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Personal Essay
7 min

What makeup taught me about being a lesbian

For years I shunned lipstick and eyeliner for fear that I was either too queer, or not feminine enough

We sit on our living room carpet by the window, tools splayed out on the coffee table. The natural lighting here is perfect, Arielle tells me. I look into the tiny vanity mirror and wince, because she’s right: I can see every blackhead, every stray eyebrow hair, every patch of dry skin magnified before my eyes. “This sucks,” I mutter as she begins rubbing creamy foundation across my cheeks with a sponge.

My partner of four years and a classic femme, Arielle has done my makeup on a handful of special occasions. She is among the few people I trust with a ritual I’ve never partaken in myself, opting instead for an everyday look of a bare face and complementary purple bags under my eyes. My relationship with makeup is complicated, a long history of avoiding it for fear of what it said about me, about my identity as a queer woman. But, on the eve of an industry event, a time when I need to look my best, I decide to decorate my face. The only problem: Arielle has an evening shift and won’t be here to do it for me.

So that day, she promises to teach me to apply it myself, our legs crossed on the apartment floor. Once the foundation dries, my face looks like porcelain. I stare out at the various brushes in front of me — some thin and precise, some soft and puffy — and I cry, long streams of tears marking lines of white down my powdered cheeks. I don’t know how to do this, how to amplify my features with palettes and pencils, I tell her. It doesn’t feel right.

As a kid, I felt more at home in my brother’s hand-me-downs than the more feminine apparel friends and family gifted to me (and there were plenty of frilly, lacy, hot-pink shirts purchased by aunts and uncles who just didn’t know me). My mom, too, tried her best to get me into dresses and sequined shirts — the way she used to dress as a little girl — but I always physically recoiled, pulling the garments off me as soon as they were on. When she realized dolling me up was a losing battle, she started describing me as a tomboy — the kind of little girl who plays make-believe in her dad’s muddy Bobcat machine and opts for Adidas track pants in place of denim skirts. The label felt like a warm hug.

Growing up surrounded by Catholic schoolgirls in North Toronto’s suburbs, I could never understand how I’d grow into a young woman, one who looked like the kilt-wearing, rosy-cheeked teen girls I saw in our neighbourhood. My mom promised that some day, when I hit puberty, I’d find an interest in boys and makeup and shopping — the pinnacles of teenage girldom. It never happened.

Instead, I stayed the same. My cheeks slimmed and my awkward hair cuts grew out, but that transformation into traditional femininity never came. The interest in boys didn’t come either. When I started high school, I ditched my hockey guy friends for cute girls, drawn to them even if we lacked common interests. Boys I once had crushes on became boring to me. When I wasn’t spending time with my girl friends, I was googling “gayness” like illnesses on WebMD, wondering if my attraction to other girls was temporary or curable. When I realized it wasn’t, I found myself in a strange and scary place: I was young, I was queer and I didn’t fit in.

I could have faked it if I wanted to. I studied the girls around me, scrolling through their Facebook profiles in bed every night. Their appearances were effortless, it seemed. At 16, most girls at my high school had perfected the winged liner, the smoky eye, the nude lip. I remained bare-faced, my eyebrows unplucked, the scar down the centre of my forehead (thanks to a childhood fall) exposed. I didn’t get it: did other girls possess an innate, organic understanding of femininity I didn’t? Was I missing some sort of “girl gene,” one that straight girls had? I began equating femininity with heterosexuality; if I failed at being straight, I was failing at being a girl, too.

My aversion to makeup was twofold: I was afraid of failure, of applying a red lip too liberally and standing out more than I, one of my Catholic high school’s few out queer kids, already did. I was already a laughing stock; why give my peers more reason to pick on me? But perhaps most importantly, my lack of makeup was a distinct, visible mark of my difference. I was not straight and not feminine; why should I look like those other girls? It was, I thought, an act of rebellion, to position myself as the queer tomboy who chose not to conform to society’s understanding of womanhood. It was a choice I could control, unlike my sexuality.

