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Five Femme-Presenting People Discuss The Power of Their Makeup

Too much or too little, makeup has long been a wonderful and difficult facet of our lives.

If you know a femme-presenting person who wears makeup, it has likely been said to and about them that they: do not love themselves / are full of themselves / are doing too much / are fake / are false advertisement. 

If you know a femme-presenting person who does not wear makeup, it has been said to and about them that they: are lazy / are too unfeminine/masculine / are sloppy / do not love themselves / are not doing enough.

Many things factor into how these comments transform and how these ideas are ascribed to different bodies, i.e. size, race, complexion, sexuality, etc. But most of us hear these comments, or some variation or extension of them, said about ourselves or another person at some point in life.

I know where my aversion to makeup and similar beauty rituals comes from because I have spent the last few years deeply examining my relationship to what I call The Traumatic Feminine and how it has shown up in my life. I grew up as a self-described Tomboy, and I think this moniker still fits me fairly well as an androgynous woman. My energy has always been more masculine than it has been feminine, and that has left me in countless situations in which traditional ideas of femininity have been forced upon me or ascribed to my body in traumatic ways.

Makeup has been a significant part of that trauma for me. While I fully understand that makeup is not inherently feminine, the gendered signifiers attached to it and the act of wearing it makes it feel like a highly feminine activity for me, and I feel less like myself with it. I have distinct memories of shedding hot tears when my mom forced me to wear makeup and dresses on picture days. More recently, I remember being pressed by an employer to wear makeup to an 8-hour work function against my wishes. I hated every second of it, I cried in the car on my way home, and I quit the job not long after. Over the years, I’ve heard a multitude insults because of my aversion to makeup, and they’ve come from people of various walks of life, of various races, genders, and sexualities. Every time someone calls attention to it and/or offers their unwanted opinion on it, what they are telling me is that my gender performance is inferior in their eyes and it makes them uncomfortable that I choose not to conform to expected codes of femininity.

At the same time, I have witnessed femme-presenting people who love to wear makeup come under terrible scrutiny for their decision to do so. I’ve seen their interest, passion, and artistry be reduced to nothing more than vanity and frivolity, and as performance for the male gaze. I see how The Traumatic Feminine shows up for them as well, in ways that trivialize their femininity and feminine expression. Any aspect of traditional femininity is subjected to heavy scrutiny by those who turn their gaze to us only to participate in our consumption, and the choice of whether to wear makeup is one that many of us make daily. I am interested in how others experience this, so I spoke to five femme-presenting people about their relationship to makeup. This is what they had to say.

Maxine | Genderfluid Non-binary | They/She

What can you tell me about your relationship to makeup? 

I’m still trying to fully figure out what my relationship to makeup is, since it changes almost as much as my gender does. I see it as mostly positive, and incredibly affirming.

Why do you wear it?

Initially, I wore it because I was in that heavy emo/punk phase back in middle school, but my ma wasn’t a fan of it at all, so I could only get away with that smudgey eyeliner deal with shiny lip gloss (I didn’t have the kind of disposable income for much else). I got older and my thought process mainly was “I need this for job interviews and special occasions so people can stop asking me if I’m sick.”

Then I got into cosplay and trying to perfect a really good, sharp cat eye and it mainly became a way to telegraph my mood and gender without having to verbally say much. It’s sort of like art that I can wear out every day.

Does your gender identity influence your relationship with makeup?

I find that the type of makeup styles I wear and explore help me understand exactly where I am on a specific day. On femme-but-not-woman days, I use brighter colors, neutral or to-be-determined days I’m rocking a “no makeup” makeup look that slowly builds up over the day. Metallics are for days where things are in flux.

How do you feel when you don’t wear it?

If I’m at home, on a day off, it usually feels like I skipped out on something in my routine and, depending on my general emotional state, it feels like I’m forgetting something important, but not enough to ruin my day, or make me feel naked. If I’m in public for most of the day that isn’t a day off, I feel vulnerable, even when it’s a day I chose to not wear it.

What kind of comments have people made to you about your makeup wearing habits?

Ah, that varies. My ma swings between hating it and being nonchalant about it. She doesn’t wear makeup except for very rare occasions and it took a few years for her to be cool with me wearing it. When I’m wearing something that’s really of a more conservative taste (black, blue, or silver lipstick, for example), we’ve had full on fights about that where she accuses me of being insecure. Ironically, these are days when I’m at my most confident.

At work, I don’t do foundation, mostly just tinted moisturizer and light blush, and maybe lipstick and eyeliner is free game for me. I’ve received subtle jabs about being “attention-seeking”, but when I’m wearing little to no makeup, people seem to find that even more jarring.

With strangers, I’ve found that non men (or men who wear makeup themselves) have been the most hype about my makeup so they’re usually giving me the “you’re brave” or “you should try this” product. Men who don’t wear makeup usually try to tear into me because their assumption is that I’m using it to lure them in. 

I’ve heard:

“You know you don’t have to do that for me.”

“You look beautiful without it.”

“You’d save money if you didn’t buy so much.”

I’ve gotten questions about how horrible my skin must be under all the makeup, and pretty much everyone but my ma has asked if I was depressed on the days I when I don’t wear it.

Tanya Fields | Woman | She/her

What can you tell me about your relationship to makeup?

I love makeup and I see it as a necessary part of my regular routine. For the most part I wear it 4-5 days a week and if I am going out professionally or for fun it is a must.

Why do you wear it?

As a larger dark skin black woman my femininity is often in question or criticized, I found that wearing makeup makes me feel feminine. Makeup often makes me feel sexier or prettier. It’s something I need to unpack but if I’m being honest that’s really the root of why I wear it.

