On Euphoria, I Saw My Journey With Makeup Reflected on TV for the First Time

When I finished watching season one of HBO’s Euphoria in the summer of 2019, I was comforted by the knowledge that it had already been renewed for a second season. In the world I imagined at that time, season two would’ve already aired by now. Clearly, that didn’t happen. And while there are more important things to mourn than a TV show not coming out when you imagined due to an unforeseen pandemic, this past summer I felt the show’s absence with an unexpected sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

In retrospect, perhaps it isn’t just the show itself that I missed, but how Euphoria displayed a story of personal reinvention that I know intimately but had never seen captured before on TV. Particularly through the medium of makeup, its characters seek and manifest change with abandon, which is something we sorely need and lack right now. In the middle of a pandemic that has made it virtually impossible to have a truly fulfilling social life, to me, Euphoria feels more compelling than ever. The ever-changing aesthetics of the show’s characters remind me that the real magic of life lies in the ability to transform yourself in the eyes of the people you love.

Euphoria‘s makeup is almost like another character 

I’m not the first one to say it, but I will anyway: the makeup on Euphoria is iconic. When I think about all the incredible looks from that first season, Jules’ Sailor Moon-like aesthetic comes to mind first. The white clouds drawn around her eyes, the sharp lines of orange under her glittery lids, the fantastical sorbet eye shadow. Her vibrant looks evoke a feeling of vitality, joy, and hope. The playfulness of her makeup and the way she expresses how she feels about herself through it is refreshing — and I know this girl. I see her not only in myself but also in my trans girl friends.

You may recall Jules referring to trying on heels for the first time, experimenting with makeup, and starting hormones as “leveling up.” This idea of expanding one’s sense of self is at the heart of the show. All of the main characters are trying to move on from troubled pasts or break unhealthy patterns, and we often see them manifest and signify internal change by changing how they look.

a person posing for the camera

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The characters try on new identities, use all the mascara, glitter, and rhinestones in their toolboxes as armor, indulge in fantasy, and then wipe it all off for a clean slate. They aren’t making each other over to meet more conventional beauty standards — rather, they are pushing the bounds of their identities and to see what sticks. Before Euphoria, I had never seen this type of narrative played out on TV. As I watched their storylines develop, I started to evaluate my own journey with a new sense of clarity.

My own euphoric journey

Until college, I didn’t realize I could feel good about my appearance. Seven years ago, during my freshman year in college, I became friends with Danielle, a cisgender girl who lived in the same dorm as me. For Halloween, we decided to dress up as characters from our favorite web series The Most Popular Girls in School, which depicts the lives of a fictional high school cheerleading team through Barbie dolls. I told Danielle I only wanted to do it if I could be one of the girl characters. For the first time, I was excited about the way I presented myself.

No one ever taught me how to do makeup or expected me to wear it, so I was starting with a blank slate.

We bought matching pink skater dresses for our costumes, and after Halloween, I kept returning to it; in it, I felt beautiful and proud of how I looked every time I slipped it on. Similar to Jules trying on her first pair of heels, I found one small piece of pleasure and pursued it with abandon. While at first, the dress had been part of a costume I wore to embody a character, I began to see it as something I could wear as a part of my own identity. My love for it signaled a shift in personal style. I started buying lipstick, liquid eyeliner, and nail polish. Eventually, I developed a taste for bold makeup: glitter, color-blocking, geometric shapes.

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As I tried out new colors, products, and techniques, I became comfortable with identifying as trans. Quickly, I understood I had a freedom that most cis girls don’t: No one ever taught me how to do makeup or expected me to wear it, so I was starting with a blank slate. I relished painting with vivid colors, drawing unconventional shapes, letting the edges be harsh and unblended.

Not yet on hormones, I already stood out wearing makeup — so why not be bold? After all, I was not doing makeup to pass as cisgender. At that point I didn’t think of myself as a girl; I just knew that I was not a boy and I loved all things femme. As I explored makeup, I was creating my identity, and each aesthetic choice became a singular element in the conception and embodiment of my gender.

Me, myself, and Jules

When I started playing with makeup during my junior year of college, it wasn’t to reflect an innate girlhood inside of me but to externalize an inner curiosity. I did not yet expect at that time that I would begin hormone replacement therapy (HRT) shortly after I graduated two years later. But regardless of my expectations, playing with makeup helped me feel connected enough to my body to later realize that I wanted to pursue a medical transition.

There are quite a few resources online for trans girls who want to use makeup to feminize their face and pass as cis. These instructions are goal-oriented: how to cover the area where facial hair grows, how to soften your jawline, and so on. Before starting hormones, I chose not to engage with these resources. I was getting misgendered constantly, but I was also enjoying makeup as an art form, and I didn’t want a stranger misgendering me to make me feel like I’d failed at painting my face. If I was going to get misgendered anyway, I wanted to have fun with my makeup and explore a style that was often more editorial and inspired by drag. 

The variety in Jules’ looks speaks to the confusing balance of building your own style while still wanting to receive romantic and sexual attention in a transmisogynistic society.

Ironically, the deeper I get into HRT, the more I employ feminizing makeup techniques. Especially when I feel dysphoric or know I’ll be in a situation where I’m around a lot of cis people, I do my makeup in more of a subtle style. I feel torn between wanting to be recognized as a woman and wanting to do makeup on my own terms. Being a trans woman in a transphobic society complicates my relationship to makeup as an art form by limiting what I can do with it when I don’t feel safe.

a person with pink hair taking a selfie

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Jules exhibits this same struggle. Although she displays a courageous life force through her aesthetics, sometimes, she leans into more conventional looks to appeal to the male gaze. For example, in the pilot episode she puts on glittery blue eye shadow, rosy blush, and pink lip gloss (a subtle makeup look for her) before hooking up with Cal, the father of a classmate who she met on Grindr.

