Make-up, Transmasculinity And Me

The beauty industry is known for perpetuating gender binaries, but, as Aaron Gabriel discovered at school and beyond, this complex relationship can be very difficult for transmasculine people to navigate

By Aaron Gabriel

31 March 2021

here is nothing inherently feminine about beauty products. Women aren’t the only people who want smooth skin or a clear complexion. Nor are they the only ones wearing make-up.

The sharp rise in the number of beauty products made and marketed for men over recent years bears witness to this. And yet, for the most part, the beauty industry remains overwhelmingly oriented around women – white cisgender women, in particular.

“As the hyper-masculine branding of men’s products reveals, the industry tends to cultivate, rather than challenge, a rigid gender binary.”

This is not a deeply held secret. It’s precisely why brands have brought out men’s ranges of products that they already sell: unless it’s explicitly labelled ‘for men’, beauty is considered to be ‘for women’. And we only have to look at the ways in which such ranges are so often marketed – in black or chrome colourways, with hyper-masculine branding and taglines – to see the depth of the association between beauty products and femininity.

Like many trans men and transmasculine people, I grew up with people assuming I was a girl. That meant not just being treated like one, but being expected to conform to a set of standards about the way I should look and act.

Image by Aaron Gabriel

All children assigned female at birth, whether they are trans or cis, experience those pressures. But when you’re not a girl, and you find yourself outside those ideals, the pressure to perform as a woman can feel particularly acute.

“Unless it’s explicitly labelled ‘for men’, beauty is considered to be ‘for women’”

If you follow the trajectory from when I arrived at high school to when I left, you can trace the impact of that pressure. I turned up on the first day with a crew cut, baggy jeans and a pair of scuffed trainers; I went to prom in a sleek red dress, high heels, and a full face of make-up. Of course, none of those things are inherently masculine or feminine but by the time I graduated, I was far closer to society’s idea of what a woman should look like.

In truth, I didn’t really have a choice. When I turned up on that first day, I heard another student ask why there was a boy in her girls’ school. For the first few months, I carried on dressing as I liked – I’d had to beg for the crew cut, and I loved it. But I found it hard to make friends, other students held me at a distance, and I was miserable. Before long, I was growing out my hair. Within a year or two, I wouldn’t leave the house without putting on make-up.

Image by Aaron Hughes

It wasn’t just the pressure to conform to a certain image, either. There’s a social dimension to sharing in the journey to womanhood, however forced, and a lot of it centres on beauty rituals and products. I learned about blackheads and foundation, so I could join in with discussions at break-time. I spent my weekends with other students browsing spot creams and make-up aisles. My first forays into beauty were, more than anything else, a pursuit of kinship.

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I questioned any of this. By that stage, what had started out as an obligation had evolved into a genuine curiosity for beauty and its possibilities: I had a skincare routine, I’d learnt to contour, and I became the go-to person if you wanted your make-up done before a night out. However as I started to pick apart my relation to gender, and realised what I’d known deep down as a kid – that I’m not a woman – all of that changed.

It didn’t have to. In theory, at least. Being trans isn’t about stereotypes, it’s about knowing who you are beyond them. Nothing dictates that I can’t be both transmasculine and have an elaborate skincare routine or wear a full face of make-up. And yet, in practice, the tight association between beauty products and femininity dramatically changed how I felt about them.

“It didn’t matter that I’d since developed a positive relationship to skincare and make-up because I couldn’t extract them from the process of being forcibly moulded into a woman.”

Image by Aaron Gabriel

The beauty industry has a complex, and at times antagonistic, relationship with masculinity. In a society where men feel intense pressure to conform to a set of fixed ideals of manhood, there are often significant psychological and social barriers to using products or engaging in practices seen as feminine. And when it comes to trans men and transmasculine people, many of us face particular challenges in navigating those barriers to beauty. I went from religiously applying MAC Viva Glam lipsticks in the hope of catching someone’s eyes, to rubbing it off as I left the house for fear that I did.

