The Makeup Brand Helping Trans Women Choose Their Own Beauty
By Clare Wiley
There are very few organizations like Born out there, particularly ones run by trans people.
Like many young women, Kim likes playing with options for makeup and hair. But until recently, if she wanted style tips or to have her makeup done, her options were seriously limited. Kim is trans, and for a trans woman, cis-centric beauty salons can be a minefield. Even at businesses that claimed to be trans-friendly, Kim ran the risk of overhearing whispered slurs.
At the other end of the spectrum were the “dressing services” on the outskirts of the city, which catered to trans women — but at the expense of their dignity. At their worst, these places fetishize being transgender, dressing customers up in lingerie or maid costumes. Their shelves are stacked with synthetic breasts, latex vagina panties, and feminizing supplements.
That, Kim felt, was the full scope of her makeup options — until she came across Born, a new beauty brand for trans women in Manchester, England. “I went in for a makeup tutorial,” she tells me over a cup of tea in the salon. “I didn’t feel like I was crap at my makeup before, but the artist gave me some useful techniques. I didn’t think I was that unconfident before, but when I left, I was like, actually I’m doing all right. I’ve since applied for jobs and worked on an LGBTQ project.”
Run by trans women and allies, Born offers clothes and wig styling, hair and beauty treatments, confidence sessions, and voice therapy. It aims to genuinely empower trans folk who are interested in feminine gender presentation.
“We wanted to produce a safe place where trans or genderfluid people can feel at home,” says managing director Paul Heaton, “to be able to enter a place and be treated as a normal person — not special, not asking awkward questions. If I went into a salon I wouldn’t expect to be asked about my genitals.”
“Our cause is to help trans people with integration into life,” says Heaton. “Because some trans people won’t have grown up with makeup or how to dress as female, we want to help in all those areas.”
The most popular services are the makeup tutorials, and Heaton often teaches women how to conceal facial hair. “There are things we know that a regular makeup person wouldn’t know, because we’re specialists in feminizing the face.”
I meet Jenny, who visited Born for a makeup tutorial with style director Grace Oni Smith, who’s also trans. “They made me feel really welcome,” she says. “Grace wanted to know how I felt and what I was like at doing my own makeup, which I’m never very happy with. She taught me the tricks of the trade, like putting eye makeup on before foundation. It’s little things that do make the difference.”
There are very few organizations like Born out there, particularly ones run by trans people. The ones that do exist can be controversial, because from the outset it looks like they’re helping trans folk to “pass.” Passing is a loaded term: For trans women, it means to present as female in such a way that nobody can tell they’re trans. For some trans people, this is the ultimate goal; they just want to blend in, sometimes because it’s the easiest way to be left alone.
But many other trans people argue that having “passing” as a goal puts gender equality and trans rights back several decades. It restricts trans women’s beauty standards to a specific, super-narrow idea of femininity, of what a woman should look like: high heels, red lipstick, and perfectly coiffed hair. The concept of “passing” reinforces the idea that you have to look a certain way to be accepted by society — as a woman in general, and as a trans woman in particular.
TV host Janet Mock and writer Aiden James Kosciesza are among those who have spoken out against the problematic notion of “passing.” Kosciesza wrote in the Advocate: “The problem is that when trans people use the word ‘passing’ for what we’ve achieved, it diminishes everything that we’re fighting for. To ‘pass’ for something immediately connotes deception and untruth.”
“To look at trans people expressing their authentic selves and say that they “pass” for men or women is to diminish their identity by implying that it’s an act. Telling a trans woman that she “passes” is like saying ‘You’re not a real woman, but good job faking it’.”
The politics of passing is damaging, University of Warwick researcher and trans activist Ruth Pearce tells me: “I don’t think it’s healthy to present [passing] as the ideal outcome for trans people.”
She believes the language of passing centers cisgender as the “valid gender, the gender to live up to, the gender to be.” “So what trans people end up talking about when they talk about passing, is passing as cisgender,” she says. “They’re talking about rendering their trans-ness invisible.” Invisibility, she says, shouldn’t be presented as a necessary goal.
For Lorelei Erisis, a trans activist based in Massachusetts, the idea of “passing” is fraught. “I don’t have a strong desire to pass as a cisgender woman because I’m proud to be trans, I’m proud of who I am,” she tells me over Skype. “But I do hope that people accept me as a woman, and I try to be the best woman that I am. Which just simply means being me and not worrying too much about whether other people can tell I’m trans or not.”
