Manning Up to Makeup

Graphic by Jason Hu

I first put on makeup while sitting on a patch of dirty pavement in the heart of London. My friend crouched over my face in front of a giga-sized sports store, applying dark eyeliner and maroon lipstick. It was Pride 2016 and I was wearing an outfit I considered androgynous. This was both the busiest and safest place in London to do whatever the fuck you wanted with your body.

It wasn’t, technically speaking, a very accomplished look. We were laughing too much to be exact. But I felt the thrill of being more comfortable in unfamiliar territory. Before I got home that night, I wiped my face clean and smiled through the anxious looks on my parents’ faces.

Makeup has remained a casual side piece for me since that day, often at my disposal but never a steady commitment. At home, friends applied it for me infrequently, under the cover of night. I’ve rarely practiced myself because I’m unskilled, and uninterested in buying products. Other men’s relationships with makeup are more complex, with usage influenced by the expectations of masculinity. To me, makeup is ornamental; I like expressive eyeshadow, brazen lipstick colors, and goth eyeliner. But, especially at universities, the limitations of masculinity are unavoidable.

But mine is just one way of wearing makeup. Sam Ervolino, a cross-dressing high school senior I spoke to, sustains a more devoted relationship to it. It represents how he feels in the moment. On a bad day, he might wear no makeup. On a good day, “I feel ready to tackle a cat-eye,” he says. The first time he wore makeup was less public than mine, but felt just as safe: in his bathroom, after midnight, during sophomore year. He would take a photo, then delete it quickly. His first public appearance was a year later; coincidentally (or not), that same day he was dress-coded by his school.

At home, Londoners received my appearance with their indifference and that was how I liked it. Since arriving at Yale, I have been skeptical about receiving the same reaction. I have worn less makeup with less flourish. Here, makeup on a man is conversation fodder, a new topic to liven repetitive interactions. I dread undue attention that might other a habit that I consider normal.

However, Zulfiqar Mannan, GH ’20, doesn’t believe Yalies care about men wearing makeup. He says that Yale’s “Don’t-Touch-My-Hair clout” has restrained people from acting on their curiosity. When still in high school, Mannan began wearing makeup. The hobby lay dormant until he experimented with androgyny at Yale. He realized that he had already been presenting his identity with his clothes — why not with makeup? “I always imagined [I was] Lady Gaga getting ready for shows… slightly rushed. I didn’t know how it worked. [I was] just having fun with it,” he gushed. Sometimes he uses eyeshadow to hide the bags under his eyes; more often he uses it to embolden his eyelids. Either way, “it’s just like art, low-key.”

Ranks of men wear makeup. We do it in the day and at night; publicly and privately; silently and loudly. It’s worn daily or yearly or instinctively, on- and off-stage. We use makeup to conceal flaws, enhance features, as decoration or even as artistry. There is no one way; the parameters are endless. Some of us know other men who wear makeup. We all wish we knew more.

So why do we bother? The realm of women’s makeup is stifling enough: the average British woman spends approximately 38 minutes on it daily, almost 4 percent of her life. Instead of addressing the societal demands women face, why do men seek to undergo similar pressures?

Perhaps it’s that we revel in attention. Makeup exists for others to consume. In this public sphere or Yale sphere, I might simply enjoy the flattery. Or perhaps the act of subversion compels me, knowing that “man” and “makeup” are culturally dissonant.

But self-gratification is not to be underestimated. Men wear makeup at home without an audience, too. It is an identity marker. “There’s no one feeling. My makeup is what I feel,” Ervolino suggests. Alternatively, Mannan feels beautiful in makeup; it dispels insecurities about his looks. At Pride, my makeup faded well before the empowering sensation it had created.

Or maybe we don’t need to explain why we do what we want to. Must we always explain what others don’t understand?

Over November break, I wore makeup again at home. In the pub, my friend coated me with chalky eyeliner and velvet lipstick. Being a casual user, I had no makeup remover at home. So, the next morning when a family member woke me, he blinked in shock at my stained face. I thought no more of it. I attended breakfast still looking clownish but washed off the maquillage eventually. Later, another family member felt the need to talk to me. “Why do you do it?” she asked, referring to the makeup. I gave mild reasons: the joy of self-expression, frustration with masculinity, Bowie, etc. But that wasn’t enough. She asked again and again, “Why do you do it?” Earlier that year, a Facebook photo of me with makeup on incurred the same questions. No answer appeased her point of view; she was exasperated with incomprehension.

