My sister has been my best friend since the day she was born 17 years ago. She's also been my greatest support and confidante through the ups and downs of my life. Besides teaching me about body positivity, my little sister has also been staunchly nonjudgmental regarding my identity. I have always felt that I could share everything with her, from a tube of lipstick to secrets about a girl I liked or kissed. But that tube of lipstick would prove particularly important in our relationship.
My sister and I went through everything together from Day 1. We grew up in the same house, hesitantly explored beauty as we aged (neither of us were too interested in it for a while), and we watched each other develop our own personal takes on femininity. Although my sister was the certainly the hyper-feminine one in the pair, that never put me at odds with her despite my own gender uncertainty.
She accepted my discomfort with presenting femininely almost as soon as she could walk and talk, and lovingly respected my aversion to her beloved pink and frills. Unlike my parents, she never questioned my gender presentation, and embraced it so wholeheartedly that she would often dress like me or shower me in compliments about my appearance. She was the little sister, after all.
And here we are. I've long left our childhood home, and am about to graduate college and move in with my partner full time. She is in her senior year of high school, about to embark on the next chapter of her life as a real grown-up, without our parents around to hold her back. And like always, she still embraces me fully, especially in my times of need.
After pulling back from my family for a while, while processing my identity and various traumas, I returned home, ready to be way more present in my relationship with her. A purple tube of NYX lipstick served as the ice breaker: the olive branch. The unconventional lipstick colors that I had been adopting after having just started coming out to friends and to myself felt very tied to my queer identity.
The blues, greens, and oranges that I had added to my makeup bag were queer in that they certainly went against feminine beauty stereotypes, and strayed from what was popular in more mainstream cishet dominated areas of style. Swapping out my usual red hues for something bolder meant finally allowing myself to be visible as the queer individual who I was. By extending that to my sister, I was trying to coax her into my world without speaking definitively, in an attempt to help her understand my fluid and ever-evolving identity precisely because I knew she would understand. To my excitement, she took it with enthusiasm, and wore my unconventional colors with pride.
My sister loved the way the colors transformed her — the way they made her feel brave and entitled to taking up space. Like I had expected, she understood exactly what I meant when I said lipstick made me feel visible. That night, we went through old pictures of us. I pointed at photos of myself with long hair and wearing dresses, explaining that I just couldn't identify with that person. I told her that I don't feel like a woman, but I quickly dismissed the conversation out of discomfort. I trusted her, but I still needed time to finish formulating my own thoughts about gender.
The day after our lipstick playdate, I flew with my mom to Scotland to visit my uncle. While I was there, my sister and I texted constantly. I kept her updated about all the things I was up to, and she kept me posted about different ways our dad was annoying her. At one point in our days-long correspondence, she sent me a message about a mostly trivial conversation she'd had with our father about me. I noticed, to my astonishment, that my sister used they/them pronouns when referring to me in the paraphrased dialogue portion of the messages. How did she know, when our conversation about my gender had been so vague; when I never even requested new pronouns?
She told me she always knew, and that it's been obvious to her since we were children. I relaxed, knowing that no explanation would be needed as there would be for my parents.
Every time I visit, my sister takes full advantage of my makeup collection. At the same time, she enthusiastically embraces my gender, never hesitating to properly gender me around her friends and compliment me on my masculine styles. She also educates her friends about gender identity, and vocalizes her own feelings of identity fluidity in our conversations.
By first sharing those rule-breaking lipsticks with my sister, it's like we renewed our promise to one another to never let the other go unseen. In the darkest times of our lives — times that were punctuated by medical procedures, suicide attempts, and manic episodes — we served as each other's mirrors, reminding the other one, "You're still here, don't go, we'll get through this."
When we wear our lipstick, it's like an oath written in creamy pastel cosmetics, as we vow to continue validating one another. No matter what new developments or obstacles arise in our lives, and no matter how small we may sometimes feel, we will always see each other.
Images: Meg Zulch