However, when Jules is doing makeup just for herself, she breaks all the rules. She paints on colors and shapes in an unconventional, dramatic way. The variety in her looks speaks to the confusing balance of building your own style while still wanting to receive romantic and sexual attention in a transmisogynistic society. Her innovative style feels tied to the social isolation of being a trans girl combined with the desire to break conventional notions of gender — an experience I know all too well.

Our society has countless systems and cultural scripts that keep people from exploring their gender. From birth, we’re subjected to a binary label, forced to use binary public bathrooms, and separated into activities for boys and girls. Not only are trans people often the butt of jokes, but we face the constant threat of both physical and emotional violence. All of these barriers can constrict the imagination; we’re often expending so much energy just trying to survive. Personally, growing up with these restrictions certainly stopped me from experimenting with my aesthetic.

Perhaps this is why so many trans people, like Jules (and myself), experience a surge in creativity when they begin their transition, whether through a name change, new pronouns, or trying out new clothes or makeup. The curious energy and knowledge that something better exists has been bottled up, and when a person starts to transition, it often starts to come out in creative ways.

Before my transition, I kept my hair short and strictly wore jeans, sweats, and solid t-shirts in an effort to not stand out. When I was assigned male at birth in the ’90s, it felt like everything typically coded feminine — heels, nail polish, makeup — was off limits. Thankfully, with representation on shows like Euphoria, the hope is that these societal standards will change and our rigid ideas of gender will loosen, but that change can’t happen quickly enough.

Leveling up (or, beyond Jules)

Jules isn’t the only character on Euphoria creating a new reality through aesthetics, though. Nearly all of her peers are also experimenting with makeup in unique ways, as well. Seeing a trans girl in the company of peers who are also tapping into makeup to become the types of people they aspire to be is revolutionary. (For a deeper look into Maddy, Cassie, Kat, and Rue’s makeup, you can check out an interview with Euphoria’s head makeup artist.)

Through all these characters, Euphoria also shows how fun and transformative makeup can be — if you let it. Covering my eyelids in glitter makes me feel like a deliciously flirty, shiny alien. Mixing purple and orange turns me into a sunset fantasy. When I let red shadow drip from black lipstick, I become a glam monster who eats boys up for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack. I didn’t know these identities were a part of me until I made them, and once I realized how strongly they resonated, I kept returning to them. I’m still creating new ones. I think I always will be.

For so long, makeup was inaccessible to me. Ever since I began fighting to claim makeup as part of my world, I began to realize there was an infinite realm of possibilities at my fingertips, and it would be a shame to not explore makeup as an artistic medium.

a person posing for the camera

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I, like the characters in Euphoria, want to keep leveling up. Taking steps to expand my sense of style has awakened consciousness in me, and other forms of creativity have flowed from this experience. Makeup helped me realize that I wanted to start HRT, and two years later, I did. A year later, I started using a new name socially, and then a year after that I pursued a legal name change. Connecting with my body, gender, and aesthetics has allowed me to dive into my art practice after a long hiatus.

Euphoria depicts many of the dark realities of being a human — it doesn’t shy away from mental health topics, sexuality, and trauma. It makes me feel immense optimism to see how the characters make intentional space for self-development and pleasure in the midst of all this, and seeing how the show has inspired people to explore makeup in new ways is also incredibly satisfying. I don’t believe that collective liberation will necessarily come from the liberation of individuals, but I know that we need to cultivate a world with less shame, and a world with less shame is one with less violence. Finding creativity in how you present outwardly can be a step towards accepting the joyful and curious parts of yourself that you may have been told were too much, too feminine, too loud, and too different growing up.

While watching season one of Euphoria, I remembered the gift of exploration is for everyone.

Queer and trans people commonly explore in this way, given that our very identities call us towards an internal reckoning. While watching season one of Euphoria, I remembered the gift of exploration is for everyone, and it is imperative for cis and straight people to divest from the normalcy that gives them power and perpetuates violence against people who cannot meet cultural norms or choose to reject them. We must ask if we can find strength and a sense of self on our own terms, letting our desires and creativity flow freely.

Recently, two bridge episodes of Euphoria were released to hold fans over until the next season. They seem to suspend time; each episode focuses on a single day with either Rue or Jules while they process the events of the last season while being separated from each other. Neither one of them is wearing makeup, which feels like a departure from season one — a sobering reminder that often, in moments of crisis, you end up dropping many of the things you care about to be present with the mess. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our social lives, and I can’t help but think about how the isolation of the last 10 months has clarified my relationship with makeup. Quarantining at home and wearing a mask outdoors has removed the need to use makeup as a tool to confirm my gender to other people, and has allowed me to focus on my love for makeup as an art practice.

At the same time, I’ve painted my face less often than usual; most days, I find myself wearing no makeup at all. I miss the social aspect of makeup. Decorating, transforming, and celebrating myself feels less special if I don’t get to share the process with the people I love. I am grateful for how Euphoria has given so many people a lens to think about their aesthetics, and I can’t wait until we can explore more publicly again, hopefully during the airing of season two.

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