Makeup has also confounded other family members. One important — and characteristically joyful — person in my life was flummoxed into silence when I mentioned that I would continue wearing it. He couldn’t look me in the eye, sulking for hours. He was worried that I “wanted to be a woman.”

The cultural baggage of makeup is remarkable. Mere powder on a man’s face drives people to extremities. When femme-presenting outside of New York, Ervolino was attacked by a man on the street. “I don’t think you understand the way you are perceived until you meet someone who is willing to deny it,” he said. My casual dynamic with makeup is at odds with these volatile reactions — it means little to me and a lot to my detractors. And if, despite this resistance, we still wear makeup, clearly it must be worth it.

Many reactions are less ardent, especially at Yale. One Yale senior told me a story about her birthday party. She had invited someone who, on arrival, had lavishly made-up his face. Everyone fawned over him, she said. “Yas, slay,” they chorused. Although innocuous, the flattery raised some questions. If he wore similar makeup to women at the party, what granted him special attention? Similarly, in 2013, Harry Styles wore imperceptible lipstick and the Internet self-combusted. People, whether at Yale or elsewhere, are less likely drawn to the makeup than to the fact that a man wore it.

Masculinity is the main obstacle to spreading the good word of eyeshadow. Existing male-targeted products appeal to masculine vanity. Colin Jay’s oxymoronic “Natural ‘No Makeup’ Makeup Tutorial for Men” has garnered almost a million views on YouTube. Sites like Men’s Make-Up sell concealer, acne-fighting moisturizer, manscara and guyliner. The marketing assures men that they don’t have to wear women’s products — perish the thought!

Another Yalie said she had offered to do a male student’s eyeshadow in a bathroom off-campus. Initially, he was game but quickly backtracked, saying, “No, it’s weird.” This kind of response is amplified in BuzzFeed’s “Men Wear Makeup for a Week,” which has accumulated 8.2 million views on YouTube. The presenters’ resistance to their task verges on mockery. One compares a beard-enhancing product to a butt plug. (It doesn’t look like a butt plug at all.) They dangle it in each other’s faces and cower from the apparatus, like pre-teens discovering a dildo. The video highlights the latent homophobia in reactions to makeup. Put logically, gay is girly. Makeup is girly. Thus, this makeup looks like a butt-plug.

Although ridiculed and abused on BuzzFeed, this intersection of makeup and queer folk is not to be ignored. For Jake Colavolpe, MC ’18, “makeup is simply the conduit for me to put my queerness into art and then to put that art into the world.” Since the spring of 2016, Colavolpe has performed as a drag artist under the stage name Pastiche (@itspastiche on Instagram). Makeup is a professional tool for him, which is precisely why he doesn’t wear it during the day — “better to get paid for the hassle,” he says. He admits that he has never seen a drag artist who doesn’t use it.

At Yale, his concerns echoed mine: a student once spoke with him for 20 minutes about his blue eyeshadow, magnifying something that didn’t warrant the consideration. Experiences like this have also discouraged Journey Streams, PC ’21. He fears makeup invites people to further compartmentalize him according to Yale’s social groupings. Furthermore, he appreciates that makeup can be unattractive to queer men. “Finding queer intimacy is already hard [at Yale], so it would be even harder” with makeup on, he says.

Nonetheless, there is room to be optimistic. Change is afoot online. The widely publicized CoverGirl star, James Charles, is the face of male makeup’s diversifying popularity. Other figures sustain the trend, like Patrick Starrr (3.4 million YouTube subscribers) and Manny Gutierrez (4.3 million Instagram followers). These men spur on a growing industry, adjusting the public’s gaze to the normal image of a man in makeup.

But this trend has always been cyclical. In 1976, the Ladies’ Home Journal advocated for Mary Quant’s “Colouring Box for Men,” filled with tinted moisturizer, mascara, eye crayons and lip glosser. It asserted that “the ‘macho’ male image is being replaced by the concept of a real person.” Over 40 years later, that real person is still struggling to materialize. Until we appreciate the seismic grip of masculinity, to wear makeup will remain a transgressive act for men, not — as they hope — an acceptable one.