I used to write a blog called COSMENAUT: true adventures of a straight male makeup artist. It was about me working in the cosmetics section of a legacy department store, my experiences in the makeup and beauty industry, and my personal life – not always in that order. But I usually tried to connect these elements in a novel way, because I thought it was interesting coming from a place with no understanding about this business to having heavy awareness for its effects.
As a man who dates women, in seemed appealing to learn and share insider knowledge of the beauty industry, both as I was exposed to it through sales and marketing campaigns, and in the practical use and application of products by my friends and lovers. To be sure, I regret a lot of what I wrote during that time. I was learning and drinking and exploring. It’s only worth revisiting to see how far I’ve come and I’d prefer if I was not vilified for whatever I wrote back then about people and circumstances I did not understand well.
Selling products I thought were useless and unnecessary, and answering questions about bullshit concerns created by a culture of marketing inane and superficial competition, enlightened me about our perceptions of personal values and individual worth. But it seemed like I was suddenly expected to make priority out of absurdity. And I was not passionate about sales.
Especially sales derived from preying upon natural human insecurities.
I named my blog Cosmenaut as a play on words, like a cosmonaut for cosmetics, an explorer in a foreign land blah blah blah. But it was the subtitle that was meant for exposure. That was the hook: I was a rooster in the hen house. I did not belong there, but I was there, and I was sensitive enough to see the secrets.
Someone sent me a message asking why I “felt the need” to exert my hetero-masculine (assumed cis gender) sexuality into my branding. Was I “insecure” about it, they wanted to know.
The truth is I never was. I was simply just trying to be distinct. The cosmetics environment as I experienced it was something like 85% women, 12% gay men, and the remainder could be anybody else, but really that means trans women and me.
As far as these trans women were concerned: they were women, both in my view and theirs. But that did not keep them from being the subject of vicious gossip.
The store had a fairly progressive attitude toward inclusion, at least. There were expressed, written policies on tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation for customers and staff, though I never heard any issues about access to appropriate bathrooms or dressing rooms or any of that. It was San Francisco, after all. (Personally, I’ve long believed that every rest room and dressing room should be a single occupant all gender inclusive situation because I like privacy).
There were some other straight men in the department, but they almost exclusively sold fragrances and skincare. These products, like the men who sold them, fit safely behind a gender line defined on their packaging. The classic view of the perfume lady spraying unsuspecting passersby had long ago been replaced by the flirty dude with a car salesman’s grin plastered across his face.
The main difference between the fragrance bros and myself was that I also sold color by performing practical applications. In other words, I did makeovers. I knew about makeup.
Our brand had a men’s line that consisted of the exact same products packaged into steely gray containers with the words FOR MEN stamped across them for safety. These were skincare products, but occasionally they’d try out a concealer or something.
Thanks to toxic masculinity, straight guys need reassurance like this. The marketing might say the formulations are specific to men’s skin, but that’s just pitch sizzle. In truth, it’s so the fragile heteronormative cig gender man can feel safe in knowing people won’t wonder about him if they see his facewash. That’s because he’s been told that unqualified vanity is gay.
I wrote back to my inquisitor that the subtitle to my blog was just a gimmick. But, just to clarify, I suggested that sexual orientation is who about who you desire, and sexuality is about how you demonstrate that desire.
Dan Savage commonly defines it as a layer cake: at the bottom is who you want, in the middle is who you get, and the top is what you tell people. Within that, there’s a difference between sex and romance, and room for fluidity on each tier.
Still, you hear about “guyliner” & “manscaping” put in such common usage that people don’t think about them anymore. Why do fragile heteronormative cig gender men need alternative terminology for the same shit? Toxic masculinity. Duh. Or is that the joke?
One of my lady coworkers (from Great Britain) told me that if she went over to a guy’s apartment and saw flowers there that were not left by or intended for a woman, she’d immediately assume he was closeted gay. So, I asked her, if I like the look and smell of fresh flowers in my home, how does that somehow mean I also like to suck dicks?
Then there’s the whole question of ass play. Women asked me all the time if their boyfriends were gay because they wanted their salads tossed. So, I replied, your boyfriend wants you to lick his anus. You’re not a man. If he wanted a man to lick him, that might be gay, but if he wants you to do it, why is that an issue? He likes when you blow him, right? Many gay men like to give and receive blowjobs, but your boyfriend wants to receive one from you, so…
There’s an element of toxic masculinity outside of abusing women, though certainly related to it, that speaks to male competition. Consumer culture has long exploited this. But is it more than machismo?
I recently asked an old friend who is now a married father of two young children if parenting in a more inclusive and socially conscious time (like now) has affected his view of himself as a younger man. From my perspective, I see him back then as an alcoholic cokehead who’d frequently say, “Treat them like shit, that’s what they like,” about women. He had apparently determined that indifference sometimes reads as confidence, both personally and professionally; often enough, it seemed, that he could be self-destructive and indulgent and still get laid occasionally.
At first, he told me he was afraid of his kids getting bullied. Maybe that’s because he’d mostly been a bully himself, I think. I clarified the question, explaining that I was interested more in his view of himself than I am in his concerns as a parent.
This was his answer:
Yes, a confusing triple negative preceded by a joke and then redirected onto a disgraced celebrity for comparison. Throughout the conversation he made several attempts to change the subject, but I’m not sure he ever got the point. I was not accusing him of sexual assault against women. I was asking him, probably not directly enough, if he knew he’d been afflicted with toxic masculinity. Or if he saw it that way now. Did he remember drunkenly punching me in the face to show his dominance? Does he regret constantly accusing his straight friends of being gay just to watch them squirm? Did he care about making historically marginalized people feel welcome in his presence?
If we now live in a time when straight men can sometimes have gay sex, and when gay men can occasionally screw women, and women are so whimsically fluid that being a woman has indefinite meaning – physiologically, we’re all women for at least six weeks anyway – if masculine and feminine energy can apply to anyone, if being a mascot or a femme bot are just fleeting fashion choices, if chromosomal biology carries no dictates, so much the better. But I wonder if it kind of makes some of these labels obsolete. Or does it?
Like Gore Vidal said, we are all potentially bisexual.
Like RuPaul said, it’s all drag and life is hard for everybody.
So, is identity how we see ourselves or how we want others to see us?
Sometimes safety requires wearing a mask. I’ve worn many.
Post Script: One night in 2004, which was well before makeup artistry came into my life, myself and two blonde American women encountered a Swedish man while out drinking. He told us casually that he sometimes had sex with men. “I’m not gay,” he said, “Just horny.” The ladies said they thought this was very hot. I felt a little reduced for not being regarded as so adventurously open-minded. Of course, we ended up back at his apartment, where one of the women hinted at a group sex possibility. The other woman shut her down because she claimed she hadn’t shaved recently and said she did not want to “be the hairy girl at an orgy.” The ladies ultimately fell asleep huddled together on the couch. The Swede brought out a futon mattress for me to crash on, and he might have alternatively invited me to join him back in his room. I politely declined, but this exchange may have been imagined or part of a semi-conscious dream sequence. The next morning, the ladies and I left early without seeing our host again. The supposedly hairy girl said to the other one, “I can’t believe you wanted me to fuck that gay guy.” Did I mention these two were sisters? They had the same father.