This has been edited. Also, here is a disclaimer.
She said “I love your makeup! It’s beautiful! I mean, I could never–it’s not me–but it looks so good on you!”
To which I replied “Of course you could! This is all drugstore makeup and YouTube is incredible!”
She reiterated: “No, I just couldn’t do it. It’s not me.” A gesture to her face, half-sad, half-proud.
Oh boy. Lady, I know where you’re coming from because I’ve been there myself.
In the moment, what I said was “It’s just eyeliner!” and we moved on. And honestly, that’s the whole thing, but I wish I could have found better words to explain it.
What I wish I’d said is: Look. Before I went out for the evening I took some time to paint some stuff on my face. I’ve been practicing painting stuff on my face for a while now, I’m not an expert but I’m better than I used to be.
None of this stuff on my face has transformed who I am. I’m still the exact same person, just with eyeliner, etc. on.
And if you, drunk straight-ish stranger at a gay bar on a Sunday night lowkey cruising for a unicorn, put on eyeliner? You would also be the exact same person. Whoever it is that you are that you think doesn’t wear eyeliner? You can still be that person with eyeliner on.
I, too, was once afraid of eyeliner. I grew up believing that masculine was stronger and better, that feminine was weak and a waste of time. That there’s a set “type” of girls who wear big makeup, dress femme, do their nails, and that “type” is petty and shallow and weak and dumb. As if big makeup and a short skirt could somehow transform my brain into someone else’s brain, bleed out my strength, turn me into a plaything.
There’s a weird dichotomy with fashion in our society. On the one hand, it’s dismissed as unimportant: petty vapid narcissistic shit that only a Kardashian or a Hilton* would give a fuck about. But notice how it’s also used to define a Kardashian or a Hilton. Fashion choices are so deeply tied to notions of self that the idea of putting some eyeliner on can feel genuinely threatening to one’s own identity.
In our consumer-oriented society we all have a lot of stuff: chosen with care, most of it, to be aesthetically pleasing in one way or another. Of all of it, the body is our only default possession. We’re born with it, we die with it. Why is it weird that we’d want to decorate it?
I like fashion because I like playing around with the way my body–MY body–looks. Fashion doesn’t change who I am, but it changes the message I project out into the world. I love indulging in my prerogative to look any way I want to look. I can accentuate my legs–or not. Create an illusion of an hourglass figure–or not. Throw on a stained sweater and walk the dog, then pin my hair up and wear black from head to foot, if I want. Or go virtually bare if I’m feeling it.
I’ll look however I want while I do whatever I want.
Physical objects don’t define us.
Ironically, this entire conversation happened just before a drag show. If this person had stayed for the drag show–not as a voyeur, but as a member of an audience receptive to the messages presented on stage–maybe she would have seen the same thing I did when I too thought “it wasn’t me.”
Ten years ago, in 2008, I wandered into Legends nightclub in Raleigh, North Carolina because I wanted to dance where no one would know me or harass me. A gay bar seemed like my best bet. In the back, they had a drag show, and I decided, what the hell, I’ll go see.
I’d seen exactly one dragged human up to that point: a schizophrenic in a stained pink sequined gown walking past my elementary school and muttering to themself. We ran to the window and I said “let me see!” and the other kids were so shocked by the sight we were seeing that no one pushed me out of the way or told me to shut up, which was the thing that most shocked me.
As I walked into the drag show years later I remembered the strange, disgusting terror I felt that day** and assumed this would be similarly…gross.
It was the opposite of that.
I saw these epic glamazons, these gorgeous seven-feet-tall-in-heels goddesses, twirling in the most beautiful dresses I’d ever seen, happy and confident. I saw everyone in the audience applauding them and genuinely appreciating their beauty, their message. Even if they didn’t pass. Especially if they didn’t pass. I saw these queens accepting the praise in a way that was simultaneously appreciative and unfazed. I saw divas 100% committed to diva-ness, secure in femininity in a way that I, someone assigned female from birth, had never even remotely approached.
It changed my life.
The thing is, I don’t like my body much. I appreciate it, I’m glad it’s functional, I just wish it was…different.
I’m a big girl. Not BBW big, just broad-shoulders wide-hips big-feet too-tall clumsy big. The first time I tried on a party dress–a too-short skin-tight clubbing dress–I cried. In the mirror, I saw a man in a dress. It felt wrong and gross, like I was trying to be something I’m not.
It wasn’t me.
Except, of course, it was me. It’s my body. And it turns out that some of the strongest, most confident, most beautiful women in the world are men in dresses.***
I still see a man in a dress every time I look in the mirror.
But that’s OK. Drag has made that OK for me.
I can own my body instead of apologizing for it or hating it. I can accept it and cultivate it and do whatever I want with it. It’s mine. I define my body, not the other way around. No physical thing gets to define who I am.
It’s just eyeliner. You know?
* Both these fabulous women are also brilliant and top-performing businesspeople, for the record. Back to article
** This is the story of the reaction of a 9-year-old in an evangelical town to something completely foreign to her, and the memory of it years later by someone who didn’t know things. It is not an endorsement of the way anyone should feel about anything. Back to article
*** Not all drag queens are men in dresses. Trans people are central to drag’s history and present. This article is about the reaction I had to the concept that men can dress up like women and still be men. Back to article