As a high school student, there were two things I tried my best to do when I went shopping at a Sephora or an Ulta: remember to scan my rewards account and leave as soon as humanly possible. As much as I loved racking up points, I hated going inside these stores.
The first time I went into an Ulta was in 2017, and I almost cried. No joke. Customers gave me glances, employees were taken aback and I could hear little kids asking their moms why a man was there. To these people, having a man in the same vicinity as makeup was like trying to mix oil and water: It was never going to work.
But shopping at a makeup store was a cakewalk compared to the viciousness of high school.
When I was a high school junior, there was a male student who would come to school every day with a full beat. I admired his bravery and appreciated his skills, but it seemed like I was the only one. I heard whispers about how he was “too gay” or a “sissy,” with some students even using slurs. Not only were these statements horrible, but they reinforced rigid gender roles and kept other boys, like me, from wearing makeup.
All of this was discouraging, because, by 2017, I’d thought men wearing makeup had become normal. James Charles, Jeffree Star, Bretman Rock — these prominent gay male beauty gurus broke barriers in the makeup industry. They popularized the idea of “men in makeup” and inspired legions of queer men with their artistry.
Thanks to rise of YouTube, many queer men have been able to master makeup, find a community and express themselves. I’ve seen men serve everything from an easy, everyday look to a Picasso painting on their faces. And honestly, it’s such a beautiful thing to watch these men show their talents and passion.
Still, for years, there’s been a stigma against men wearing makeup. Before these beauty gurus, if you were a gay man wearing makeup, you had a target on your back. Thankfully, it’s not as bad in 2021. But when I was just starting to wear makeup, male beauty gurus online would get berated in the comments for wearing makeup. A small space had been carved out online for men and makeup, yet the general public seemed to want to keep the two separate.
But of course, nothing could stop me from diving into cosmetics myself.
I distinctly remember the first day I wore some makeup to school. I’d gotten up thirty minutes earlier than usual to finish my statistics homework when I discovered that a mountain range of pimples had erupted on my face. I ditched stats and went straight to makeup, instead trying to calculate the probability I’d do my makeup well enough for no one to notice.
As I attacked my face with a Beautyblender, memories of my peers making fun of that one makeup-wearing student replayed in my head. I was scared of people making fun of me and, after watching dozens of videos about how to have natural-looking makeup, tried my best to make it look as if I had done nothing to my face.
On the way to school, the sweat dripping from my hands could have solved California’s drought. Are they going to notice? I thought. Is everyone going to laugh? Do I look like Pennywise? All of these questions filled my mind in a bubble bath of anxiety.
But when I stepped out of my mom’s minivan, I felt the most confident I had ever been. All of that worry about what people would think dissipated, and I became, for lack of a better word, “that bitch.” My brows were full, and my skin was baby-butt smooth. Maybe I was born with it or maybe it was the five pounds of makeup on my face, but I felt like I was in a Maybelline commercial as I strutted from class to class. Some of my friends noticed, and as I braced for the worst, the reception was positive. My bubble bath of anxiety began to drain, and no one could have brought me down.
That moment of feeling like a star should not be gendered. Not only did makeup make me confident in my appearance, but it transformed me. I always struggled with pimples, acne scars, redness and having very distant cousins for brows. Using makeup helped me like myself and made me more sure of my appearance.
At school, people were not staring or laughing at me. I mean, I’m sure they were secretly saying homophobic things about me, but the incredible confidence I gained outweighed all of that. I was on top of the world, and no one could push me off of it.
I see the beauty that makeup offers. People feel more confident with it. They are able to express their true selves, and, honestly, it’s just fun to put stuff on your face. Makeup should be for everyone.
Although I may still receive stares when buying makeup, I don’t really care anymore. I just mind my business and buy my concealer. And when I enter a makeup store, there are three things I remember: My face looks good, I feel great and my reward points are at triple digits.
Nicholas Clark writes the Monday column on LGBTQ+ issues in media and politics.