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Makeup Can Give Trans Women Freedom — But It Can Also Take It Away

The ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ relationship most women have with makeup gets turned up a notch when you’re trans.

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On most mornings, Riley Silverman prepares for her day with a simple makeup routine: BB cream, maybe some light foundation, eyeliner, occasionally a little lipstick. It’s a daily ritual that’s familiar to many women, and the way Silverman talks about her favorite beauty items — describing her eyeliner as “war paint” that armors her against the outside world — is of a piece with how other makeup aficionados (like, for instance, Lorde) discuss their cosmetic habits. But the idea of makeup as a protective force isn’t just a metaphor for Silverman: As a trans woman, she relies on makeup to have a very real impact on how she’s perceived in the world, and on whether people out in the world respect and affirm her identity.

Among cisgender (or non-trans) people, makeup is often assumed to be a significant component — if not the entirety — of trans women’s gender confirmation. The idea of “becoming a woman” through careful application of lipstick, foundation, and fake hair is fetishized across pop culture; countless movies and TV shows have played up the trope of gender transformation through makeup and clothing alone. In The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe has her trans awakening while putting on stockings and holding a dress; movies like The Silence of the Lambs signify characters’ gender identities through elaborately staged makeover scenes.

And that perceived relationship between superficial signifiers and gender identity also forms the basis of one of the most common criticisms lobbed at trans women. When Caitlyn Jenner told Diane Sawyer that she was looking forward to being “able to have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off,” some critics latched onto this as proof Jenner was cherry-picking the fun parts of femininity and confusing them for the whole of womanhood. “Nail polish does not a woman make,” Elinor Burkett noted in the New York Times, a line echoing the persistent criticism that trans women conflate external femininity with “true” womanhood.

But there’s a cruel irony to Burkett’s statement, because the idea that external appearance is what makes someone a “real” woman is the very thing that many trans women have committed themselves to fighting. To the extent that makeup is an essential part of any trans woman’s gender identity or notion of her womanhood, it’s largely because that’s the message the rest of the world aggressively forces upon her.

It’s certainly true that makeup can play an important role in easing the dysphoria that trans women feel around secondary sex characteristics — Silverman told me that using foundation to hide stubble makes her face feel more like her own, for a much cheaper price than laser hair removal. And for some trans women, makeup, feminine clothing, and other superficial trappings of womanhood can feel like powerful totems of one’s authentic identity — though more because coming out as a woman means finally getting unrestricted access to these items than because the items themselves have the power to confer womanhood. "It’s very, very silly that when I put on a blouse it feels different than when I just put on a man’s shirt,” comedian Avery Edison tells me. “That’s silly, but it is a thing. And having to do that in secret versus getting to do that in public, it’s such a powerful difference.”

But, perhaps most importantly, many trans women consider makeup an essential part of their daily routine for the same reason cis women do: It simply makes their lives easier. In the same way that cis women might spend every morning applying a “natural” face that’ll help them be taken more seriously at the office, find success on Tinder, and move through the world with relative ease, trans women turn to makeup to craft an appearance the rest of the world will read as “acceptably” feminine. As Ashley Lauren Rogers, host of the podcast “Is It Transphobic?” and a veteran of the beauty industry, puts it, makeup is “looked at as a necessity if you’re going to be taken seriously as a woman in the world.”

Yet while makeup’s benefits may be a universal aspect of womanhood, for trans women, “failing” at makeup can have much higher stakes. When writer Meredith Talusan began her medical transition 15 years ago, a trans woman’s failure to use makeup could literally derail her transition process.

When Talusan turned to online communities to learn how to navigate the medical system as a trans woman, the tips she found included things like: “Be as stereotypically feminine as you possibly can, wear a dress that isn’t too revealing but is unquestionably feminine. Wear your hair [in a feminine style] and put on the appropriate amount of makeup.”

In theory, these guidelines were put in place to ensure that trans women would have easier lives after transition. But in practice, it meant that the medical professionals with the power to commence or deny a trans woman’s medical transition — who, Talusan tells me, are primarily men — created a “feedback loop” around questions of what it means to be a woman, placing an arbitrary emphasis on superficial aspects of femininity like makeup, jewelry, and clothes and constraining trans women’s ability to express their womanhood in the process.

That rigid gatekeeping process is no longer universal — Silverman pursued transition a few years ago at an informed consent clinic, an increasingly common resource that allows people to pursue transition without “proving” that their gender identity adheres to a rigid and limited standard of femininity. But the legacy of transition experiences like Talusan’s still cast a shadow over the way many trans women understand their identities today. In order to be taken seriously and respected as women, they must adhere to a rigid and arbitrary standard of womanhood, but by adhering to limited standards of femininity, they’re accused of reducing womanhood to something superficial.

“When I’m putting makeup on, it’s not just to look 'more like a woman,' but also to make sure people know that I’m trying... and that I’m meeting them halfway,” says Edison. She notes that, given the way trans women are routinely mocked in pop culture, she often fears that she’s perceived as ridiculous, or that if she doesn’t try hard enough to conform to societal expectations of women, people might think she’s being willfully bad at womanhood. Makeup is an easy way of flagging that — whichever body she was born into — she’s willing to do the work that femininity entails.

And that idea of femininity as something that takes work, something that can be failed at, may be the crux of the fraught relationship many trans women have with makeup. Cosmetics may not make the woman, but using cosmetics makes being read as a woman easier. And when not being read as a woman means harassment, unemployment, assault, and even death, makeup goes from being optional to being essential.

But as complicated as makeup was for every woman I spoke with, they all noted that, as they’ve gotten more comfortable with their identities, as they’ve gotten used to living openly as women, their relationship to makeup has been able to relax a bit. Edison — who, years ago, wouldn’t leave her bedroom without makeup, let alone her house — is now willing to at least run some errands without putting on a full face; Rogers noted that she’s taken a break from elaborate eye makeup, because “if my gender isn’t going to be validated anyway, I’ll just wear it when I feel like it.”

The more comfortable trans women feel with themselves — and, more importantly, the more accepting society is of the diverse range of ways there is to be a woman — the more makeup becomes a fun aspect of femininity rather than a requirement of womanhood. And that, frankly, is what we should want for all women.

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