A Perspective on Gender Seen Through Flawless Lashes

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Gender and the DSM

By Amanda McKelvey

Gender identity and psychology have historical, intricate relationships with each other. The medicalization of homosexuality created individual, societal, and global effects that persist even today. These effects extend into physical, emotional, and political realms, and many of these effects stem from official medical statements concerning homosexuality.  One source of such statements is the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the official manual that North American clinicians and researchers reference when discussing mental disorders. Clinicians outside of North America usually reference other diagnostic systems—particularly the International Classification of Diseases (IOS; Johnson, 2013). While some countries may utilize alternative diagnostic systems, the IOS and the DSM are the most widely used diagnostic systems of mental disorders. This post focuses on the DSM. Jack Drescher and John Merlino, influential psychiatrists who witnessed the evolution of the DSM, explain that in the 1950s, psychiatry had indescribable influence over homosexuality (Drescher, 2010). According to these psychiatrists, homosexuality was viewed as a dangerous force that needed to be corrected in order to protect individuals and society. Cures for homosexuality included forced stays in mental hospitals, lobotomies, and aversion therapy (Drescher & Merlino, 2007). By today’s standards, official medical claims about homosexuality as a sickness were shamefully unscientific, based not on facts but on opinions.

In order to understand the source behind the DSM‘s first description of homosexuality as pathology, one must first understand Freud’s ideas concerning sexuality. Freud believed that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are products of individuals’ environments. That is, Freud argued that people are born with both heterosexual and homosexual tendencies; as the individual lives his or her life, one type of sexuality becomes the dominant form of sexuality (Clarke, Ellis, Peel & Riggs, 2010). Interestingly, both allies and opponents of LGBTQ identities used—and continue to use—Freud’s work to reach their own goals (Clarke et al., 2010). Freud’s ideas concerning homosexuality were widespread by the time the DSM-I was published in 1952. The DSM-I defined homosexuality as “a sociopathic personality disturbance” (Drescher, 2010). This description of homosexuality stays close to Freud’s description; the diagnosis implies that homosexual individuals developed an illness due to some aspect of their upbringing.

The American Psychological Association (APA) made slight modifications to the homosexuality diagnosis in the DSM-II, published in 1968. This version of the DSM defined homosexuality as “a sexual deviation” (Drescher, 2010). The year that the APA published the new manual, gay activists began conducting research on homosexuality with the goal of removing homosexuality from the DSM (Clarke et al., 2010). Finally, on December 15, 1973, the APA voted against the inclusion of homosexuality in the DSM, and the diagnosis no longer appeared in the DSM (Clarke et al., 2010). However, a new disorder—ego dystonic homosexuality—was introduced to the list. Ego dystonic homosexuality was defined as “[failure] to accept [one’s] homosexuality, [the] experience [of] persistent distress and [the desire] to become heterosexual” (Clarke et al., 2010). Ego dystonic homosexuality remained in the DSM until 1987. However, throughout the time that ego dystonic homosexuality appeared in the DSM, the APA stated that “homosexuality, per se, implies no impairment in judgment, stability, reliability, or general social or vocational capabilities” and instructed “all mental health professionals…[to] take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations” (Clarke et al., 2010).

In 1980, the APA published the DSM-III. This version of the manual did not include ego dystonic homosexuality, but the manual did introduce two new diagnoses including gender identity disorder of childhood (GIDC) and transsexualism (Drescher, 2010). These diagnoses were the first to concern gender in children. A revision to the DSM-III—the DSM-III-R—came into being in 1987. This edition of the manual introduced a disorder called gender identity disorder of adolescence and adulthood, nontranssexual type (Drescher, 2010). The APA published the DSM-IV and DSM-IV-TR in 1994 and 2000, respectively. These two editions of the manual eliminated gender identity disorder of adolescence and adulthood, nontranssexual type from the list of disorders. In addition, GIDC and transsexualism became a single diagnosis called gender identity disorder (GID). Criteria for the new diagnosis differentiated between gender identity disorder in children, adolescents, and adults (Drescher, 2010).

Finally, the APA published the most recent version of the DSM—the DSM-V—in 2013.  Much debate surrounded the inclusion of a gender disorder in the newest diagnostic manual.  There was concern that individuals who could be described by the disorder would be discriminated against in several areas of life.  In response to these concerns, the APA set a goal to use terminology that would protect these individuals from discrimination.  The DSM-V eliminated all previous gender disorders and introduced the present diagnoses called gender dysphoria.  Individuals may be diagnosed with gender dysphoria if their “gender at birth is contrary to the one they identify with” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).  It is also important to note that gender dysphoria has its own chapter in the DSM-V, separating the diagnoses from Sexual Dysfunctions and Paraphilic Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).  In addition, the new manual includes wording that ensures—with as much power as it can—that individuals who desire medical or psychotherapeutic interventions in the course of a gender transition will be able to receive these services.

While the evolution of the DSM has moved in a positive direction in general, the discussion of how to treat LGBTQ identities in the medical field continues. Certainly, there are several issues associated with modern-day psychology, especially in relation to gender concerns  For one thing, most research in psychology ignores the experiences of LGBTQ individuals. Instead, psychological research focuses almost exclusively on non-LGBTQ individuals (Clarke et al., 2010). The field of LGBTQ psychology was created in order to combat this hole in psychological research. In addition, the LGBT Casebook was published in 2012 to help clinicians better understand and interact with LGBT individuals (Levounis, Drescher & Barber, 2012).

Numerous people were affected by the medicalization of homosexuality, and this effect persists into the present day.  Clearly, the psychiatric view of LGBTQ individuals has changed much since its introduction into the DSM-I in 1952. Hopefully, clinicians, the APA, and all other sorts of global citizens will continue to shape the presentation of gender disorders within the DSM to meet the best interests of LGBTQA individuals throughout the United States.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Gender dysphoria. American Psychiatric Publishing.

Clarke, V., Ellis, S. J., Peel, E., & Riggs, D. W. (2010). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer psychology: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Drescher, J. (2010). Queer diagnoses: Parallels and contrasts in the history of homosexuality, gender variance, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 427-460.

Drescher, J., & Merlino, J. P. (Eds.). (2007). American psychiatry and homosexuality: An oral history. Routledge.

Eyler, A. E., & Levin, S. (2014). Interview with Saul Levin, MD, MPA, CEO/Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association on the 40th anniversary of the decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM. LGBT Health, 1, 70-74.

Johnson, S.B. (2013). What is the ICD and why should psychologists care? American Psychological Association.

Levounis, P., Drescher, J., & Barber, M. E. (Eds.). (2012). The LGBT Casebook. American Psychiatric Publishing.