By Corey Brooke
Before hosting a party in my dorm for the first time, I spent half an hour sitting in front of a mirror trying to attach a pair of the longest fake eyelashes I could find at Target. I had no idea what I was doing, and glue dripped onto my clothes and into my eyes—but for all its power to stain and irritate, the adhesive would not keep the lashes on my eyelids. I never doubted, though, that the trouble would be worthwhile: I was going to make the lashes work, and, eventually, I did.
That night, I was in control of my body. I had fun with how others saw me and even how I saw myself. I felt self-consciously and intentionally beautiful. Nevertheless, I took nothing about the lashes seriously—I wore them sardonically, though not without personal effect, like some sort of joke fluttering up and down on my face, reminding myself and my friends that I do not have to perform beauty norms (or even gender norms) in order to have a good night and feel satisfied with my appearance. Ultimately, I freed myself in an entirely new way, reshuffling dictations about tackiness, about glamour, about gender. But what was it that freed me, and how?
Before answering that question, it is worth saying that I am not a woman, have never considered myself one, and am inclined to believe that I never will. However, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “on ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (usually translated “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), she implied that gender is not something we are but something we do. Nothing deep in my soul or biology demanded that I bat fake lashes—my own desires motivated me to play with gender, to act in a way divergent from the performances of either manhood or womanhood, and my consenting to that motivation led me to feel unburdened. So, when I ask how it is that gluing on women’s cosmetic eyelashes seemed to liberate me, I am asking about the effects of disrupting gender. For an answer, I look first to experiences of gender among drag queens and multicultural queer youth on social media.
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Last October, Facebook began deactivating the accounts of those not using their legal names on the social media site, including drag queens who used their drag names in addition to Pagans and some trans people. The policy, still in place, was and continues to be controversial. What surprised me the most initially, and what I find most compelling, is that many drag queens prefer to use personal accounts, rather than public pages, to disseminate information about drag-related events, issues, and discussion. I should note that many drag personalities do act problematically, especially often for the appropriation and caricaturing of black female culture. Still, I believe that others perform an important role in disrupting our ideas of what gender means to our identities. With this in mind, why did Facebook’s deactivation of drag accounts inflame the drag community and their supporters when the use of public pages (still an option) should seem to suffice?
From the insistence of drag queens that their drag personas deserve Facebook profiles, I read a clear assertion that personhood acted out in queer, gender nonconforming ways is just as legitimate as more normative conceptualizations of identity. To rebel against the tides of “man” and “woman,” either consistently or impulsively, shifts, refocuses, and creates identity, changing the experience of being, which is, after all, an action rather than a noun.
So, when I glued lashes on my face for the first time, I changed my experience of gender and others’ experiences of my gender, indeed re-envisioning (through perhaps more glamorous eyes) my identity. Stepping outside of my habits of gender allowed me to examine other aspects of my selfhood.
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I find further insight in the recent explosion of the use of “flawless” as a conceptualization of beauty. Young racial or ethnic minorities and queer peoples especially use the term on social media to describe themselves or celebrities with similar experiences of race, sexuality, and gender (for example, Laverne Cox, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama)—perhaps as an affirmation of a countercultural beauty that norms have taught them not to see in themselves or others.
An article Javier Jaén wrote for the New York Times, entitled “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” explores the background and implications of “flawlessness,” contending that “‘flawless’ feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution….[the word] recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed.” Flawlessness reclaims and upturns beauty by one’s own terms.
Further, beyond locating marginalized peoples within the fold of beauty, the epithet “flawless” explicitly critiques beauty altogether. More than fifty years before Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”, Jaén notes that drag queen Flawless Sabrina used the term to characterize herself as “a paragon of perfection” even despite her self-attestation that she “was anything but perfect.” Certainly, it seems that “flawless” has stayed sardonic, necessarily poking fun at dominant conceptions of beauty through assertive claims of beauty from those outside of beauty norms.
So, when I decided determinedly but not seriously to spend a night in cosmetic lashes, I unwittingly partook in a queer tradition of al at once playing with, critiquing, and locating oneself within the narrow umbrella of beauty. I had made myself flawless through my own luxe-lidded eyes and, by my own terms, I had claimed an experience of beauty for myself apart from the tantalizing and destructive cultural myth of what is beautiful.
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So, what can queer voices teach us about gender identity and beauty? They suggest that, gender being an act of performance that defines aspects of our experience of identity, we might as well live gender on our own terms and find our beauty through pride in that craft. For me, strings of plastic curling out from over my eyes provided a great first taste of the liberation that can come from self-consciously steering one’s gender trajectory. I do not doubt that other people might redefine their relationship with gender quite differently from how I have. Nevertheless, I believe that drag queens and marginalized youth on social media can teach us all something about the value of performing and shaping our identities through gender.