can make-up ever be truly genderless?

Hairstylist and Bleach co-founder Alex Brownsell explores the relationship between make-up and gender today.

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Jun 11 2018, 11:59pm

Image via Instagram 

As our understanding of gender continues to evolve, so do our ideas of beauty and the stereotypes that reinforce them. 40 years after David Bowie removed his lighting strike with a wet-wipe and Robert Smith’s first goth tear smudged his eyeliner, men in make-up are no longer resigned to the stage, the ballroom and the club. Although the inclusion of cis men in make-up might not be anywhere near the top of the Sisterhood’s to-do list, ‘defeminising’ make-up is an important step in the ongoing fight against expectations of how non-binary, female and female-identifying people should look.

In a post woke-up-like-this society, women should feel empowered enough to leave the house covered in nothing more than a layer of sweat and Deliveroo grease. Indeed, despite tabloids still paying good money for pictures of celebs “caught” without make-up, only to describe them as “unrecognisable”, or worse “brave”, the bare beauty trend is still undeniably the biggest female make-up look of 2018.

But until everyone gets to experience both the ridiculous joy and ridiculous pressure that comes with wearing it (or not), and mainstream beauty ideals and marketing strategies start moving beyond the binary, can make-up ever be truly genderless? I spoke to four millennials of different identities for their take on beauty, how it affects them as they try to express themselves via make-up and whether the industry is really keeping up with them as they break old boundaries.

Betsy Johnson, 22, at a different location every week but originally from Grimsby

What gender do you identify as?
I identify as a cisgendered woman, but when it comes to performing gender/ gender expression I’m on the queer spectrum.

How often do you wear make-up?
Most days hardly any at all, but I’m a nightcrawler -- my lewks come out at night.

How would you describe your day to day make-up look?
Low-key natural dewy skin, a cute brown eye, maybe a temporary tattoo on my good side cheek bone, depending on how extra I want to be.

Can you outline your make-up/skincare routine?
I just wash my face with water, use a vitamin C moisturiser and go straight in on concealing any spots. I’m covered in freckles so I can’t wear foundation without looking 2D so I swerve that step. Then I use a contour stick to bronze up my face and insert a lil' more bone structure. I then add some blush and highlight and go in on whatever eye look I’m going for! It's either low-key with some temporary tattoos or super crazy; also dependant on what colour my eyebrows are. I get bored really quickly so keep changing up my make-up looks.

What are your five favourite beauty products and why?
Eyelashes. How did it take me so long to jump on board that train? They're totally transformative, trust me. Lush coffee scrub; when I don’t have it, my skin gets so BAD. Bleach London illuminati highlighter, it’s amazing. Topshop make-up contour kit; I’ve gone through about 10 of these and I still keep going back; a staple. I also have a red eyeshadow that’s actually a NYX blush but it’s so pigmented and every time I pull a lewk using it everyone loses their marbles.

Do you think most people still see make-up as ‘feminine’?
It really depends on the environment you’re in. Within my work and friend groups, we have totally surpassed the idea that make-up is gender specific; but these are creative environments in culturally rich cities. I like to think that the "make-up is feminine” idea is dead everywhere, but when I venture out of these environments the stereotype is still floating around. I think we have a long way to go.

What does make-up mean to you?
It can completely change how you feel. It is an artistic expression. I go into flow when I’m doing my make-up -- it’s like drawing or photographing, like therapy.

Did you have any beauty icons growing up?
My beauty icons are so basic and came in phases. I was obsessed with Lady Gaga’s looks but didn’t dare experiment when I was growing up. Then I went through a day-3-of-Glasto trashy festival celebrity phase, think along the lines of Kate Moss and Alexa Chung -- a phase where I wanted to look as dishevelled and hungover as possible even though I was 15. I think I was dealing with a lot of identity issues growing up so I was generally all over the place!

Has make-up helped you explore or understand who you are?
I think experimenting with your image in general makes you understand who you are and who you are not. When I would explore one avenue and not feel uncomfortable it was another pointer towards who I actually was. Self-expression and being artistically creative has a way of really evolving who you are; especially when you start pushing boundaries, that’s when It gets really interesting.

Do brands understand gender identity and engage with it? And is that something you care about or consider when buying products?
You can tell there has been somewhat of a shift in the marketplace of brands trying to engage with gender identity and being more fluid and inclusive, but it’s so hard to tell where intentions are placed. When I see a brand do a 180 clearly for the sake of profit, I run a mile.

