Make-up, masculinity, and the meaning of labels

Noah Pilcher. Photo by Charissa Ferington Photography.

This week on International Wednesday: In the centre of the Bible Belt of the United States lies Alabama, a state of sweet tea and even sweeter lemonade, strong conservative views and steady front-porch rocking chairs. And in the middle of it all lives 17-year old Noah Pilcher.

In a small town in Alabama, teens socialise at weekly church gatherings and at Sunday worship, references to Bible verses cannot only be found on the back of pickup trucks, but also in Instagram biographies. Men go huntin’ n’ fishn’ and young girls try out to become trail maids, wearing extravagant Antebellum-style dresses, embodying the idea of a Southern Belle.

Young Noah Pilcher.

Then there is Pilcher, who likes to hold make-up brushes instead of fishing rods and guns. Every now and then, he wears a full face of make-up out the house and to school. “According to my family, I have always been taking my mum’s lipstick and smearing it all over my face and walking out of the room in high-heels,” he laughs. It was no surprise to anyone when high-school theatre classes opened his horizon of what make-up could do to a face and led him to explore its many creative layers. “It’s as if you are creating a living picture.”

With his bold blue lipstick, his artistic make-up looks, and his self-made corset for this year’s prom (a formal celebration at the end of the school year), Pilcher stands out from his high school peers. “I feel more comfortable in my skin when I go out in make-up as opposed to when I don’t. I feel as if I am truly expressing myself and I am truly being who I am,” he says. When you talk to him, you realise that he chooses each of his words carefully, aware of their potential impact.

Southern hospitality

Alabama is known for its Southern hospitality. Kindness and politeness are held in high regard. Discrimination is not always overtly expressed, but it becomes apparent in small gestures, word choice, and everyday behaviours. According to Pilcher though, he encounters genderphobia and homophobia mostly in young teenagers, who tend to label things out of the ordinary immediately as weird and abnormal. “Once people realise it’s not just a derogatory term that they are using, it’s not just a person going against the Bible, once they realise what a person is going through, they gain a better understanding.”

Noah Pilcher. Photo by Noah Pilcher.

Rather than trying to fit into what he calls “this idea of normality, this tiny bubble”, Pilcher believes that you can only find people that genuinely care for you by authentically expressing yourself. To him, becoming one’s truest self means being able to express oneself without being afraid of anyone being against you.

Bailey Pilcher respects his younger brother’s bravery and courage to wear make-up, especially outside. “Alabama is for the most part pretty conservative, very traditional in a southern sense, so that kind of stuff is usually taboo almost,” he says. “Especially living in such a small town with a high school where everybody’s parents know each other, it’s very socially driven too, so there is also that aspect where he kind of breaks through.”

Role model

“It’s a lot of me trying to build myself up to be that role model I see in my head, but I don’t visibly have,” says Pilcher. In order to not only be a role model for himself, but also for others on their path to their truest self, Pilcher posts Make-up Tutorials on YouTube. “If I need help I ask for it, if I want to figure out what gender identity really is, I go to my friend Kepp.” Kepp identifies as non-binary and asexual.

Noah Pilcher. Photo by Noah Pilcher.

Whether he is applying make-up to his sister’s face, carrying his nephew August around the house, or playing Scrabble with new rules in a video with Kepp, there is sincerity in his every action.

“A man does not need to be a man, and a woman does not need to be a woman. A man could be more feminine, and a woman could be more masculine.” Make-up allows Pilcher to play with the connotations applied to those labels. “Categories and labels will always be there, but their meanings will change.”