Make-up the Most of Your Moustache by Natalie Weaver

Natalie Weaver editedMy girlfriend Heidi has a great sense of style. It is theatrical, creative, and always original. I met Heidi when I was eight years old and have had a chance to observe her personal developments and self-presentations grow and change over three decades. Our friendship has always included a strong element of the silly mixed in with the beautiful. We would dress up for high school dances together in classic regalia as easily as we would put floral shower caps and boldly colored wigs on our heads to entertain ourselves as we walked around our neighborhood. Now, Heidi works as an artist model in one of the most theatrically dressed cities in America, becoming the basis for the first city-commissioned sculpture (Kim Bernadas’s Terpsichore) in New Orleans after Katrina. She is slender, tall, and striking with platinum hair and large dark eyes framed by long, elegant lashes, and often adds to her already statuesque appearance by wearing heels and hats. Heidi, moreover, creates hats in her avocational role as a milliner. It is, in short, always a striking surprise when Heidi walks in the door.

Over the weekend, Heidi and I had an opportunity to go to the opera together. Playful as always, Heidi showed up for the event in elegant tuxedo-inspired couture, complete with a handcrafted fascinator and (drum role) a very finely, penciled in moustache. She looked truly stunning, and we enjoyed the night together as a lovely couple. We laughed over the moustache, but more or less would have forgotten about it were it not for the looks people gave us. Some were genuinely appreciative, others merely curious, and yet others, specifically random men, had the great audacity to say something to her, like, “you have a moustache.” It was sufficient to inspire Heidi to try it again the following day as we popped in and out of shops and restaurants on the street, and sure enough, some guys felt obligated to tell her about face.

What does this mean, I have been wondering, and why have I been so unsettled by the commentary she and I have received? On one level, I have been aware that we may be perceived as a same-sex couple. This phenomenon I have been aware of since we were children. Close female friends, who laugh together and sometimes link arms when walking, especially in the USA, seem automatically to evoke in the public imagination a suspicion of lesbianism. I found the suggestions in high school puerile and irritating, but now I find them imposing and reflective of a deep intolerance of inter-women’s shared energy and joy. But, to be fair, Heidi was wearing a fine, little moustache, which, if nothing else, did broadcast androgyny in Heidi if not couple-hood between us. And, yet, here’s were my radar pings even louder. Why not androgyny? What was it to the passers-by and would-be commentators if we were a couple, or if Heidi always blurred gender presentations in her dress?

I have found myself more and more perplexed that any random man (and we only received male feedback) feels entitled to advise openly a strange woman (or, for that matter, a known one, or even more, anyone at all) on how s/he should look. One stranger man at a bar, who was openly critical of her style and verbal about it, even dared ask me why I was so charmed by my friend. When I ignored him altogether, he patronized me with, “Are you ok?” like a date fishing from his girlfriend for an explanation about her sudden moodiness.

The most striking comment that we heard was perhaps the most benign. A seemingly non-judgmental waiter announced to Heidi, “You have make-up on your face.” Yes, she did. And, so did I. And, so did, I am pretty sure, every other woman in the elegant hotel café where we were sitting. The difference was that my liner was about three inches higher on my face than Heidi’s. How could a single, modest, arguably attractive alternative choice in the placement of decorative pigment cause so much a stir?

The funny thing, as I thought more about it, is that real facial hair on women is treated with cosmetic hostility. It is tweezed, lazared, pulled, bleached, shaved, electrocuted, powered, and waxed, even while fake, playful moustaches have become a curious motif for handbags, t-shirt designs, textiles, and giftware. What made Heidi’s moustache dangerous was that it was elegant, nonchalant, and worn in the context of female companionship. It was quiet enough to be truly ambiguous, possibly serious, naturally donned, and therefore, really, potentially disruptive because:

It crossed gender lines in an uncomfortable way for some;

It suggested women enjoying each other independently of “real” male attributes;

It was a female appropriation of a typically male facial choice;

It was an alternative approach to female beauty performance;

It did not answer whether we were gay;

It was non-normative.

