How makeup is empowering for non-binary people

Image by Twylamae
Words by Tim Grant

Figuring it out with the help of makeup.

When I first realised I was non-binary, I started brainstorming makeup looks and flicking through Instagram accounts for outfit inspo.

That’s a lie – the first thing I did was buy a very expensive piece of jewellery from an art gallery. Treating my gender identity like a research project was second.

There are a lot of difficult things about being non-binary. Coming out requires a lot of explaining. Almost no one is good at using they/them pronouns (including me). ‘All Gender’ bathrooms are far and few between.

For me, a lot of the most uncomfortable aspects of the experience come together when I open my wardrobe. It’s hard to translate an unclear identity into words; translating it into an outfit is even harder. 

Creating The Look without a stencil

Over the course of 2019, I’ve been working out what precisely I think I should look like. This has (of course) involved a lot of online shopping from stores with flexible return policies. Also, I’ve managed to save, like, 1000 photos on my phone into a folder called ‘The Look’.

Makeup has been both the easiest and the hardest part of putting together The Look.

Getting good at it requires a lot of practice, patience, and money. It takes a long time to work out what your colours are, and even longer to realise you’ve got too much highlighter on.

The only type of eyeliner I like doing is smudged and smoky, because there’s no need to be precise. If the style I’m trying out requires a steady hand, I need an extra twenty minutes and more than a few paper towels.

I often go over my mascara with a clean brush to get out the clumps, and take off my eyebrows a few times before I’m satisfied. I have recently learnt how to not develop clown mouth when putting on lipstick. The trick is using your fingers.

This is all my fault, really; I was the one who waited until I was 22 to learn how to apply makeup.

It often feels like I’m not going far enough, yet each incremental step I take feels massive. Even if the average person wouldn’t notice I’m taking it.

Trying to find yourself without a template

For non-binary people, the early months and years are a fumbling period. When ambiguity and fluidity are the defining traits of your experience, trying to pin yourself down is difficult and lonely.

It’s now possible to get a passport with an X as the gender identifier in Australia, but you will be advised that you might get turned away at international airports. During the 2016 census, anyone trying to register as anything other than male or female had to contact the ABS to get a specialty form. Because of this, the trans and gender diverse population of the entire country was estimated to be just 1,260 people.

In Australia, we are raised with rigid ideas about what gender is allowed to be, and look like. Attempting to craft a visual identity in these conditions can be exhausting. Even with advances in government and workplace understanding, there is little in the way of a support system. And there are no obvious examples of a non-binary identity in current Australian society.

Through social and professional networks, I’ve been reaching out to other non-binary Melburnians I know to compare notes. I almost expected to be an exception, to be one of few who devotes as much brain-power to appearances. I was relieved to hear that I’m not.

The people I’ve spoken to described how thinking of themselves as characters helped them get a sense of what they liked. One friend mixes together the stylings of race-car drivers and 11-year-old boys from the ’90s. Another likes any outfit that manages to balance a billowing pirate shirt with the feeling of carrying a shovel.

The vibe I’m going for right now is German-art-gallery-curator-who-just-discovered-e-people-culture. This vibe has materialised into high-waisted pants, sleeveless silk tops, and blush pushed up to my waterline.

For young non-binary people, experimentation is the name of the game. There are very few NB Australians that you could follow on Instagram to steal their look. Smashing together aspects of different characters and archetypes and seeing what sticks is the most rewarding strategy.

That’s why I think makeup is such a powerful tool for working out who you are. It can be subtle or bold, and it can be washed off in seconds and look completely different tomorrow.

With each late-night practice session and glam nighttime look, I developed more refined techniques and a stronger sense of the person behind the smoky eyes. Slowly and unsurely, I managed to integrate these characters I was painting in the mirror into my everyday life.

Stealing my Look without a second thought

For those of you who want to steal my current daytime look, don’t use mascara or eyebrow pencils. Dapple the Perricone MD No Makeup Liquid Blush across your cheeks and nose, with a little on the eyelids. I like to use the RMS Beauty Living Luminizer on all the important points (with a particularly thick coat on the cupid’s bow).

I finish off with a light dab of the M.A.C. matte lipstick in Russian Red. I also like adding a bit of the lipstick across the nose and inner cheeks for a cute sunkissed moment. And in case it wasn’t clear, all of this is applied with your fingers.

People often can’t tell when I’ve put this Look together, and the jury is still out on whether or not I like that. I am sure, however, that I never feel more authentic than when I’m wearing makeup.

When I realised I was non-binary, I found myself living under the weight of a crushing insecurity I hadn’t experienced since high school. If I hadn’t made those preliminary attempts at putting together my everyday Look, I’d still be there.

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