How do you think the beauty industry can change to become more inclusive?
I think brands are really fast to gift product and use people who aren’t cisgendered or cisgender performing as advertisers, but when it comes to campaigns, the casting is mostly cisgendered performing women. I think it’s a missed opportunity to start re-shaping the beauty industry and people’s idea of who beauty products are for.

@betsyjohnson_

Jacob Wheldon, 23, London

What gender do you identify as?
Male.

How often do you wear make-up?
I wear make-up whenever I have a desire to perform. Sometimes I do so positively; I have a band called Sad Boys Club, so I wear make up for our live shows sometimes. But I also use make-up as a means of surviving social anxiety. It’s a complicated relationship, but either way, it feels like an honest extension of myself, even if performing for friends might be seen as a little tragic or false.

How would you describe your day to day make-up look?
I wouldn’t say I have a one. I tend to steal products from my mum, or girlfriends, so it depends on what I have available and how I’m feeling on a given day; I don’t keep up with make-up trends too much or anything like that and I haven’t found marketing of men’s cosmetics particularly inspiring. So, whatever feels liberating.

Can you outline your make-up/skincare routine?
I really wouldn’t even know the vocabulary for this sort of thing -- are you meant to exfoliate at some point? I shower a lot, it helps me think.

What are your five favourite beauty products and why?
The only beauty product I actually own is this really nice Chanel eyeliner pencil my parents bought me for Christmas, it’s incredibly bougie. Otherwise, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Bumble & Bumble for leaving free samples of their products at the Boots on the way to my work every morning; anything that can ease frizz works for me.

Do you think most people still see make-up as ‘feminine’?
Absolutely. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though it doesn’t ring true for me personally. I remember in primary school learning about Alexander The Great’s fascination with cosmetics. That tied together with a later love for Robert Smith, and meant it never really felt exclusive to one gender for me. It’s definitely seen as such though. There are family members of mine who think I’m dancing with the devil or something; that it’s not coherent with their idea of what it is to be a man or whatever.

What does make-up mean to you?
Well, for starters, it’s a lot of fun. It is also a way of rebelling against my family's somewhat conservative Jewish [beliefs]. There is also a level of escapism in it that I find perhaps less poignant, but still somewhat synonymous with the kind of expressive qualities I find in music.

Did you have any beauty icons growing up?
Bowie, Ezra Furman and more recently I’ve really taken to a K-Pop group called GOT7; BamBam is my guy right now.

Do brands understand gender identity and engage with it? And is that something you care about or consider when buying products?
I think almost everyone could do with a better understanding of gender identity -- I'm interested to see the influence K-Pop's success has in the context of male make-up and beauty branding, hopefully it liberates some people.

How do you think the beauty industry can change to become more inclusive?
Make everything free.

@jacobwheldon

Chardonnay, 22, Brighton by way of London

What gender do you identify as?
I don’t identify as any gender. Sometimes I lean more towards the masculine side of the spectrum and sometimes I lean more towards the feminine side, but I never fall directly on either side. That’s why the pronoun of ‘they/them’ is so invaluable to me, because it's a way to exist in-between such two polar opposites.

How often do you wear make-up?
I wear make-up everyday! I don’t feel like myself without make-up on. I feel vulnerable and exposed, if I catch my reflection without make-up on -- I don’t like it. I also suffer from very bad acne, and in that respect make-up has helped boost my self-esteem because it gives me a way to hide it.

How would you describe your day to day make-up look?
I view make-up in the same way I view hats and bags -- make-up to me is like an accessory to an outfit and therefore MORE is definitely MORE. It’s a part of my getting ready process. I don’t shy away from anything that might be considered ‘weird’ or ‘different’, whatever that even means. That being said, I don’t paint my face in an effort to appear ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ either. I just like to scribble all over it.

Can you outline your make-up/skincare routine?
I wish I had one! I feel like I’m still relatively new to the world of make-up, so I’m constantly experimenting with different products and ways to use them.

