On Make-up and Femininity: WWAC Talks Make-Up

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Make-up seems pretty quotidian, but it is a loaded sociocultural issue especially when you feel like it’s something you have to do to be female enough. The WWAC folk got together to discuss how our relationships to make-up and how it’s never quite so easy as yay/nay. We hope our contemplations will spur your own, and you will jump in in the comments section!


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I stopped wearing make-up daily a while ago. I have always loved fashion. My mother tells me I stopped letting her dress me and insisted on dressing myself at a very early age. I used to spend hours designing clothing. Archie Comics used to solicit fashion designs for Betty and Veronica from readers, and yeah, Little Ginnis definitely sent stuff in. But when it comes to day-to-day, I generally stick to a fashion uniform more or less. Between working a full-time job and WWAC, I took primping out of my day because it just took up too much time and it wasn’t enough of a priority for me, but I’ve noticed a change when I do actually get gussied up now. It feels more playful and exciting, like dress-up.


I was raised by hippies (…no, really), so my mom has no clue about makeup. My partner likes the fact that I usually don’t wear any makeup, too. When I teach, I always wear cute, kitschy dresses and Converse (life motto: girl shoes are for suckers) and my students get a kick out of it. I like to dress with a sense of humor. Every once in a blue moon, I’ll straighten my hair and put on a little bit of makeup to go out, and I always enjoy the process even though I don’t know how to do anything beyond mascara and lip gloss. I’m also allergic to basically everything, so I have to be careful about which products I use. My 2014 New Year’s resolution was to learn cat eye eyeliner…which I never did. This year, it’s to pretend I’m a redhead. I’ve been more successful with that.


When I was nine or ten, I thought makeup was fun and cool. My mum was like, “I don’t understand why you like it, but I like to treat you. Here’s a rainbow palette.” Purple lipstick, awesome! Blue eyeshadow over my entire eyelid, right up to the brow? Amazing! When I’d reached eleven, I thought make-up was fun and cool if you wore it like they did in The Tribe… but otherwise found it a hassle that I resented. This feeling has remained, but these days I’m much chiller. Last year, I bought a black lipstick because I wanted to, and after a short run of several “can I see your ID, please” incidents, an eyeliner pencil because I figured maybe people really do just assume that adults wear makeup. I don’t know. I can’t really be bothered to practice with it, though, and I like my face without make-up too much to sacrifice my nerves to the idea of walking around all smudged without knowing it.

When I think about it, I do feel an acid hatred for the association of makeup with the feminine. It’s reflexive, but it’s at least partly considered, too. I like flamboyant clothing, I am all for #glamlife, and it probably looks kind of weird without a full face done. Whatevs.

Nail polish is different, because I can see my hands almost all the time. I am excellent at applying nail polish. But I only really like to wear it black, or black and glitter.


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When I was a teenager with terrible acne and starting to be more social at parties, my mum was the one who graciously gave me some of her old foundation and taught me how to apply it by hand. Since then it’s always been something I’m very happy I learned, especially as over the years she also taught me about moisturizing and other things. This made my realisation of being genderfluid much easier, already knowing how to best cover up stubble and blemishes and how to soften features. And thus began my intense exploration with cosmetics, I was making up for lost time and in the course of a month I already had a bag full of nail polishes, blush colours, and eyeshadow palettes. I’ve narrowed down my tastes since then, and figured what I like best versus what best suits me, but I still love to wear make-up whenever I’m in femme mode, which is more and more these days.

This is because of the culture of “presentation” and how someone transgender and non-binary is made to feel, especially if they’re not on any hormone therapy. I always call it another layer of armour, a way for me to emphasise who I am to people, be it those that I know personally or complete strangers. Their opinion shouldn’t matter, but it does, because if I can get by and pass it just makes my life that much easier. I can’t really get by wearing most casual clothes, so makeup and incredibly feminine fashion is my outlet for expression. This can also be attributed to the fact that cosmetics were also a taboo for me in public, even mentioning to guy friends that I wore foundation was enough to earn ridicule, and now I feel more free to delve into the world of make-up. I’d love to reach that point where I can just be in a t-shirt and jeans and be referred to by feminine pronouns when I want to be, but until then make-up is my own personal reinforcement. It also helps that I enjoy it immensely, have a steady hand due to drawing, and have also taken classes in it as part of my design course.


