Teenage Boys Are Slaying the Makeup Game—and I'm Salty

Why seeing 10-year-old instabaddies and 15-year-old beauty bloggers makes writer Joel Louzado jealous (and, okay, also happy)

Joel surrounded by flowers

Photo illustration: Ka Lee and Joel Louzado

Whenever I walked into a drugstore as a teenager, I would always feel the hairs on my neck raise as I passed the forbidden land: The Makeup Aisle. All the different brands and products were *so* overwhelming, and also totally intriguing. But as a young, Indo-Canadian man who wasn’t publicly out yet, I didn’t feel like I could partake in its mysteries. Until I moved out for school, that is. By then, I felt less restricted by judgemental high school peers and watchful family members, so I decided that my getting-cute routine could consist of more than just moisturizer. I told my girlfriends that I wanted to buy a concealer, news that prompted immediate screams of excitement. We drove to the nearest drugstore, and they each made their case for which brand I should buy. (None of their picks had options dark enough for me to use, but that’s another issue.) I chose one that seemed close enough to my skin tone and left before anyone else I knew spotted me. I felt quite insecure and anxious that day, but little did I know that crusty little concealer would open up a whole world of self-exploration.

Three years after that fateful Shoppers adventure, men are taking up a larger place in the world of makeup. Social media is full of young male gurus, like James Charles or Manny Gutierrez, who feel confident enough to express themselves using foundation—and so much more. But while seeing them genuinely makes me happy, when I scroll past 10-year-old instabaddies and 15-year-old beauty bloggers, I’m also faced with this overwhelming feeling of jealousy. It’s more than just being envious of someone who has achieved success at a young age—it’s that I can’t help but wish I had that much confidence (and support) when I was that age.

Instagram was just establishing itself when I was in grade nine, so I didn’t have influencers like Charles or Gutierrez to look up to. Until I was about 17, I didn’t even realize that makeup could be for men. In my naive little head, makeup on men was for Halloween and goth punks only. The first time I saw a man wear eyeshadow and lipstick casually was when I stumbled across a YouTuber by the name of Miles Jai. What intrigued me most about Miles was that, at the time, he presented femininely but still identified as male. Though he has since come out as non-binary, his videos were eye-opening for me; for the first time, I realized I could express myself in more traditionally feminine ways, yet still define my own gender.

Even though my parents know about my makeup and sexuality, I still can’t wear lipstick in front of them without feeling embarrassed

It took time before I felt ready to rock makeup as openly as Miles Jai. Being a teenager is tough, but being a teenager who’s also gay and Indian came with another set of challenges. Homosexuality is still illegal in India, which has a large impact on the way that Indian people, even in the diaspora, view men. Not only is homophobia rampant and common, but older straight men project their toxic masculinity onto their descendants. Just having my relatives chirp me for choosing arts over sports was enough to scare me away from makeup and anything deemed even relatively “girly.”

That’s partially why, when I see white boys who are makeup artists, I see a lot of other things in addition to their outstanding talent.

It is a monumental privilege to be able to do something that’s unacceptable in your culture without having to worry about your safety and mental health. The fear of an auntie or uncle seeing me in lipstick was enough to stifle my creativity for years. I’m not saying that this fear doesn’t exist for other cultures as well—wearing makeup as a man is scary no matter who you are. But issues of gender expression and sexuality are just not the same for a white person as they are for a person of colour.

And even when I did start buying makeup and experimenting with different looks, I still worried about what my family would think—especially when I moved back home after first year to save some coin. After a year of wearing makeup openly, it became something I did exclusively at night, when everyone was asleep. Taking pictures of my makeup and later posting them on Instagram (where most of my family was blocked, thank you) was the one thing that kept me from feeling less frustrated and alone.

Knowing how important Instagram was to me, it’s easy to see how much harder it was for feminine men before the rise of social media. Timothy Chan, a 33-year-old PR professional in Toronto, told me that he wore foundation to cover acne scars as a teen, but it wasn’t until he went to university in 2003 that he truly started to explore makeup. That’s when he tried out eye makeup as a form of self-expression, to mixed reactions. “My friends and peers were supportive and appreciated the artistry, but it was not always well-received by others,” he says. “It was common for people to stare and even verbally harass me.”

