by Umber Ghauri
When you are agender, queer, Pakistani/arab/brown, feminist, perceived as a woman and have mental illnesses, deciding how to express your identity can be a little difficult. I’ve always been interested in how the choices I make about my appearance affect my own self-image. And as a makeup artist it is fraught territory. But I think its fraught for anyone and everyone.
Daily choices like clothing, hair and makeup, can be a constant struggle between what is labelled as assimilation and what is labelled as resistance for all marginalised people. It can feel so out of balance no matter what you do with your appearance. Someone is going to look at my undercut and depending on so many uncontrollable factors they are going to think a number of things; it’s a white alternative thing, it’s a weird tribal brown thing, it’s a queer weirdo thing, I had an accident/a prank was played on me. They’ll look at my clothes and my face and my body, trying to compute the rest of me.
People probably are not writing mental essays on my appearance every day as I pass them on the street, but they probably do have thoughts that are ingrained and intuitive, popping into their heads when they see me. It’s what makes you trust or mistrust people, it makes people stare at me everywhere I go.
But marginalised people, living under global hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are all wriggling around trying to find a face that fits.
I see how insecure people around me are about their self-image, as if they have deep secret questions about how they themselves appear. But marginalised people, living under global hetero patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism are all wriggling around trying to find a face that fits. I know for me a lot of the time when I try out looks they feel like a costume, like I’m playing at a role. And I think for a lot of people like me this constant feeling of not-quite-rightness follows all our attempts at authentic self-expression. We don’t really have role models, except for each other, and we’re all pretty lost, often pretending not to be.
Speaking of a self image that simply doesn’t fit; I remember having friends that reflected the white version of myself. At school all my friends were white. I would play pretend that I was in on the white young woman experience in the books we read and shows we watched, always terrified of slipping up. It wasn’t just this friends/family difference, I felt like a different person. Switching between this white version of myself with my white friends and the version that wears a shalwar kameez on Eid with my family never felt natural. Either they wanted to join in and put mehndi on (but never eat our home cooked food), or they were outright uncomfortable as if they had been dropped into another dimension or planet, and all my foreign looking and sounding relatives were aliens. It was like they’d seen this huge secret and they’d stare at me wide-eyed wondering who I really had been this whole time. My culture and my religion were never really mine when I was constantly aware of who was watching.
The more Pakistani I was, the less of a girl I was in the eyes of the white suburban people I saw daily. Pakistani means hairy, smelly, backward, engaged at ten years old, to them. For them to be involved with me meant that I had to be ‘different’, that despite my skin and family they had to see me as white, or colourless to compute me as a whole person or a person they could relate to. To me though, being a Muslim Pakistani girl raised by women was entirely different. It was fragrant, singing, peeling vegetables and tossing rotis while we discussed at length how terrible men are, what was for dessert, was there enough salt in pakoras? After dinner it was sitting in the bedroom, still chatting while my mother threaded our upper lips one by one. Those were Sundays.
My grandmother only wore silk or cotton, her belly was big and soft like her smile. I remember the gold teeth so often exposed with big laughs at inappropriate moments. My mother effortlessly existed as a woman in dresses, short hair, and handmade chappals from Lahore. My aunt in her hijab outside would fuss over her hair indoors. These women taught me by example what beauty and authenticity was. I was in awe of their utterly shameless womanness, brownness. Sometimes that felt as unattainable as billboard beauty. They were this whole other dimension where beauty could be fat, odd, full of life, not for anyone’s eyes but yours. Nothing the people I knew at school would get. My mother always told me I was not what the white people saw me as, I was too extraordinary for them to understand.
I was in awe of their utterly shameless womanness, brownness.
Every day, I try to make a version of these smells, voices, and people on my body, on my face. It’s never quite what I want it to be, it never feels honest enough or beautiful enough. But, most of the time I wear the same clothes daily because it is so exhausting to choose who I want to look like. I usually don’t wear makeup. But then when it strikes me, I feel the constantly moving image of who I am as a blessing. I always loved art because it is so beyond words, but I keep trying to write about it, the gap between sensation and words always too large. My Tunisian professor referred to ‘plastic arts’ and now when I make really deliberate aesthetic choices, I am all plasticity.
Some days I’ll stretch out my queerness here and my desiness there, pull out a little masculinity and I’m all set. Other days I only have the strength to stretch my queer arm but not my Pakistani one; the combinations vary, the result never consistent, like the person. On those days I know my mother was right, I am always too extraordinary for them to understand. I see all my siblings, queer, of colour, confused and insecure when we’re supposed to be cool and interesting. You have it too, the insides that stretch far beyond what a body can do, what a face can show. Tragic magic.