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How make-up became the ultimate tool for defying gender binaries

In their second Non-Binary Beauty column, drag queen and writer Tom Rasmussen recalls their everchanging relationship to make-up

I used to be so jealous of my sister. She wasn’t particularly beauty obsessed, she never even had a Lancôme Juicy Tube or the Dior Addict Lip Maximiser — perhaps because we weren’t very wealthy growing up — but, still, she had make-up. Make-up which she was allowed, and celebrated for. It would be another 15 years until I realised my sister, of whom I was so jealous, was ensnared in a system which meant she must wear make-up in order to fit in, the same system that decreed I absolutely mustn’t wear make-up in order to do the same.

For me, make-up was a secret — from the age of 14 I would sneak around my grandma’s house, my mum’s minimal make-up kit, my girlfriends’ shelves full of tanning products, and try little sparkles here and slicks of gloss there, terrified of what this meant about my gender.

It would be six more years until I stepped out in full — although pretty busted — drag. All the while this six-year interim was populated by stockpiling products I’d bought in secret: Benefit Hoola, MAC Strobe Cream, and, yes, a Dior Addict Lip Maximiser in Apricot. I built a make-up kit based on the girl I wanted to be, copying the girls I knew and loved –  like my best friend Beth or Posh Spice that time she was on the cover of Vogue – because they were the only people who wore make-up in my world.

It took me six years, if not a whole lifetime, to unpick the stitching that bound me into my gender as a cis person: I was not allowed to wear make-up, and when I did (when I was sure never to be found out) it was only ever to achieve a ‘natural’ look, a light tan, a gentle blush.

My relationship with make-up became an enlightening marker for my relationship with my gender: the more I used that Urban Decay Naked Palette, the more my non-binary gender came to the fore, the more the stitches on my cisness loosened. I made mistakes on my face and rolled with them, I drew oversized lips and painted my ears green, I worked hard to look femme some days and to own my gay-boyness on others, to make up for those times when I tried but got homophobically bullied for it and would end up packing away my make-up for months at a time. I freed myself by covering my face.

With make-up — its ability to conceal so much, and yet simultaneously allow us to approach a much more ultimate truth — we are provided the apparatus, as non-binary and gender non-conforming folk, to take the signifiers and expectations of cis-patriarchal white heterosexual society and redefine them into all sorts of formations. While sometimes it feels like make-up is a tool for mass homogenisation — everyone desperate to look like Lily Galichi —  for us, it’s a tool of pure resistance, a tool with which to pry off dullness, sameness, and open a box full of pure, unbridled us. Some days I can be a genderless clown covered in highlighter, other days I can be full femme fantasy, and every day painting my face still feels like an act of both self-affirmation and radical defiance. My face, and the way I paint it is mine. It’s not like clothes which are often designed by someone else, into which I have to squeeze my gender. My face is my playground and my power source. On days when I feel dysphoric in my body when I look in the mirror and don’t feel like what I see, I can paint to escape, and on other days I can merely enhance what I already have.

I speak to my friends and my non-binary siblings and they tell me things I never thought of. Take Katayoun, for example, a good friend, non-binary drag artist, co-founder of the iconic night Gender Fvcker – a drag competition for non-binary folk – and founder of the night FemmiErect: “Make-up is all about playing and having fun! When I was a teenager I was copying girls at school and that wasn’t so much fun because it meant following rules. Then I stopped wearing make-up for the longest time, until I started exploring my queer identity, and I realised that you can use make-up to play with gender. This was also with the help of my best friend and make-up artist Umber Ghauri, as when I met them, to me they were so confident in their queerness and still used make-up, and that made me realise make-up is not a heteronormative thing.”

Then there’s Ray, the brilliant non-binary drag performer: “I’ve had a mixed trajectory away from and toward make-up — I stopped wearing it for six years and found detaching myself from gendered expectations around make-up, allowing myself to look butch or ugly or whatever (though I obviously think butch is beautiful) highly freeing. As an anti-capitalist, I try to be critical about commodities and have questions about the extent to which ethical consumption is possible, worth trying anyway, or whether all of this is ultimately just enriching to Big Pharma. But then as a guy who wants to live their best drag life, Kryolan black eyeliner gel is fabulous, very good for covering the hooded eye. Also Ben Nye Super White powder (or I believe Banana powder for darker skin than mine?).”

And Finn Love, the self-described attention seeking sodomite, dancer and live art enthusiast: “I don’t wear make-up day to day because I try and keep myself grounded in my own body and love what I have. However, in drag/looks, I get to completely fuck that up. The gender signifiers of my make-up are all over the place, at once masculine and feminine — the more genderfucked the better. White Kryolan TV paint stick is my staple — I completely white out my face and cover my brows every time I do make-up, a totally blank genderless canvas.”

As non-binary folk our genders are changing all the time and make-up is a better tool with which to explore and express that than using it to conform ever could. Making your own rules, embracing mistakes, not being afraid to dress-the-fuck up: these are all the reasons we’re better at make-up than most. It’s about freeing yourself, not concealing yourself.

All these years on, thousands of faces and endless black T-Shirts covered in translucent powder later, I’m still jealous of my sister. Not because she’s got a better make-up kit than me — I’m winning in that department — but, simply, because she’s prettier than me. Damn.

Preorder Tom’s debut book, Diary of a Drag Queen, here.