Warpaint: memoirs of a femme

For many, makeup can be critical in constructing their queer identity. For others, it is constrictive. Danni Glover considers the role cosmetics play in her own identity.


Before I start this column, let me just put my face on. There! That’s better. As I write, I am wearing a new lipstick in an orangey-red hue that I thought wouldn’t suit me, purchased on a whim in a premium brand’s sale. I am leaving traces of tangerine promise on my coffee cup, on the tip of the pen I keep in my diary, on my lover’s forehead as I raced out the door. I look good. I feel good. I like the boldness of my tinted eyebrows next to the sensual fuzz of my undercut; the sweep of warm pink blush gesturing to the metal hoops in my nose; lacquered nails hammering out a queer discourse on my computer. I like makeup.

For me, doing my makeup is part self-care ritual, part evasiveness. I didn’t actually wake up like this. I woke up pale, with dark under-eye circles and light acne, mild skin complaints and wild bedhead. And I tinted, and blended, and buffed until I felt like myself again. True, when I analyse this sacramental rite, I am discomforted by my reasons. I just like the way I look a bit less without a bit of shimmer. My head feels less tidy. I’m not as put together, not as capable of professionalism or inventiveness. I wonder sometimes – often – if part of this is the closet demon whispering its old poison. If I am painting on the face of a straight person who was born with the roadmap for navigating gender that I’ve always been missing, to deflect from the visible markers of my queerness.

It’s complicated. I used to use makeup as a marker of difference. I was a teenage goth with heavily lined eyes and Fabulous Stains hair and, in that time of defining my identity privately, I found a way to experiment with it publically. Now, when I feel secure and comfortable – not to mention out – I’m less conscious of this. I wouldn’t say my look gets me much credit in the straight world, but I’m less inclined towards weirdness for weirdness’s sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I think part of the failure of the modern LGBTQ+ movement is the undercurrent of heterogeneity, that we must strive to be more like cishet people in order to enjoy the same rights as them. Nah. Wave your weirdness, I say. Or maybe extol your exuberance.

I wonder sometimes – often – if part of this is the closet demon whispering its old poison. If I am painting on the face of a straight person who was born with the roadmap for navigating gender that I’ve always been missing, to deflect from the visible markers of my queerness.

I remember hearing the word “femme” for the first time, as a confused but visibly queer teenage feminist, and feeling celebrated. Here was an identity I could get behind. It was feminine, but a protest. It questioned what the word “feminine” meant. It put the means of definition into our own hands: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the New York Dolls informed my identity as much as Elizabeth Taylor and MAC Cosmetics campaigns. I still feel celebrated by that word, but in too many ways it fails us. Like a smear of concealer, it covers up enforced femininity for trans women, neglect for non-binary or gender fluid people. Why are Marilyn Monroe and Dita von Teese conventionally seen as femme icons but not Anna May Wong or Missy Elliott? (Hopefully the rise of legendary children Laverne Cox and Beth Ditto are waves of a changing tide, beautiful in diversity and visibility.) Whose beauty and femininity is defiant and empowering, and whose is overlooked? And why are any of us complicit in a beauty convention which encourages female-identified people to be hairless, thin, white, and rich enough to pay for it all? That perpetuates a myth that if you don’t participate you are messy and if you do you are not serious enough? This is not even to speak of those who are not female identified but who want to play with makeup without shame, assumptions, or coy euphemisms such as “guyliner”.

Why are Marilyn Monroe and Dita von Teese conventionally seen as femme icons but not Anna May Wong or Missy Elliot?

My navel-gazing is not saying anything new, but perhaps it’s giving a voice to my own internal conflict. I like the way makeup makes me feel, which I suppose is the crux of the argument, but I don’t like that it feels mandatory. As a woman I’ve been attacked and discriminated against for being too feminine and for not being feminine enough; as a queer person, I’ve been ostracised and pigeonholed. And still, I buy the lipstick. I tweeze the brows. I paint the nails. And I like it. I feel confident and bold, and more than that I feel certain in myself. If my body is a temple, surely I deserve to decorate it, for me and for those who worship me.

Thank you to Kodi J. Masterson, @katkins1982, and NerdyAyna for their invaluable input. 

Follow Danni on Twitter: @danvestite

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