I think we have a similar perspective, Jules? Except I’m more hateful about it, and luckier, regarding feminine presentation being taken at face value. “I’d love to reach that point where I can just be in a t-shirt and jeans and be referred to by feminine pronouns when I want to be” is a similar sentiment to my teenage feelings on requirement, I think. I am full of admiration that you can be so chill and embrace makeup as a full positive. My “how dare you ask me to wear makeup before you stop saying I’m not girl enough?” response feels very indulgent in comparison.


I know what you mean. When it comes to a trans/non-binary perspective, a lot of the time we’re kinda stuck in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. When we don’t wear make-up, we face ridicule for having facial hair, being masculine, and essentially looking like a dude. When we do wear make-up, we get dog piled for “succumbing” to stereotypes of women, for looking like drag queens, and for not being able to apply it well or properly. Basically, it’s one of the many pitfalls of how the world perceives gender through a binary based on such arbitrary aspects. And that’s not even to mention the factors of cost, learning make-up techniques, and just working up the courage to even buy some primer or foundation.

I fully recognise the privileged position I’m in, with the skills and materials I have at hand to achieve the look I have now. And part of why I am passionate about cosmetics and fashion is so that I can help others in my position or similar, who desire it, learn these same skills. In an ideal world, I want make-up to be an option, a choice, and not a requirement to be seen as feminine in public and society for trans/non-binary folk. However, that’s not the case, sadly, at present so I do my best to learn more about it and show others what’s possible with even a little bit of time and practice.


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Like Claire, I became frustrated at a fairly young age with the assumption that girls should wear makeup and put all of this effort into their appearances to be accepted by both men and by other women. I rebelled by rejecting everything I saw as feminine; I gagged at “girly” colors, refused to wear dresses and skirts, and scoffed at chick flicks and romance novels. I’ve always identified as a woman, even during this stage of my life I didn’t identify as anything else, but I despised that I was constantly being told what I should and shouldn’t do because I was a girl. Unfortunately, I also saw myself as superior for rejecting the traditionally feminine and didn’t understand that by rebelling against these things that I was reinforcing the boundaries between “masculine” and “feminine.” I’ve since grown out of that attitude and allowed myself to do what pleases me, regardless of what people tell me I should do because of my gender. But I think that my distaste for makeup stems from this point in my life. I didn’t like that I felt obligated to do it, so I never learned. And now I don’t really have any desire to since I’ve gone so long without it. On the few occasions I’ve worn it, all it did was make me uncomfortable, and I don’t like constantly worrying about messing it up.

But the point of makeup that a lot of people (including my younger self) seem to be missing is that you wear makeup for you, and that you should be able to do whatever makes you happy/comfortable/confident without worrying what other people will say or do. Maybe one day (hopefully in the near future), we’ll reach that point. I was extremely privileged to grow up in the environment I did; I was never bullied outright for my tomboy-ness, and I was raised in a house full of loud, loving women who didn’t try to tell me how to dress or act so long as I was happy and healthy.


I’ve never routinely worn makeup. In middle school, I rejected my femininity and wore men’s jeans and shirts. In high school, I transitioned to women’s jeans and basic t-shirts, but making any sort of change became anxiety-inducing. It seemed like trying new things was met with an overly-curious inquiry–I was either scrutinised as being fake or such a fuss was made that I became uncomfortable and withdrawn. Now closer to thirty than twenty, the people around me are very polite in mentioning if I “tried something new,” or don’t mention anything at all. It gives me a lot more confidence to try things just for fun, as I don’t have the anxiety that anyone will make a big deal out of it.

It is still a scary thing for me, though. I have no confidence in applying it nor its appearance on me. Anytime I wore enough makeup to make a noticeable difference, I felt like the girl in the mirror was wrong — it just isn’t me. I’ve only started dipping into things now. Nail polish is frustrating, but I’m getting used to its appearance on my hands. I may even try something fancier, like more than one colour!

My worst enemy–mascara and eyeliner. I don’t know if I’ll ever enjoy wearing those. With twitchy and allergy-teared eyes, it’s always been a nightmare for me. I’d love to be able to wear eyeshadow, but I just don’t know the best ways to apply it–where to put what colour for what effect and…ah, my brain!