In the end, our weekend with the eye pencil experience has given me great new insight on costume and perceptions of social placement and acceptability. What is more, what for us was a weekend of some curious looks is for many a daily experience. Disruptions of gender normativity, however banal, are chancy, not because they are merely different, but because they risk disordering power and placement, cues for social interaction, and reproductive real estate. And, my dear, that is truly unacceptable for a proper lady!


Natalie Kertes Weaver, Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

Categories: Feminism, Gender

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7 replies

  1. I’m sure you’re aware of the moustache painted onto the Mona Lisa by Salvador Dali? Playful. What I find disturbing about your experience is that only males responded and none saw the humour in it. A beautiful woman making fun of herself, her fame? Which reminds of a comment by Uma Thurman, in an interview with her (on TV) about her beauty – her response being, the subject is boring, or words to that effect. I haven’t worn any make up for many years – just don’t feel like it any longer, but this gets my bristles up and will paint a moustache on my face for my next trip into society (no wonder I choose to live as remote from people as I can.) I’m glad there weren’t any actual threats.


  2. Surely, there were some who kindly said, ‘great moustache’? I am also curious what city you were in as I would guess some cities to be much more open-minded than others …


  3. Your post reminded me of the first time I saw Marlene Dietrich cross-dressing in a nightclub scene for “Morocco”: Va VA VOOM! She didn’t wear a moustache, but she was electric! She out-sexied poor Gary Cooper (wish some of our current day actresses had the moxie to do that).


  4. Great comment, nmr, I remember those Marlene Dietrich cross-dressing movies. Tons of fun.

    Thanks, Natalie. Regards identity. I am who I am. That’s enough to say. But how do we understand that? Is I am who I am physical? Is it mental? Is it spirit? The body-mind is one part of us, but there is another self, it seems to me, present always. To add the moustache would recognize that. In other words, the outer self, the physical persona, is maybe nothing more than something we wear, like a moustache.


  5. I’m pretty sure she would have received compliments here in my new home: Portland, Oregon. I’m planning to share this with my trans friends for their responses. Thanks for writing it!


  6. You raise some great issues here; and I agree– it is really interesting and worth thinking about that only men commented about the mustache.

    While I identify as cis-gender, I have gender-non-conformed purposefully in certain instances when I was specifically asked to do so with a good friend of mine who does not identify as cis; and what I found really interesting about the experience was the way I also wanted to perform the other trappings of masculinity simply because of the clothes I was wearing… It was a fascinating experience, that I debated a great deal about before and after participating. While we knew that I might be identified as gay by others, it was really important to both of us that I not pretend to be an identity I was not– and to evaluate the experience afterwards with the understanding of the temporary nature of the performance. Nonetheless, I was amazed by the stares I received and the every day courtesies that I took for granted as a white, cis-hetero woman that disappeared as my gender performance changed.

    Considering your blog, I also find myself thinking about a co-worker of mine who I think is transitioning on campus. While his body is still largely identifiable as born-female, he is growing a mustache– a physical response that can be common when taking T. Where make-up can be seen as playful or even, costume like– his mustache doesn’t seem to be. It seems a bold statement– or at least, that is how I am reading it– which perhaps, is not how he feels– I don’t know. However, in light of your article, I (like Katharine above) am thinking about how trans experiences are different, and what about them (particularly in the condescending gender-policing that your friend experienced) may be similar.

    What your post mostly reminds me of is that this gender-policing can escalate to violent levels so easily. I have had a friend physically assaulted when in line for what others perceived as “the wrong restroom,” by a “well meaning” woman who wanted to protect other women from ‘male aggressors.’ We’ve made a rule when we go out together, we go to the bathroom together– and I let her (she/he identifies as she or he) use the bathroom before me when we stand in line together, and she doesn’t wait in the restroom for me afterwards.

    The commenting you mention here so easily and readily transforms into deadly rage– an important reminder as we approach Nov. 20th, the International Transgender day of Remembrance.

    Thank you for your post– it raises some really important issues.


  7. I wish I could have seen you two! :-)


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