Wearing makeup is not what defines us as women. Many of us don’t wear mascara; we’re not validated by eyeshadow. But one February night in 2016, when I got a bit tipsy, my roommate did my makeup at 2 a.m. I felt so good—so feminine. I was 21, and I knew I was trans. She knew it too: I had just revealed my gender identity to her with the help of a few shots of liquid courage. But for other people in my life, it was still a big mystery. Transitioning is a lengthy process that involves a lot of effort and sacrifice; in my case, it has also involved lipstick marks on wine glasses. Before that night, I had already been playing with my androgynous side. My curly hair, which flowed down past my shoulders, kept growing at the same rate as the pile of excuses I was gathering to avoid going to a hairdresser. While my mane allowed me to dip a toe in the femininity pool, makeup was another step in my transition, and lipstick made me feel like I was wading waist-deep. For those who knew me, lipstick was an indulgence for their slightly feminine friend who might be gay. For me, it was a way to set the stage. I came out of my shell by announcing my new name and pronouns, at which point makeup became a survival tactic for me—a crutch and a necessity.
Trans women experience the same pressure to be feminine that cisgender women feel, only a thousand times over—so much so that it affects them physically and mentally. “When I get up in the morning, it’s very rare that I’m happy with the sight of my makeup-less face, but when I do my hair and makeup, I feel myself come back to life,” says Alice, who’s in my Facebook trans support group. “It gives me the energy I need to face the day.” Another member, Evlyn, admits that she can’t leave the house without makeup on. She says that she “doesn’t pass at all” when she’s not wearing it, which means it’s very hard for her to get recognized as a woman. “I think I would have a more positive relationship with cosmetics if they weren’t an absolute necessity—if fewer things depended on them,” she says.
Before I started to transition, the simple act of applying a bit of lipstick and blush made me ecstatic. Makeup was a celebration, a release. My karaoke outings—an excuse to get done up—were events, therapy even. Then, all of a sudden, it became unthinkable for me to go to work, the grocery store or even a close friend’s place without makeup on. For a trans woman, using makeup for the first time is pretty daunting. As an adult, I wasn’t granted the leniency shown to preteens exploring the world of powders and brushes. When I was younger and well hidden in my closet, I could not count on my mother to guide and advise me. And internet tutorials can be intimidating at times, especially when they feature 20-odd products. Thankfully, many friends were there to help me choose cosmetics that suited me and show me a few tips and tricks. With time, I developed a simple routine that makes me feel good: foundation, blush, eyeshadow, eyeliner, lipstick and occasionally some mascara. I’m usually done in under 15 minutes.
For Juliette Gagnon, who works in the mining industry, makeup was a very important part of her transition. Unlike me, Gagnon began playing with palettes at the very start of puberty. “I wasn’t comfortable with what I saw,” she tells me when we speak over the phone. “I already knew I was trans, but I didn’t know how to reveal it gradually.” She admits to waking up nearly two hours early every morning to get ready. “I didn’t present myself as ‘Juliette,’ but I wanted to see the femininity I felt when I looked at myself.” I ask how being able to play with her mother’s makeup—and therefore having the approval of her parents—impacted her transition. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder how I would have become who I am if they had stepped in,” she says. “Makeup was really a way for me to express myself.”
And it’s not only about having the freedom to explore gender identity through makeup; parental support in all areas can change everything. “Studies show quite clearly that access during transition—be it social, legal or medical—improves the well-being of young trans people,” says Annie Pullen Sansfaçon, who holds the Canada Research Chair on transgender children and their families. “Having access to, for example, clothing that allows people to express a gender that matches their identity is a crucial part of optimal development in youth.” Pullen Sansfaçon, who is also a professor at the School of Social Work at the Université de Montréal, specifies, however, that we must not confuse gender expression with identity. “A person with a female gender identity might enjoy expressing their gender in a more masculine way,” she says. “And gender is not binary, so there are all sorts of gender expressions and identities. Everything is possible for cis, trans and non-binary people.”
Although makeup is very important to some trans women, it’s completely ignored by others—even Gagnon, who worked in the cosmetics department at Sears when she was a student. “In hindsight, I think I worked in that department just because I needed to wear makeup,” she says. As she gained confidence and grew to trust her body, she gradually left the makeup brushes and sponges behind. Indeed, the first time we met face to face, she was glowing, her face natural and her hair in a simple ponytail. Gagnon confesses that she hasn’t worn makeup in nearly a year. “I feel beautiful without artifice,” she says. “If it’s a special occasion, I’ll wear makeup, but that’s it.”
For me, too, makeup is less of a necessity than it used to be. Access to hormone therapy plays a part in that: I’ve taken testosterone blockers and estrogen tablets every day for the past two years. I’ve also saved enough money to pay for laser-hair-removal treatments on my face. But most importantly, I’ve started taking more photos of myself, some with a bare face. Last May, I even participated in “Maipoils,” a month-long event that celebrates body hair, and I didn’t shave my legs for a few weeks. Slowly, I’m learning to reappropriate my body, my features, my growing curves. Instagram can seem like a bottomless pit of vanity for some, but I use it as a therapeutic tool, a tool for resistance. Foundation no longer defines my beauty—I’m learning to separate makeup from my femininity.
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