And, at the complete end of the spectrum, I love dying my hair crazy colours! This also stemmed from middle school, oddly enough. I was teased once for being a “dumb blonde,” even though I had better grades than everyone. Did I ignore them and remind myself that I am an intelligent young woman with everything going for her? Of course not–I dyed my hair dark brown within the week! This continued for many years, with a brief interlude during university. I’ve finally ventured into the wilder colours I could never have while in school–namely, the bright blues and greens. And I love it. I suppose where some women find makeup to be an expression of themselves and instills confidence when wearing it, I get the same thing from having my hair dyed a variety of colours. It’s not for the attention–I usually forget about the blue streaks, truth be told. There’s just something comforting and boosting about changing it, controlling it, making it my own.


I also went through a tomboy phase, and one reason for that was I developed early, and hell’s bells did other people notice. I was very uncomfortable with my body, and hated being this sexualized girl-thing, so no pink, no dresses, no thank you. My mom tried to get me to wear more feminine clothes and makeup, but for the most part I wasn’t having it. It makes me sad now to realize how much I loathed my own gender at that time (I got better!).

Then in high school I joined drama, and both clothes and makeup became a tool. You had to wear makeup while performing, and we had a giant space full of wacky costumes. I started going thrifting and got a rebellious thrill out of my 70s vintage brown polyester shirt covered in blue and pink roses with blue eyeshadow to match while everyone else was wearing their mall-bought American Eagle branded t-shirts. I bleached and dyed my own hair and started getting piercings. I wasn’t stylish or trendy, but like some others have mentioned, I felt in control of my body and how others perceived me.

That feeling kind of stuck, and so makeup has always been this kind of shield, this warpaint I put on before going out. It’s always just been another kind of art for me, and even better that it was on my face, hair, and nails rather than paper. I don’t wear makeup every day now, but when I do sometimes I do a look that’s focused on making me appear more traditionally attractive, and sometimes I do a look that’s just for me, to feel a little more fierce when I’m out in public.

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“You think your makeup and black clothes give you power?”

Yes, sir. Yes I do. I also don’t think that’s something that someone can take away from me, or that I’ll necessarily ever change. I had an angsty episode last year where I wondered if I was too old for unnaturally colored hair. Eventually, I got over myself and realized that was idiotic. I had my hair dyed in a black-purple-pink ombre, and I have never loved my hair more. It all goes back to the idea of claiming my body as my own, and doing what makes me feel pretty, or powerful, or feminine, or whatever I want. And I’ve made my peace with pink.


My relationship with makeup is pretty complicated and, to some extent, tied to some internalized racism that I’ve worked to remove from myself. When I was a kid, I genuinely believed that when I grew up, my brown skin was going to peel off and my black hair would lighten and I would be as pale and blonde as the other kids at school. Instead, I got even darker, grew nearsighted, and needed braces. When I did become interested in makeup, I only ever wanted to look like the white girls on TV, and like my mother, who is very pale. There was a lot of frustration because, of course, I would never look exactly like them, and yet that was the ideal I pursued. I had no idea how to flatter one’s skin tone or how to blend colours, just that I wanted to look like them, and my darker skin was not cooperating.

For a while, I stopped wearing makeup completely. The one thing I would wear was pink lip gloss. When I was seventeen and living in Manila, my mother brought me to the mall, and I got curious about eyeshadows and eyeliner. So, I finally got a palette of gold and brown eyeshadows and my first eyeliner pencil, and I started experimenting with them. No one really taught me how to wear makeup, so I just started figuring out for myself the kind of looks I liked. These days it’s not about trying to look like a certain societal ideal that’s important to me—it’s about whether I personally like the way I look with makeup on.

I only really started learning how to use foundation and concealers in the last two years and still have no idea how to contour. Most days, I dust on some face powder, dab a little concealer, swipe some eyeliner on, and that’s it. I’ve found that I don’t have the patience to put on loads of makeup during the work week, so it’s only ever special occasions that see me with a fully made-up face, and even then it’s very light, natural stuff. I admire people who do that every day, but it’s not a necessary part of my morning the way taking a shower or eating breakfast is. When I wear it, it’s because I want to wear it, and because it gives me that extra boost of knowing that I like the way I look.


Basically, no one in my family wears make-up. I grew up thinking it was something “prostitutes and movie stars” wore. So, when girls at my school started experimenting with it I was scandalized. Then my breasts developed, a lot. All of the women in my family are flat-chested, so when I was wearing an American C cup bra in sixth grade, none of them knew what to say to me about it. Some of them were outright jealous, others pitied me. No one was helpful.

