Recently, while ringing up a woman’s purchase of foundation and setting powder, I was asked by her husband how long I took to complete my makeup. He leaned forward with his hands against the edge of the counter to get a better look. Consider the scene—my body: hidden under the Sephora smock; my face: foundation and contour; bronzer and blush; brows, eyeliner, bright blue and clown white eyeshadow; lip-liner and lipstick and gloss; highlight; and lashes. As much I wanted to lean away in that moment, I did not. I turned my face just slightly to the right. Laughing, I replied, “This is how I wake up every day.” The woman and her husband began to laugh too.
“Well,” her husband said, “it’s impressive. Like the detail of it and everything.”
This was my cue. I turned to her: “Actually, for today’s look I used this travel-size palette. The colors are super creamy and easy to blend. Let me show you.” Leading her to the opposite end of the register, I swatched two colors on the back of my hand. Under the light, I watched her observe the color, its duochrome finish reflected in her wristwatch. I wasn’t wearing anything I’d bought from Sephora, but that’s beside the point. I had returned the focus of the conversation back to the woman. She asked her husband if he liked it, and he smiled. They ended up buying the palette.
Working at Sephora is an endless dance in which you convert the attention you attract into a sale. It goes without saying that you should be noticed, and that you should be okay with the corollaries of being ogled or gawked at. Your makeup and your looks are an obvious conversation starter. You’re the makeup expert! Compliments act as icebreakers, a way forward into finding out what your client is looking for or what they really want.
Clients notice you, a coworker told me early on, because you have an aesthetic that speaks for itself, and you are selling something other than the makeup you wear. She meant this to be encouraging, but for weeks her comment—clients notice you—lingered in my mind. Even though I work at Sephora, I do not think my makeup is reason enough for somebody to approach me. Even though I work in retail, I do not want to use my body to sell anything. I want to exist. I want to play with makeup, yes, but I also want to go home at the end of my shift and live my unwaged life.
As a queer femme woman of color working in makeup, I have had to navigate a tenuous, difficult relationship between the ways I perceive myself and the ways I am read. I think about how at work, regardless of my presentation, I’m generally perceived as capable or knowledgeable because wearing a lot of makeup is normal, is Instagram, is trendy.
One evening, after helping a teenager select makeup brushes, I explained to her how to maximize their versatility. She was genuinely enthralled by this new world of play, and she asked me how I started doing makeup, how I got my eyebrows to look like the way they did, how many eyeshadow palettes I owned. We completed the sale without a hitch, and I left to give the women room to discuss. Then her grandmother called after me, “Sir. Sir!” When I glanced over my shoulder, shocked, she was staring directly at me. “What’s your return policy?” she asked. That night I wore high-waisted pants, three stacked pairs of lashes, and boots with a heel. I could not have looked more femme, more like a little girl in too much grown up makeup, I thought, but for reasons beyond me I was repeatedly misgendered as a man. I have since had to learn to listen for the distant “sir? Sir!” as much as I listen for the preemptive “excuse me, ma’am?”
Although wearing makeup is a sign of expertise, its visual cues often misfire around me, and I am increasingly preoccupied by what it means when I do or do not pass as a woman. My body is more adequately described as an empty vessel. I am whatever you want me to be. Outside the more holistic space of Sephora, I am hounded by questions about my gender and presentation. I am pressed for answers whose validity depend entirely on a stranger’s expectations and norms. I am harassed if I choose not to answer. No matter how much or how little makeup I wear, no matter if I wear a skirt or jeans. I could be walking to the train station, around the mall, down a supermarket aisle after 10 p.m., and there will probably be a man hollering after me.
If he is alone, he typically yells down the block, “Are you a MAN or a WOMAN?” and the most I ever reply to him is “HAVE A NICE DAY.” Being a man, undeterred, he continues asking as if I had somehow misheard. His voice follows me for blocks and even when I can no longer see his silhouette he’s still there.
If he is part of a group, he will approach me as if dared by his friends to settle a bet. “You’re pretty,” a man once said, “but you’re a different kind of pretty girl, you know what I mean?” Waiting for the traffic light, I looked down at the ground and shook my head. “Well, he continued, “it’s just that you’re a bit MANNISH for a girl. Something is off.”
Something is off. Because we are queer, trans, and gender non-conforming, we’re expected to perform an inordinate amount of labor every day in order to prove to the world that we are acceptable. Our presence has to be named, qualified, if it is to be considered valid. Our bodies have to “pass” if they are to be considered bodies at all. Our safety, far from assumed, is a social and political afterthought, designed to dispose of queer and trans people who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, poor, fat, and/or undocumented. We’re conditioned to expect harassment and abjection. Otherwise, we are subjected to abuse.
In makeup, I seek an imperfect solution, a selfish strategy of preservation. On one hand, my makeup exaggerates my femininity, which heightens my susceptibility to gender-based harassment. I am, as some have even told me, asking for it because my presentation in itself is a kind of antic, a cry for attention. On the other hand, my makeup makes existing feel possible because it not only fulfills a personal curiosity for color and camp, it also opens up a new set of relations, one which is ever growing in political collectivity and visibility. Whether at Sephora, a bodega, or a suburban mall, I take solace in knowing I am among other queer, trans, and gender nonconforming service workers because our legibility to one another is a deeply valuable source of recognition and resistance, joy and intimacy.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Passing.