the effort before the party (or the unravelling). The glimpse of what could have been.
Now with my daughter turning 12, make up haunts with everything it brings. It gives birth to fears of femininity, or protection, of respectability. I feel shame surrounding her new love of mirrors that tell her how her beauty routine is working and how she can have a clearer complexion. I wonder why she isn’t asking for a robotics kit.
Then I take a step back and look at the history of make up. The ancient cultures preparing themselves for war, the sports players rubbing black under their eyes, the Egyptian men lining their lashes to show power. THIS. This is more than child’s play.
It seems today that make up, whether you live feminine or masculine (or both or neither) roles in your life, is always a point of contention. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a judgement. If you live a more feminine role and you don’t wear it, it says something. If you wear it too much, or too thick or your lipstick is too red or your eyelashes are too big or your- you get the point. There is no time when we just exist. Heaven forbid you are living a more masculine role: even so much as playing as a child with the stuff can have you pigeon-holed into all sorts of other categories.
Even when so many incredible makeup artists are men. Even when so many drag queens are exploited for their facade.
People only accept you as a form of entertainment.
This is a concept that came up often during queer studies. The understanding that the only reason the then-shunned queer community came to be accepted in media and representation was in times of humor. The “gay best friend” trope came to exist in cinema and TV- but only in a form of comedic release. Even in shows that appeared to be gay-friendly (supportive?, dare I say) like Will and Grace, the queer characters were constantly doomed to failed relationships and disastrous toxic friend dynamics. For seasons the hetero audience boisterously laughed at their queerness. And we followed right along.
And let’s not forget Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, where we used the stereotype of the “put together” gay guy to turn the straight guy around- but always with the purpose of pursuing the “straight” agenda: get your shit together and get the girl!
Then Viva! shows us a very similar occurrence, the entertainment niche of drag shows, even in homophobic communities like Cuba, adored for their ability to amuse the cishets.
We have again and again used, and amused ourselves with the masks of character play: whether stereotypical or topical. We have decided that the idea that we have of someone is only valuable if we are entertained by it: and we have in turn entertained ourselves with their judgment.
So when my daughter paints her face she is not crying for help she is crying for war. Whatever character she plays is intimately connected to her and she is more real for adorning her body than standing naked in front of a mirror:
We are more real through what we choose than what we are given.
It is this same way that we purge weight, hair and clothing when transforming ourselves. Our bodies may not crystalize into chrysalises but we carefully place brush after brush stroke for a very specific reason. And it’s time we stop apologizing for it.