I think that was when I went into high-gear with femininity. I wore a lot of plunging necklines, covered my face in make-up, spent hours pouring over Cosmo articles. Simultaneously, I was afraid of the attention much older men were paying me. I worked in a car parts store for all of high school, and male mechanics in their forties would proposition me constantly. Instead of washing off the make-up, I put more on. I was so angry that they felt comfortable speaking to me that way that I retaliated by becoming more of a girlie girl.

As an adult, I will wear make-up once in a while. On days that I am feeling ill, or have to go to the doctor, I wear more of it. If I’m feeling energetic and happy, I forget to put it on. It seems a lot of feelings of make-up as armor still play into my cosmetic choices.

Now that I am an out lesbian, make-up is something I notice as outside of myself as well as a personal decision. I don’t have a “preference” when it comes to make-up on the women I date, but I am sometimes awed by their skillsets. I also downplay my make-up if I’m seeing a woman who is high femme and put on more if I’m seeing a more masculine woman.


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For about the first eighteen years of my life, I didn’t have any makeup because my family thought I was male. It wasn’t until a Christmas gift from an acquaintance in college that I was able to wear any makeup at all. I never wore it out and about, but I did get a tiny bit of practice with lip gloss, eyeshadow, blush, and mascara. I still have those kits and have been gifted other makeup as well (more eyeshadow, an eyeliner pencil, and lipstick), and I still don’t really have the hang of it. I’ve been practicing by myself for over a year now, and I’m not much better at it. All I know is that subtle makeup is best for me, and that I still don’t know how foundation or eyeliner works. I can’t afford more makeup, and I don’t have the time for tutorials.

Looking like a stereotypical drag queen like what Jules mentioned is something that keeps me from wanting to wearing eyeshadow that isn’t nude. I have worn heavy blue and black eyeshadow before and been gendered correctly even in my more masculine attire, so I don’t even know.

I have dyed my hair blue and pink, but it’s since faded and been cut, and my roots are growing out, so my neon goddess look is gone. Starting to want to go back to being a brunette who wears barely any makeup, honestly. I feel like a lot of makeup covers up my features more than functioning as armor.


I hardly ever *wear* makeup, but I’m strangely obsessed with it? I watch Youtube videos and try to figure stuff out, it’s sorta ridiculous. I never got taught make up when I was a teen. I wore makeup for the first time when I was twelve, and that night sailors tried to take me home. I didn’t wear makeup again until high school and only for special occasions. Now I’m on the other side of thirty, I have blue hair and I’m trying to figure out how to own my femininity. The idea of makeup is really appealing, but I’m also a person who is all about touching the face. #sorrynotsorry And so if I’m not wearing high quality makeup, I end up a giant smudge…

As you can see, we have a lot of feelings towards make-up, some similar some different and ranging across our various gender and/or sexual identifications. What about you? Also, hetero cis-dudes, you are not allowed to say I prefer it when women don’t wear make-up and expect to be patted on the back. It’s not about you! 

Ginnis Tonik

Ginnis Tonik

Smashing the patriarchy with glitter, pink lipstick, and cowboy boots. You can follow her on Instagram @ginnistonik

11 thoughts on “On Make-up and Femininity: WWAC Talks Make-Up

  1. I can hear so many echos of my own thoughts in the conversation above. Never was very girly, wore it boldly in middle and high school, pretty much gave it up after that because who had time for that shit. I’m still as drawn to it as I am with a brand new box of Crayolas, but now I find just about all of it makes my eyes itch or my skin look awful, so I gave up. I guess it helps that I am vehemently antisocial and the dog doesn’t care if I have any on or not. My husband doesn’t seem to notice one way or the other so… *shrug* It’s an expensive, (literally) irritating bother, and I don’t feel like I have to live up to anyone else’s standards of femininity. (Let’s face it, women’s cargo shorts are useless; if you want real pockets, shop the men’s department. Srsly.)

      1. I get so annoyed by some of the women’s clothing especially casual t-shirts, sweaters and sweatpants because THEY’RE NOT BAGGIE MOST OF THE TIME. I go the men’s route all the time. Just bought The Flash/Reverse Flash t-shirts in men’s medium cause I know they won’t try to hug me tightly like the women’s shirts would. There’s different types of women’s bodies as well as needs. I don’t want a tight Batman shirt. I want to feel comfortable which = baggie for me for certain clothes. Okay, rant over. 🙂

        1. The problem I have with men’s t-shirts is that the collars always feel too damn high and tight. 🙁 Feels like I’m being strangled.

