Bipolar mania and the high femme: Adventures in Sephora

I was bipolar for ten years, and while rifling through the sexual identity coatrack I found I was most comfortable as a bisexual femme.  In the gay bars of 2002 this was the look that got me most often ignored or disregarded.  A decade later in a different city, I amped the look up to high femme, in a sense queering it, by making the femininity into camp, a form of drag or masquerade.  With a blonde bouffant, pencil skirt, purple lipstick and platform heels, I could not actually be serious about being sexy for the boys, I scared them.

The woman I am married to is coming into a genderqueer identity that involves butch attire.   For a party last week she went shopping for suspenders an hour before it began because, for her, the marking of butch identity by party-appropriate formalwear (khaki britches, suspenders, a white dress shirt and porkpie with feather), was extremely important.  I understand this sort of obsession, with my mugs of lipstick/glosses, primers/BB creams, eyeliners/mascaras, anti-aging/moisturizers in a forest on the dresser. I pulled on a strapless dress and six inch heels, put a flower in my hair and an octopus around my neck.  Walking into the party, the two of us proclaimed our lesbian identity clearly in our sartorial choices.

In a sense, a part of my femme identity exists in being a foil, a counterpart to her.  We are each queerer in each other’s presence, our relationship reinforcing our sexual identity.  Similarly, a femme without a butch is often mistaken for a straight girl, which is quite irritating.  To be de-gayed when individual is demoralizing.

The intersection of my femme identity with my bipolar one had an unexpected click.  Depressed, I rarely got out of bed or got dressed.  Manic!  Dressing became a costume party of leopard print, mismatched jewelry and all the makeup.  This was fine, but the problem came with the bipolar tendency towards overspending.

Women in American culture are socialized to buy more and more clothing and beauty products then they will ever need.  The argument has been made, bought, sold and paid for, and yet throughout my life I have been a completely helpless consumer.  I have had horrible credit card problems in the past. Now, I always run through my entire SSDI check, and when I think about what I spent my money on this month, the answer is always the same: makeup and beer… and of course rent and food and toilet paper.

Before the Schizoaffective Disorder hit and my bipolar disorder was in full swing, the mania would send me reeling to the MAC counter, where my high femme identity seemed to justify buying beautiful things.  With age, and time, I’ve learned to tone it down a bit.  Now I’m CVS’s bitch.  Poverty is a harsh teacher, but since I’ve been unable to work and the student loan defaulted and the reality of spending the rest of my life on Food Stamps has really hit me, I’ve had to differentiate between the sexual identity gender presentation and the costs of maintaining that look.  The bottle-blonde had to go, it was breaking off at the roots.   Choosing between a $7 medication copay and a bottle of silver toner, I’d rather have the pills.

This tempering of femme glamour has made me think more about the other aspects of what the identity means to me.  Being queer, being attracted to women, is clearly more important than being attracted to Lancôme.

Now that I am Schizoaffective and my mind moves more towards psychosis, I dream of red mascara with red lips, green eye shadow, rivers of makeup smoothed and contoured across the skin in unlikely colors.  Waking from that dream this morning, I realized that so much of my joy in makeup was in play.

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  1. By Katie Bongiorno


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