Does your gender identity influence your relationship with makeup?

Yes, makeup for me is feminine and is one of the ways I express my own femininity. On the days I lean to more masculine energy, my hair is up and makeup is not even a consideration.

How do you feel when you don’t wear it?

Masculine, super casual.

What kind of comments have people made to you about your makeup wearing habits?

That I spend a lot of money on makeup and that I have such pretty skin that I don’t “need” it and that I spend too much putting it on. Others are very impressed by my face beating prowess and that my lippie choices stay LIT!

Suquanna Rose | Genderqueer | They/Them

What can you tell me about your relationship to makeup?

I love makeup so much. Makeup and I…we go together! I’ve been in love with makeup ever since I was a lil bb gurl watchin’ my grandma get ready for church.

Why do you wear it?

I wear makeup because I think it’s a perfect way to express feeling without speaking. I wear it to express myself or evoke a feeling or mood. Wearing makeup makes me my best artistic and autistic self. I’m both, and they both require a great deal of expression.

Does your gender identity influence your relationship with makeup?

ABSOLUTELY. Being genderqueer and wearing makeup is fun. I don’t look at makeup as singularly feminine. I think folks that believe makeup is only feminine are…boring. It’s face paint. You can shape your face into whatever. I think the way I wear makeup and how I move while wearing makeup is mostly masculine. I feel very Mars (a masculine planet) in makeup, which is to say I feel like a dominant warrior and sex goddexxx.

How do you feel when you don’t wear it?

I feel fine. I think it’s important to look at your bare face. Which is hard for some of us trans folk to do. Another thing I love about makeup is the process of taking it all off. With a mighty makeup wipe I feel like god. The peeling away of the paint and seeing your cute ass self is important. Skincare is also important! It’s important to take care of yourself, especially for folks who don’t like to be seen out without makeup. Don’t feel bad for that! Fuck anyone who tries to shame you for regularly wearing makeup, but do wash your face, get a nice routine, find out your skin type, and stay cute.

What kind of comments have people made to you about your makeup wearing habits?

People mostly have positive things to say about my makeup. I enjoy all the comments folks make, especially the critiques. My mom thinks my makeup style is too weird. Once we were going to run errands and she stopped in her tracks as she saw me sayin’ “That’s cute for Instagram—not real life.” Shit cracked me up. My partner just makes me laugh about my blush usage. I LOVE blush and she just doesn’t get it. Most of all, though, I love when people tell me that I inspired them to wear more makeup or wear makeup in a different way. That really warms me up!

Danny | Non-binary | He/They

What can you tell me about your relationship to makeup?

I’ve always loved makeup up even as a child but my mom was super conservative. I mostly like all the possibilities with how it can help me present myself.

Why do you wear makeup?

I almost find it necessary for me to feel like my best self. One of my biggest insecurities is my acne scars and I like that I can make them disappear or at least less noticeable with makeup. Not even in a way that I do it for others, it just helps me feel that much more confident. But also I can add all sorts of colors and change the shapes of my features or highlight the ones I like.

Does your gender identity influence your relationship with makeup?

It’s become kind of complicated. I can hardly ever do my makeup how I really want lately so it almost feels like a chore. I know people will still perceive how I look as appealing regardless, but in all the wrong ways. It’s frustrating.

How do you feel when you don’t wear it?

Makeup helps me feel more confident. Without it, I feel a bit more anxious than usual. I’ll catch myself wondering if other people are noticing the imperfections in my skin.

What kind of comments have people made to you about your makeup wearing habits?

When I do some of the more outlandish looks that I only post to social media people try to use them to say that my makeup is bad. Like that my eyebrows are badly drawn, or my lipstick colors are too wild, and don’t match my skin.

Asa | Woman | She/Her

What can you tell me about your relationship to makeup?

My relationship with makeup has changed drastically over the years. It started out being just for grown folks and I began to covet the ability of other teen girls who were allowed to wear it, feeling self-conscious about my own teenaged bare face. It then grew to be something intimidating. What is the difference between eyeliner and mascara? Is this a powder or a foundation? What the hell is the difference between the two? I still really wanted to be like the other women I knew who diligently put on makeup daily and were what I considered “cool” and exuded a confidence that eluded me. So I started with lip-gloss and eyeshadow, working my way up to the array of products I now have. Looking back, they were usually poor shade choices and unblended, but I finally felt like the girly girl I wanted to be. Now, I am a full-fledged makeup enthusiast and amateur makeup artist and my relationship to makeup has evolved into my creative outlet.  

Why do you wear it?

I not only feel more feminine when wearing makeup, I feel powerful. Creating a look from just my bare face and watching the transformation leaves me feeling accomplished.

Does your gender identity influence your relationship with makeup?

I believe so. As someone who identifies as a woman, makeup has always been a signifier of womanhood. Even if it’s light makeup the process of sitting in front of a mirror, “putting your face on” was something that stood out to me as a socialized activity that becomes personal time.

How do you feel when you don’t wear it?

It depends on the setting. I don’t wear makeup on most days. However, if I go places where I expect to have pictures taken or an event where others are dressed up, I feel unprepared without it. Like walking into a Black Tie affair wearing sneakers.

What kind of comments have people made to you about your makeup wearing habits?

For the most part, I’ve gotten positive feedback. Others have admired the finished looks and often ask me how or what I used. There, of course, have been the people, of all genders, who have said “you look better without it/you don’t need makeup” in an effort to compliment me, but it’s been far less than I had expected.



Featured Image: by Bernard Osei on Unsplash


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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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