          1. Yessss!!!!! I would wear more t-shirts if it weren’t for that fact. Yet, I want a v-neck and it has to be super tight. Le sigh.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot since we first wrote this post, and I think the thing that I find interesting is how I view pictures of myself. Most of my pictures are of me in make-up, and I only wear make-up when I have contacts in because my glasses are so huge they’re like wearing a mask anyway.
    So, I think I take pictures of myself in make-up, because it’s like “this is somewhat rare, look at my face!” and also because, like I said above, I often wear it on days I’m not feeling great, which are almost always the days I decide to take selfies.
    Also, my roommate has pointed out, I may be conceited…which is fine…I just think everyone is really pretty.

  3. I have mixed feelings about makeup and most “feminine” things. In my upbringing, girly stuff was considered silly and vain. My parents aren’t super progressive about gender issues (or anything else). I didn’t gravitate naturally to things like dolls and dresses. If I put on dresses and makeup as a kid, it felt like I was wearing a costume. (In many ways, it still does. I’m a big fan of pants.) I thought maybe something was wrong with me, but I didn’t want to pretend not to like what I actually liked. So I settled into being a weirdo who didn’t fit in, and hoped eventually I’d grow out it of or into something better. I felt like a failure as a girl, but also couldn’t just be a boy. I always thought that would have been easier. I looked down on other girls for a long time because they liked that all frivolous stuff and were weak, pink-liking wimps. I fell into the trap of trying to be “one of the boys” and “not like other girls,” which is such a load of misogynist crap. But I couldn’t try to actually be a boy without getting sent to an exorcist or that camp from “But I’m A Cheerleader.” I had so many conflicting feelings about gender and sexuality, and absolutely no one I could trust to talk about it with. This was before the internet was a thing, so I was on my own, feeling like I had a secret identity.

    I learned very basic makeup application when I was a teenager. I figured out that if I put on some eyeliner (the pencil kind – liquid/gel is more advanced), mascara, and lipstick, society would view it as officially Wearing Makeup and I could collect my girl points. But in college, it didn’t seem to matter, and I stopped wearing it to school. I still put it on for work or other activities where I felt it was expected. Eventually, I quit wearing makeup to my office job too. My skin is very sensitive, so I have to be careful. I usually can’t wear liquid foundation without getting a migraine. Only recently have I found a mascara I can wear more than a few hours without my eyes getting swollen.

    I was in my 20s before I sorted through all these things and figured out I really was a woman. First I had to learn that women don’t have to fit some kind of mold, and it’s not a personal failure if you aren’t whatever a fashion magazine or Sunday school says a woman should be. But knee-jerk reactions die hard, so I still get sketchy about these issues sometimes.

    So: makeup can be fun to wear, and I think I look better with a little bit on. But I hate that it’s still such a social requirement. I can do my job just as well, if not better, without makeup and dressy clothes. It’s so insulting that people assume you don’t care about yourself if you don’t wear makeup or dress a certain way. Nobody should feel obligated to wear it, or judged for choosing not to. And just because you wear it sometimes doesn’t mean you have to wear it every day. Everybody just mind your own business!

  4. This is so great! Such a wide variety of answers, and I relate to a lot of it, but especially Al’s answers, re: makeup being armor for bad/sick days and (sort of unconsciously) depending on the femme-ness of a girl you’re seeing. I think I mostly see foundation and eyeliner as a way to make myself ~professional/presentable for work, and a sort of armor/protection from the world, and I do wear those most days, whereas the “fun stuff,” like lipstick and nail polish, I do 100% for me and feel much more fun.

    1. YES! Lipstick is definitely a “for me” make-up item. Most people suggest corals and pinks to me because I am sooo Irish, but I love chocolates and plums and burgundy and I do it just for me (especially since I usually end up chewing it off on accident before me ever get to where we’re going).

      1. I also chew my lipstick off. I agree with the make up as armor thing too because sometimes when you feel shitty, it forces you feel less shitty. If you look into a mirror looking awful it reenforces feeling awful. Of course, looking awful in terms of dark circles under eyes, sickly/pale etc

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