I looked to the few queer role models I had growing up. Ellen DeGeneres, perhaps America’s most famous lesbian, was known not for her femininity but for her relaxed, boyish look. After her coming out, Ellen slowly progressed from a sitcom star who wore statement necklaces and straightened her hair to a talk-show host who chopped her blonde locks at the barbershop and wore bulky men’s watches. She was a CoverGirl, but she didn’t look like one. This, I thought, was how to be a lesbian: to embrace that in-between space of femininity and masculinity, to not make myself up. Naively, I bought Oxford button-downs and toyed with cutting my shoulder-length hair into a pixie cut. Makeup remained a mystery. I thought I’d nailed being gay.

Navigating this newfound identity, I placed less significance on my feelings and more on my appearance: these visible markers, I thought, were of greater currency, to signify to others who I am. To be queer was to look a certain way. But as I matured, I watched others evolve in time with me: Tegan and Sara grew out their mullets and threw out their band tees, exchanging them for pompadours and fitted blazers. Janelle Monae expanded her wardrobe beyond the tuxedo, experimenting with iridescent pant suits and sequined dresses. Samira Wiley ping-ponged between butch and femme fashion.

The ways we adorn ourselves are not indicators of who we are, I realized. Makeup does not make a woman, nor does an aversion to it symbolize queer righteousness.

In my young adulthood, I relaxed my stance, saying yes to foundation and eyeliner on special occasions. But I never touched the tools myself. On the day of my university graduation photos, a friend sat me down for forty minutes, urging me not to blink as she swiped mascara across my lashes. When my cousin got married, my mother painted my lips pink. And Arielle dressed my face up for birthdays and anniversaries.

Later, I learned it was not so much the act of wearing makeup as it was applying it that I feared most. When we moved in together two years ago, I watched Arielle powder her face and coat her eyelashes with mascara gracefully every morning. For years before that, I saw my mother draw her eyeliner just beneath the water line, so carefully. My fingers, fat and shaky, weren’t made to bring delicate wands up to my eyeballs. I appealed to my old sensibilities: I wasn’t woman enough for this task.

My perfectly applied foundation now ruined, I reach for a makeup wipe to rub it all away — back to my comfort zone. “I feel like a failure,” I tell Arielle, snotty-faced and embarrassed. She  smiles, and I’m annoyed. How could she revel in this moment of disaster for me, a 24-year-old without the capabilities to wear basic makeup? Then she laughs, and she lets me in on an inside joke: “This is just like my first time,” she says. I feel ashamed at how long I’d let my adolescent mind accept femininity as some ingrained fact. In her early 20s she watched hours of YouTube makeup tutorials, she admits, trying to understand the balance between a natural look and one too clownish for a high-school party. “I still don’t know how to do a cat eye,” she confesses.

It seems ludicrous that such a revelation — that my partner did not instinctively know how to apply makeup — might come well into adulthood. But the moment it clicks, I feel relief. No longer am I bound to the naivety I held onto throughout my life. Femininity, I realize, is not ingrained but learned, not hinged on the act of dress-up but in how we carry ourselves, in our confidence.

I look at my hands next to hers — manicured, nails painted bright purple — and mine don’t seem so shaky anymore. I pick up a makeup sponge and slather it with liquid foundation, gently gliding it across my cheeks in the same swift motion as Arielle did just moments before, blending it into my skin. I look back into the vanity mirror and I realize with childlike wonderment that I have, in fact, just applied my own foundation. Step one complete: I’m no longer a makeup virgin.

The next night, without Arielle by my side, I set down the brushes and palettes, mascara and foundation on the coffee table. A dingier day, the lighting isn’t as great, but I make do. On my first attempt, I screw up, getting foundation in the wisps of hair hanging by my cheek. For a moment it is a setback, and I feel tears welling up in my eyes again, that familiar pang of I can’t do this! bubbling up in my chest. Instead I choose, this time, to press on — not for anyone or any societal pressure but to prove to myself that I can, that these hurdles are not indicative of my position or place in the world but a simple learning curve. It takes me 25 minutes to apply foundation, mascara, eyeshadow and lipgloss. It’s not nearly as clean or meticulously done as Arielle’s attempt the day before; but, paired with a new suit and a button-down, I look and feel authentically me.

Once I arrive, no one at the event comments on my face, or perhaps even notices something is different. But I beam with pride, a confidence in my newfound skill. By night’s end, most of my lipgloss is smeared off onto the venue’s pint glasses, only to be washed away by industrial dishwashers. At home, I rub the colours off my face with a wipe and toss it in the trash. I leave no trace of my accomplishment.