But Erisis still feels pressured to be more feminine than a cisgender woman might, because the consequences of being misgendered are more significant. “I will often push my [female] presentation a little more because if I wear jeans and a t-shirt I’m gonna get called sir all day,” she says. “And that wears on me. So I tend to be a little more femme-y than I might feel. I come from a good, Yankee, New England family of strong women. I like to joke that I’m basically the first woman in my family to wear a dress with any regularity.”
For Erisis, who is an improv teacher and a former Miss Trans New England in addition to being an activist, part of the key is to look at femininity as performance. In the service of this goal, she teaches a “gender improv” class. “I use the tools of improvisation to look at the performative aspects of gender,” she says. “I encourage people to really look at the way real people move and are in the world, and try to adopt those things into themselves. I’m not teaching anyone ‘this is the way women are,’ or ‘this is the way men are.’ I give them the tools to observe people and take what is useful to them.”
Despite her view that passing is problematic, Erisis says a service like Born could be helpful:
“Trans women are being dropped into these gender roles without any of the preparation that cisgender people get as children. There are all these little things that cis folks learn about their gender really early on, like how to do your makeup. Trans people have to pick up these skills while having to live their lives as adults and that’s difficult.
“But most of these services teach a very narrow version of femininity; that’s useful for some people but I don’t know if it’s entirely helpful all the time. You can learn to put makeup on your face and clothes on your body without really learning how to make decisions about those things, how to know what clothes fit your body, what your personal style is, what kind of woman are you wanting to be out in the world. Those are important questions that are always skipped over.”
The consequences of passing or not passing can be very serious. Jenny-Anne Bishop, chairperson at support group Transforum, thinks that flying under the radar can ultimately put trans people in a more vulnerable position. “I do think in some ways [passing] can be dangerous,” she says, “because it’s almost certain someone will out you at some point. A friend had death threats posted to her house, and another lost her business [when she was outed].” Bishop believes improving attitudes is crucial, and that one of the ways to achieve this is to avoid attempting to “pass”: “My real feeling is that if you’re out and proud, you slowly re-educate people.”
But there are also real dangers to being “out and proud.” Despite some progression in trans equality over recent years, there’s still a huge amount of prejudice and ignorance. Trans people, particularly women of color, face shockingly high rates of murder, homelessness, and incarceration, and experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. In light of this, some view passing as an unfortunate necessity.
Indeed, Pearce says the negative aspects of passing have to be “coupled with a recognition that passing means safety for a lot of people; it also means affirmation and comfort. There’s got to be space to criticize the social conditions by which passing becomes valued, whilst also leaving space for people to pass.”
Born client Jenny thinks it all depends on how people want to live their lives. “Some people want to go out, go shopping or into town, and just not be stared at. If you can go out and pass where people don’t take a second look, then it puts you at ease, you’re more comfortable.”
For managing director Heaton, Born’s intention is to support trans and genderfluid people in whatever goals they choose — whether they’re trying to embrace cisgender beauty standards or reject them. He tells me that Born doesn’t impose any ideal onto their clients: “We’re completely led by what they want. From our point of view, passing is a real personal choice. It’s different for everybody that comes through the door. Some people want to pass, that’s their objective and that’s fine. Other people just want to express their feminine side. It’s just, ‘I am me, I’m celebrating the fact that I’m trans.’ We also work with a lot of people who are gender-fluid, so they might still want to appear masculine or feminine, but are exploring other points on the spectrum. Because we’re not just talking about man/woman: There’s a whole spectrum.”
Kim has always forged her own version of femininity. In the U.K., the national health service gives trans women eight voice therapy sessions for free, and she walked out during the third one. “I just couldn’t hack it, I saw everyone around me, trying their best, and it just felt really sad to me. So I gave up because I thought, I’m just gonna be me.”
For Kim, Born lets her perfect the parts of femininity that she does want to engage in, without pushing a narrow, cis-centric ideal. “Rather than passing and fitting into the female world, Born is more like ‘I am a trans woman, what can we do to celebrate that,’” she says. “It’s not about doing your makeup so you can, like, sneak past people and no one realizes you’re trans. It’s about having pride in myself.”