What are your five favourite beauty products and why?
I don’t necessarily have favourite beauty products -- but I have favourite beauty brands. I make the conscious effort to make healthier (and more ethical) lifestyle choices, and this includes a green make-up bag. Kat Von D is completely cruelty-free, and she’s produced such amazing colours in her palettes. Bleach London is also cruelty-free and creates products I would never have otherwise heard of, like their blending oil which is amazing.

Do you think most people still see make-up as ‘feminine’?
Definitely. I remember when I first started wearing make-up and I still lived at home, my dad expressed some indifference towards it and he asked me to take it off before leaving the house. I felt angry at him, but I later learnt that it wasn’t because he didn’t like me wearing make-up, but because he was worried about people treating me differently as a "boy" wearing make-up. I feel that reflects a common attitude people have towards "boys" in make-up. I used boys in air quotes because although I don’t necessarily identify as that, that’s how the world reads me.

What does make-up mean to you?
Make-up has helped me appreciate my own individual beauty. The act of applying make-up and being forced to confront your own reflection, bare-faced and full-faced, is a very transformative experience. It’s like watching yourself become more you with each stroke of electric blue eyeliner.

Has make-up helped you explore or understand who you are?
The aesthetic of make-up is a form of resistant politics and transgressive identification for me. Make-up provides me with a form of gender expression outside of the dominant and normative codes of masculinity and femininity that I see reflected around me. Make-up allowed me to experiment with different modes of gender expression.

Do you feel brands understand gender identity and engage with it? And is that something you care about or consider when buying products?
Make-up brands are definitely still targeted towards a specific audience, and they don’t seem to care much to broaden that scope. There are people like Jeffree Star and Manny MUA who are making the efforts to be more inclusive with their make-up, but their individual politics are questionable and therefore I can’t support them.

How do you think the beauty industry can change to become more inclusive?
It needs to get over itself, to be less obsessed with beautification.

@cowboysgettheblues

Erik Pascarelli, 19, Leicester then Surrey, now London

What gender do you identify as?
Trans male.

How often do you wear make-up?
Most of the time.

How would you describe your general day to day make-up look?
Concealer and sometimes eyebrows.

Can you outline your make-up/skincare routine?
I cleanse, tone and moisturise probably about every other day, sometimes every day. Then for make-up I literally just dab concealer on my spots and use a tinted eyebrow gel. If I’m feeling especially cute then I’ll draw on some freckles.

What are your five favourite beauty products and why?
L’Oréal eyebrow gel, Kryolan pro-concealer palette, Bleach London louder powders, NYX eyebrow pencil (for freckles) and Kiehls' mango and papaya exfoliator. I mainly like all of these because they’re not gimmicky and flashy, they're just good products that do the exact thing I need.

Do you think most people still see make-up as ‘feminine’?
For sure. Because it’s always advertised towards a female clientele and if a man is seen wearing make-up it’s assumed he’s gay.

What does make-up mean to you?
Make-up to me is about self-confidence and self-expression. Luckily for me all I need to feel good about myself is to have a bit of concealer on and some thicker eyebrows, but every so often I want to wear a bit of eyeshadow too. It depends from person to person, really. Make-up is an art form for a lot of people.

Did you have any beauty icons growing up?
David Bowie! The first colour I dyed my hair was bright orange to match him.

Has make-up helped you explore or understand who you are?
I’d say so. When I first came out as trans I really put myself in the box of having to look a certain, generic ‘masculine’ way. Once I’d started testosterone, I felt far more comfortable to experiment with how I presented, and it was so much more interesting for me to wear make-up and try out different things. Although I don’t really wear a lot of make-up now, I feel more confident to wear dresses and have long hair and do other typically ‘femme’ presenting things.

Are there any beauty brands you love?
I like bits and pieces from different brands, but I can’t say that there’s one staple brand that is my favourite. None of them are particularly life-changing for me personally.

Do brands understand gender identity and engage with it? And is that something you care about or consider when buying products?
I don’t really think they do. There’s nothing really marketed towards anyone who’s gender non-conforming in any way. Brands go as far as having one white cisgendered gay man maybe wearing some highlighter and think that they’re being inclusive.

How do you think the beauty industry can change to become more inclusive?
The beauty industry needs to recognise and celebrate individuals of all races and genders and not just cis women. For that to happen though I think the deep-rooted issues in society need to change first. I think half of exclusivity in the beauty industry comes from ignorance, and the other half from our society only wanting to buy into cis white women.

@erikpascarelli

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.