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The Queer Person’s Guide to Feeling Beautiful in an Ugly World

New Rules

My favorite beauty tips were written by Mark Aguhar, an Asian-American artist and trans woman who died by suicide in 2012. We never knew each other when she was alive, but I’ve thought about her frequently ever since she passed. Her words on love, strength, beauty, and rage are truisms that feel like spells — less magazine platitudes and tutorials, and more philosophical musings on how beauty is explicitly linked to systems of privilege, wealth, and even whiteness. As far as “beauty writing” goes, it took a lot of courage for Aguhar to carve out her own niche and take up space in ways queer folks were never taught. Most of what already exists in the beauty lexicon don’t even acknowledge or realize that our worlds — queer worlds — exist or matter at all. She understood that beauty magazines and queer publications primarily upheld certain standards of beauty and desire, and bodies like hers (brown, fat, Asian, femme, and proud) weren’t included. So she built a world of her own.

“Bodies are inherently valid,” Aguhar wrote in a piece on Tumblr titled “These are the axes.” In it, she writes a list of tenets — nine in all — outlining something of a survival guide for navigating beauty as a person on the margins. Queer folks are often victimized for the ways we present or desire bodies. Sometimes the fight to be seen as valid is lost, and we lose the people we love.

One of the first axes on her list says, “Remember death.” People who refuse to believe all bodies are valid hide behind the idea that America is great, where one kind of body (white, cis, middle-aged, male) rules everybody else. People who believe there are laws that dictate how bodies should be dispute the fact all bodies deserve to be here equally. But everyone deserves a chance to find a home. Aguhar examined this frequently in her work. The year before she died, she wrote a piece called “Not You (Power Circle),” in which she scrawled “WHO IS WORTH MY LOVE, MY STRENGTH, MY RAGE?” in red, howling letters. It was an S.O.S. and a mourning wail: Trans people remain absent from the history of the beauty industry, in tandem with being killed and forgotten by society at large. Who do we find worthy enough to desire, to love, to mourn?

Aguhar’s next tips suggest, “Be ugly,” “Know beauty,” and “It is complicated.” Queer life has always been about transforming the words used to demean us into things that feel celebratory. The word “queer” itself traditionally means to be delinquent from the order of things, but we’ve created homes in the margins for each other. We must “be ugly” because we know the world doesn’t recognize us as kin, so we find kin of our own. We “know beauty” when we recognize we are worthy of that kinship, and find worth in ourselves and our bodies, our love. You aren’t alone in loving who you love, or the way your gender and sexuality works. “It’s complicated,” because we’re always transforming in the face of systemic oppression, and our transformations are never perfect, never done.

Aguhar’s next tips simply read “Empathy,” then “Choice.” Knowing the world bends the most for people who play on already established rules — life is easiest when you’re beautiful and legible to people whose power you can use. This is true even for queer folks: If you “pass,” if you are conventionally beautiful in ways that normalize you to a non-queer, cis audience, you’re safer. You’re duly rewarded. We shouldn’t uphold certain versions of bodies, nor should we punish people for changing in ways that help them survive. We have to protect their choices and empathize with the fact that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. Queer culture has aesthetic assumptions that signal more “authentic” queer experiences than others. Just ask femmes who have been forced to defend their identities because they have long nails, or gender-nonconforming folks who contend with established narratives on what transition has to entail, or that you have to transition at all. We have work to do together on how we hold space for each other’s beauty. Our bodies have always been battlegrounds, whether the battle is our immigration status, racial makeup, gender markers, or on whom we swipe right. Our desires tell on us. When we’re empathetic, we navigate them with kindness. It is our choice to reconstruct them entirely.

“Reconstruct, reify,” says Aguhar in her eighth axis. Beauty is still a capitalist checkpoint. At one point or another, we’re all its guards until we remember the axes Aguhar wrote, and respond accordingly. None of us can change the rules of beauty or power on our own, but the best thing about beauty is that there’s really no one way to get to where you want to go. There are infinite ways to do your eyeshadow!

What makes life less overwhelming is finding ways to honor, teach, and protect one another. We inherit each other and the ideas left behind when people pass. I mean, beauty products aren’t new inventions, not really. They’ve been around since the beginning of civilization. They have historical longevity because they’ve been integral to how we present ourselves to the people we love, and how we face ourselves. Queerness is often in a parallel conversation with the beauty industry and the institution of political power, but they’re not opposing forces. They’re intertwined. Our lives as queer people make us experts at transformation of both our bodies and our worlds. It’s partly why some people are scared of us. They’re afraid of the way we metabolize desire, and the fact that we bend the rules of how bodies should work, and we make what they fear into something beautiful.

People love and fear beauty because it is an endless horizon of transformation that seems daunting, but I suspect a lot of queer folks love it because of this impossible promise. The intersecting discriminations we face daily have forced us to learn resilience to survive, and also know survival isn’t enough. Life has taught us our existence is already hard-won, and beauty makes the win worth celebrating. We love beauty because the journey toward it is a lot like love itself; it involves knowing there’s something worth fighting for. When we learn beauty rituals, share them, and celebrate them with each other, we’re recognizing the work it takes to be OK with being alive. We’re witnessing our bodies and steering fresh paths to where we want them to reach. Sometimes the paths are temporary and wash off at the end of the night, and sometimes they’re more final — but our bodies change forever. We’re always turning into someone new. Beauty lets us revise the transformation, sometimes on terms already established, sometimes on our own.

Axis nine: “Respect, negotiate.” One of Aguhar’s last pieces of work was a print that said, “I’d rather be beautiful than male.” In the context of her life, as an Asian-American transfeminine person, most of the world didn’t hold space for her choices. I look at her old Tumblr and see her face frozen in 2012: thick, glorious eyebrows, washes of blue and green eyeshadow. I wish she’d had time to write her own queer book of beauty tips, something to place on my bookshelf like a burning pyre, to blot out all the heteronormative offerings. Something so true everything else would look dull. Something terrifying and beloved, just like Mark.  

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