Every morning, after I adequately dry myself off from the shower, I put on eyeliner. Most days I daub on some lipstick, too, although sometimes I skip the shading — my girlfriend says my lips are softer without the purples and deep reds.
I used to be afraid of getting made up. Halloween was a good excuse — “What? I want to be a werewolf.” — but, in the early days of my transition, I feared that even a dark, thin line above my eyelashes would practically scream what I wasn’t ready to reveal to the world yet.
At home, I’d stick to basics. It was mostly a matter of seeing if I could color within the lines. I sent photos to my girlfriend, who loved the look, but I didn’t go out like that for a while. When I finally did, made-up and in a black dress that hugged my hips, I bustled from apartment to car to therapist’s office before doing a test run at a hipster bar that was mercifully dead. Nothing like a quiet Tuesday night to try something terrifying.
More than a year after that night, a few strokes with eyeliner pencil and lip paint are just another step in a morning routine that’s grown a little more complicated as my hair’s grown out and I scan my face for any persistent hairs that need to be pulled up by the roots. But almost every time I stand in front of the mirror, I hear a friend’s question in my head.
“Why do you feel like you have to wear makeup at all?”
Every identity is political, whether we like it or not. Who we choose to be — and who we present ourselves as — relates to our beliefs, how we were raised, the choices we make, and a litany of other factors.
When I thought I was a cisgender man, it was easy to ignore this point. I didn’t have to think about why. I just was, and putting in the minimum effort to not be shitty got me cookies.
Now I identify as non-binary and am a transfemme. Seemingly every decision I make, from the time I get up to when sleep snaps in, is charged. What I do with my body can be seen as liberating and reinforcing toxic norms. Protesting conformity sometimes feels like reinforcing it, just like when I wanted to express myself as punk but still bought band tees and a chain wallet from Hot Topic.
My friend had a point. Makeup companies have made fortunes through sexism and unhealthy beauty standards. Makeup isn’t presented as a flourish, but as a must. And I didn’t really wear makeup before. By making a kitten flick and dark lips a regular part of my presentation, am I not saying that makeup is for women and should be a sign of gender?
I started hormone replacement therapy because my body didn’t feel right without breasts and more curvature. Yet women don’t need to have breasts or an hourglass shape to be women. Almost everything I look at and want to change about myself — from hard angles on my face to the way fat sits on my stomach — is part of an anatomical spectrum found within humans regardless of sex or gender. Am I playing into the binary I want to smash, inching towards identities that are not biological but set by millennia of patriarchy?
And yet I can still remember how I felt when I started to shave my legs, paint my nails, and see if I could apply makeup without poking myself in the eye. I needed something. I needed something I felt I could do, to get just that much closer — even thin as a line — to who I wanted to be. I was 35 when I came out in November of 2018. Even though I got to start my transition soon after, the following March, the days, weeks, and months felt almost unbearable. I couldn’t just sit and wait. I wanted change. I needed change. Even if I had to wait on my body, I could start to alter my expression — to try all the things I wanted to but had been told “boys don’t do that.”
The thoughts clang around in my head. Navigating a way through the push and pull of the broader culture often feels like it only raises more contradictions. Gender is a social construct, so why do I feel the need to undertake physical changes? But if I didn’t change at all, then I might as well write a book to explain my feelings to people to avoid the hours of constant coming out I’d have to do.
Every choice I make, from the clothes I wear to the attributes of my body, feels like it requires repeated questioning and mulling over. Am I sure I want this and am not playing into someone else’s idea of what I should be like? In carving out my own identity, am I buttressing cultural expectations that we need to change? The weight builds up fast, especially when safety even within circles isn’t a guarantee. In a world that doesn’t want us to exist, we sure do spend a lot of time trying to tell each other the proper way to be trans.
I’m certain that I’m not immune to cultural influence. No one is. What I want and who I want to be isn’t internally-generated or instinctual like a need for water. We can only tell ourselves that if we close our eyes and shut out the context. But, ultimately, I live in my body. I want to act with intention about what I want it to be like.
I know that’s a privilege. I am in a situation where I can make those choices, find support, and afford at least some of the alterations I’d like. And how I feel is undoubtedly formed by my Western perspective that I’m an individual first rather than a piece of a family or community.
If we were only to talk in the abstract, at a societal level, some of my decisions might be problematic. In trying to transcend categories and break down gender lines, doing things like wearing dresses and keeping up the HRT that’s changing my body could be cast as bopping along to a sexist tune that’d be better broken.
But this body is what I live in, the only life I have. I didn’t have to transition to change my expression, but I never felt right in my body. And I think there’s great value in trying to find our comfortable place along a range of variation instead of feeling bound by the circumstances of how we’re born. Trans or not, fucking with gender is a powerful thing to do, and it raises a question that I want everyone to be supported in answering — what do I want for my body, my life?
I don’t expect for everyone to like or agree with what I choose. Whether it’s outright transphobia or queer gatekeeping, people haven’t been shy about giving their opinions on my life. Sometimes being out can feel like a walking comment section where strangers can indiscriminately dump their gunk all over you and vanish. Perhaps they think I’m clueless about what I’m doing, as if I don’t have a reel of questions and contradictions in my head on a daily basis.
All I can say for sure is that I’m still in the process of becoming. And that’s true for everyone. You don’t have to face that fact, but, from what you hold dear to your very bones, we’re constantly changing. To simply be carried along our life’s flow is a choice. So is taking a breath, diving below, and swimming with all we’ve got.