When I first started following Riley (he/they) a few years ago, he looked like a rococo painting — a shoulder-grazing bouquet of bright blonde hair, Keebler elf blush, and occasionally a twinkle about his eyelids. I admired what felt like an unabashed sense of self-assuredness and a direct connection with his femininity.

(Before I continue, it’s imperative that I mention that there’s no inherent connection between cosmetics and gender presentation. Cosmetics — like clothing, pearls, or silk — are neutral but can be wielded in a way that rebels against common norms to embrace femininity. Our current gender constructs are defined by Western powers that still uphold them. This story's usage of “masculine” and “feminine” reflect that.)

Sometime last year, I noticed Riley chopped his hair off and seemed starkly barefaced. His nails were noticeably unpainted. He suddenly seemed to always be standing in a forest. Put plainly, it was more masc-presenting than I was used to. Put stupidly, It was giving Duck Dynasty.

People shift their gender expression all the time! It can flex and concede depending on the day. It is rarely (if ever!) anyone else's — including my own — business. Why, then, am I then careening out of my lane and writing this story? Perhaps I was just used to witnessing the evolution in reverse. Perhaps I worried that a light within Riley had been extinguished.

Does the law of matter conservation apply here? To paraphrase it poorly, “feminine energy cannot be created nor destroyed—it simply changes forms." In order to test this hypothesis, I had a call with Riley. What he told me made me revisit my own notion of gender expression altogether. Here's his story.

"I always liked makeup. I remember stealing my mom's lipstick as a kid. I have this cheeky memory of trying to put lipstick on the people on the TV screen. I liked that as a kid, but I went to a pretty busy daycare and found out pretty quickly that that wasn't going to fly with the other boys. I started repressing it really early on. This weekend, me and a couple of friends are going to an anime convention. I've wanted to go to one since I was 8! But even then, I knew that it was so nerdy. It would be over for me if I did that! I just always loved Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura.

The first time I bought an eyeshadow palette from the drug store—I was sweating bullets. I think the ladies working there thought I was stealing because I was acting so sketchy.

I'd basically just given up on censoring things that make me happy. The freaking harmless joys in life —we should feel no shame around these things. People don't care beyond an odd comment here and there."

I used to feel like if I wasn't doing something cool, I wasn't cool."

After graduating high school, Riley left his small town and moved to Vancouver.

"I did freelance beauty stuff — a couple of weddings and music videos. Vancouver doesn't actually have a fashion industry. I was sort of misguided. [Laughs]

I tried it all. I got a job at a nail salon that I went to randomly one day. She was taking off my nail polish and asked, 'Did you do this? You're pretty good. You should work here.'

It turned out to not be that good. It wasn't the best for learning technique. They didn't have time to train me properly, so I stopped going. Then I learned [how to do nails] myself myself on YouTube! I rented out an area in an artist's studio and for a few months did nails out of there."

After six years, he moved back home.

"I'm a country mouse, it turns out! Maybe a small-city mouse. Just not a big-city mouse! It can be pretty overwhelming.

The rent in Vancouver is famously high. I stumbled upon this term—metronormitivity—within the queer community. It was the first time I heard it. This idea was ingrained in me even as a tween that I just knew that I'd move to a bigger city once I graduated high school. That's where I'd find gays. I realized it didn't suit my energy level. I'm pretty introverted and shy. After a while, I was like, 'What am I doing here?'

I missed my family, too. I didn’t spend a lot of time at home when I was a teenager, so I feel like I'm kind of redoing my bad boy years and getting to know my family a bit more.

When I was younger, I felt like a lot of stuff I did was performative. I just really wanted friends and attention and to express something and have fun. I used to feel like if I wasn't doing something cool, I wasn't cool. It was a 'false refuge.' I feel like Tara Brach, but she's right. The superficial stuff won't make you much happier.

I felt like, before, focusing a lot on my appearance and makeup was kind of a false refuge. It feels like fun, like you're expressing and connecting, but it wasn't totally it for me. It still felt superficial. I just wasn't that good at makeup. [Laughs]

I didn't like feeling like I was annoying people. People would sometimes make fun of me like I was vain. I didn't like that. My friends would sometimes say [mockingly], 'Let's collab!' I didn't want to be misconstrued. It kind of took the fun out of it for me. I do miss makeup! I love other people's makeup. Like, Pony. I just want to watch Pony. I can't be Pony.

I also got really into rollerblading and hiking when everything closed down, so I wanted to start using outdoor clothes for actual outdoor stuff. Where I'm from, the girls dress like this. To me, I think I'm serving snowboarder girl. [Laughs] Because I'm a guy, it just looks normal butch. I think it looks like I'm wearing my boyfriend's clothes—everything's boyfriend fit. But I'm the boyfriend, I guess."

This year, Riley will celebrate three years of sobriety.

"I feel content. Less self-conscious. Less self-hatey. I have the bar way lower for myself than I used to. I still like makeup. Not enough to make it a full thing. I love tinted balm. It's like my favorite thing. [FYI Riley likes Burt's Bee's Tinted Balm.] On my lips and cheeks, but that's pretty much it.

Right now, the way I've been expressing my femininity is thrifting dolls. I've been collecting and restoring dolls from the '90s and 2000s—like Bratz. I've been collecting thrifted mugs and making little tea sets. I love looking at the Lolita street style. It got me into the idea of doing a tea party. I've been trying to explore everything that's vaguely interesting and collecting it all. Not saying to myself, 'Oh, it doesn't make sense if I like this and that.' You can like whatever. You can like it all.

When I started looking more masc was when I started feeling more feminine, in a weird way. It felt like when I was feminine before, it had to be with this twinge of macho irony. Like long-haired guy, not short-haired girl — which I feel like I'm serving more now. [Laughs]

I cut my hair even shorter, and as soon as I came out of the bathroom, my mom said, 'pixie!' That's certified femboy when you cut your hair short, and it gives pixie cut."

In his hometown, Riley now works as a dog walker.

"It helps me emotionally, mentally. It was so obvious to me recently that when I was the most bummed out, I would ask friends to hang out with their dogs or babysit them—and then I realized, wait, this is a job.

I want to do more grooming too. I still love doing that finicky technical stuff, and I like making things pretty. I just want to do poodles instead of people now."

Just because I don’t love a cliffhanger — how did I fare with my theory about matter conservation? I sought out an answer but instead found clarity. There’s no one way to feel feminine. You’re more than welcome to adorn yourself in beautiful gauzy things and watercolor tones. You’re also welcome to not. That’s the concession of choice. When it all comes off at the end of the day, it’s how you feel that endures.


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