I’ve definitely had my own experiences with harassment because of my makeup. Recently, I was on the subway alone after a dinner with friends. When I got onto a mostly-empty subway car rocking a subtle smoky eye, a man sitting a few seats over made some extremely non-flirty eye contact with me. I’m used to stares by now, and usually staring back will make them look away quickly (a superpower I hold close to my heart). However, when I looked back at the man, he didn’t look away. Immediately, I looked down—I didn’t feel like this was someone I wanted to challenge. Sure enough, seconds later, I heard, “What are you looking at, faggot?” The five or six minutes it took to get to my stop felt like an eternity. I was just grateful that he didn’t get off the subway with me.

Wearing makeup as a man feels like an open invitation for people to judge my sexuality

Clearly, as far as we’ve come, many straight men are still not comfortable with other men expressing themselves in traditionally feminine ways. Although I came out to my family and close friends by the time I was 16, I wasn’t publicly out until I was in my last year of high school. So, wearing makeup before that would have amounted to raising a question that I wasn’t even comfortable answering for myself.  Maybe my jealousy stems from not being able to be true to myself at that early an age? I robbed myself of any opportunity of trying anything in makeup, because I was scared that I would be seen as gay before I was ready for the world to know.

I decided to speak to a real-life Teenager™ who could give me some insight on what it’s like to grow up with makeup. Kevin Kodra, who recently graduated from a Toronto high school, went viral this year when he posted a pic of his perfectly beat mug in his grad photo. Kodra started playing with makeup before he even got to high school, and by the age of 16 had perfected his skill. “I remember watching [drag queens like] Willam and Courtney Act, and I was mesmerized,” he says. This isn’t surprising, as drag artistry has always had a large influence on makeup practices.

Kodra’s introduction to makeup and social media happened at a much earlier age than mine, or Chan’s. The difference shows in the way that people respond to his makeup. He claims that he has never felt unsafe in Toronto. “Of course I feel the stares behind my back, but the second I turn around, they put their head down,” he said. “I’m extremely thankful to live in a city that’s predominantly accepting.”

Though I agree that Toronto is accepting, I’m not sure that I have the same positive belief about the community. I understand that everyone’s experience is different and neither Kodra nor I represent a universal reality. But, I don’t think his story should necessarily be taken as a sign that all gay people and feminine men in Toronto are safe. The number of hate crimes against gay people in Canada has actually increased over the past few years, after all. It may just be that teens like Kodra are now growing up with more access to information about the LGBTQ community, and an overall greater understanding to breaking gender roles. Seeing people in media owning who they are can truly make a difference in the way that they see themselves.

I need to focus this negative energy into more positive change

Even now, when my parents know (and are proud of) my makeup, I still feel a sense of embarrassment when I have to tell them I can’t come down for dinner because I’m in the middle of doing a glitter cut crease. It is a learned behaviour that comes from years of hiding who I was. But I’ve come a long way since buying that first concealer. I’ve expanded both my makeup collection and repertoire (I learned that I love the artistry involved in makeup, and I’m like, not bad at it TBH), and over time I’ve found met more men who wear makeup, both online and in person. Of course, I know that compared to the men who came before me, I’ve had an easier time. I’m sure that older people look at me the same way that I look at teenagers like Kodra, wishing that they started living their lives openly as early as I did. While Chan and Kodra went through their journey to acceptance in makeup at different times, their stories aren’t that different, and aren’t that different from mine either.

I am grateful for older generations of men who wore makeup before me. They must have felt very alone, not having role models the way that I do, and it’s only because of them that more and more people are accepting me. And I’m also grateful for younger generations of men who are wearing makeup now. They demonstrate that you can never be too young to follow your passions, and exemplify a level of confidence that we should all aim to own.

Ultimately, I’ve realized that this feeling of jealousy is counterproductive to why I started exploring makeup in the first place. It turns out that my saltiness is not with these teenage white boys themselves. It’s with the media that positions them as heroes, failing to realize that they are *still* only talking about white men. I think we have a long way to go before all men of colour feel as free to express themselves as I do. And who knows, maybe down the road, even straight men can feel confident to pop on some makeup. I take pride in the fact that just by applying mascara, I’m making a political statement. It would make me so happy if little brown boys in the future could feel nothing but pride when they’re putting on mascara, too.


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