As I unpacked my teenage years, it became clear that I hadn’t willingly come to beauty products: I’d only ever started using them because I had to in order to fit in. It didn’t matter that I’d since developed a positive relationship with skincare and make-up because I couldn’t extract them from the process of being forcibly moulded into a woman; I couldn’t tell where that process ended and where any organic interest in make-up began.

“There’s a social dimension to sharing in the journey to womanhood, however forced, and a lot of it centres on beauty rituals and products.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, I wasn’t free to use beauty products as I had before. In a world with fixed ideas about men and women, I had to insist that I’m not a woman nor did I want to be treated as one. It didn’t matter that I knew you could be transmasculine and wear make-up – if I ever wore make-up, I was treated as a woman. Sometimes, people would ask how I could be trans and want to wear it. Soon after I came out, I stopped altogether.

Image by Aaron Gabriel

Like cisgender men, transmasculine people often feel intense pressure to conform to a rigid ideal of masculinity. But, for us, the stakes are different. It doesn’t matter that many of us don’t conform, and don’t want to; our masculinity is highly scrutinised, and measured against that ideal. Whether or not we do conform has wide-reaching implications for our social and professional lives, as well as our access to healthcare, and possibilities for transition.

It is not just about respect or access, either. Failing to conform to society’s ideals of binary gender is dangerous. Whatever your gender identity, not fitting neatly into fixed ideas of how a man or a woman should look can open you up to curiosity, insults, and fatal violence. From my own experience, I know that the further I am outside those ideals – the more ambiguous my relation to masculinity and femininity – the more I am subject to threats and violence.

Transmasculine people aren’t the only ones susceptible to this. Gender norms are tightly bound up in white supremacy and patriarchy: the further you are from white, cisgender masculinity, the more violently your gender is policed. The conversation around beauty and inclusivity can benefit from transmasculine perspectives, but only insofar as it also holds space for testimony from trans people subject to misogyny, racism and anti-Blackness.

“It’s not just about respect or access. Failing to conform to society’s ideals of binary gender is dangerous.”

Gender norms are a wider societal phenomenon, but the beauty industry is complicit in perpetuating them. As the hyper-masculine branding of men’s products reveals, the industry tends to cultivate, rather than challenge, a rigid gender binary. Beauty stores remain one of the few places where I am systematically treated as a woman, and so I avoid them. For so long as the industry continues to uphold that binary, it will keep driving trans people away.

This is all the more damning because make-up can be such a powerful tool for trans people. I’ve been incredibly lucky to share in the journeys of several close trans and non-binary friends who are drag artists and performers, and to watch them use beauty products to explore and navigate their relationship to gender. There is a particular tragedy to seeing people driven out of the very spaces that offer them hope, and the possibility for self-transformation.

Image by Aaron Gabriel

Over time, I have made my way back to beauty. I’m not as free to wear make-up as I once was, but I’ve found spaces where I can: queer spaces, drag nights, and sometimes, if I feel in control, when I’m up on stage DJing. I use the tools forced upon me to my own ends: at times, I contour masculine features; at others, I push the limits of my own gendered ambiguity. And, recently, I’ve even started resurrecting the high femme looks I had before I came out.

I still use old favourites like Urban Decay Naked Palettes and Bobbi Brown Highlighting Powder, but I’ve also come across new products that I love, such as my Milk Makeup Kush High Volume Mascara and NYX Professional Makeup Highlight & Contour Pro Palette. My skincare routine has evolved, too. Now, I use a combination of The Ordinary acids and oils, Bioderma Hydrabio Cream and La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light SPF50+ Sun Cream.

In short, I am slowly but surely finding a place in my life for beauty products. Now, though, it’s up to the industry itself to make sure people like me have a place within it.

To learn more, follow Aaron on Twitter and support their own gender-affirming surgery fund by purchasing their t-shirt. Proceeds from sales will be split between Aaron's fund and the organisation We Exist which is a trans led organisation seeking to provide more spaces for trans people to platform their work and discuss issues affecting the community.

The Short Stack

The beauty industry cultivates, rather than challenges, gender norms, which makes it hard for transmasculine people to develop a positive relationship with make-up. But it is worth persevering as make-up offers a powerful way to explore your relationship

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