Born in Iran, Katy Jalili is a genderqueer multidisciplinary artist, performer, and writer who now lives in London. Jalili performs cabaret and live art across the UK and hosts a club night called Femmi-Errect, which celebrates queer femmes and people of colour.
London is a hectic place to live. In some ways, I would not recommend London to people, but I also always tell people they should move here, so it’s fair to say I have a complicated relationship with the city. In my experience, the hectic lifestyle, terrible pollution, and gloomy weather impact mental and physical well-being. It's become even more necessary to practice self-care.
Beauty is the trickiest thing to get a grip on, especially living in a place like London, full of conventionally beautiful people. As one of the fashion capitals of the world, you can encounter countless people who represent a mainstream beauty standard every day, which can be soul-sucking and emotionally exhausting.
Through drawing, I started seeing my body as a work of art, and that helped my confidence to grow.
Despite how draining this can be, the thing I love about London the most is that it’s one of the only cities in the world that tells people it’s OK to dress how you want, and that you can be different (even though societal standards still apply). For the most part, it’s easier to dress down or up and not be judged than it is in any other place I've been.
Connecting with beauty has been a long road for me. Like most teens, I used to struggle a lot with my image. I used to really dislike my skin colour and figure, and probably a million other things. I even remember telling my friends at the age of 16 that I wanted to bleach my skin later on in life, which to this day horrifies me. Now, I can’t believe I had such thoughts — thoughts that still affect many people of colour every day.
Sometimes I still wonder how I became so confident, when, less than a decade ago, I was so unhappy. So many things contributed to the sense of beauty and self-love I have today, but it was mainly my art. I started drawing and painting my face and my body as a teenager, and I owe my inspiration to Frida Kahlo. Through drawing, I started seeing my body as a work of art, and that helped my confidence to grow. But beauty remains a tricky concept for me, like it is for many people. The word itself can trigger so many feelings. It really took me moving out of my parents' house and going to university in a big city like London to feel comfortable experimenting with my looks.
Makeup wasn't the sort of thing I was allowed to wear growing up. My older cousin once put makeup on me, and it felt nice and fun, until it stirred up a lot of tension with my dad. I thought it would be fun to surprise him with my new face, which was the product of an hour’s work, and he was not impressed at all. We ended up in a heated argument about why makeup is only for women and not young girls.
Makeup is often seen as an overtly sexual beauty element by society. We need to challenge that. If a young girl plays around with makeup, she is slut-shamed, even if she’s as young as 5 years old. We see this all the time — people are afraid that makeup and dressing up will traumatise children, and don’t give the children any sense of autonomy. We need to challenge this notion that makeup is only for attracting a mate and stop sexualising children who just want to have fun and play dress-up. Sometimes you do it for yourself, to feel attractive for yourself and no one else. The concept that being beautiful means conforming to a certain type of contouring and lip colour is highly dissatisfying for me.
When I started experimenting with makeup, I was trying to forget everything I knew about beauty norms and standards. I started playing around with colours — bright colours, the ones that people usually don’t pick up at the shop. I discovered so many colours that looked completely amazing against my brown skin, and I started looking at makeup as a form of art.
For me, makeup needs to be fun and artful, not a tool to hide what I dislike about myself.
For me, like for many other queer and gender non-conforming people, makeup can be a difficult subject. Many of us grew up to believe makeup was heavily gendered, and those feelings can be conflicting when you’re discovering your gender identity that may differ from the one that was assigned to you at birth. Sometimes I feel like if I wear too much makeup, people might assume my non-binary identity is fake, and on the days that I do wear makeup and clothes that are associated with women, it’s more likely for me to get misgendered. An important part of self-care is to learn boundaries; if you feel like, "today I can’t deal with being looked at a certain way," it's OK not to push yourself.
The way I queer my use of makeup is through colours. For me, colours like turquoise, deep blue, green, and pink are my go-to hues. I get a lot of inspiration from what my mom used to wear back in the '90s. She would wear blue eyeshadow and lavender lipstick, and a lot of the time she would wear dark brown lip liner and brown lipstick (which is now super trendy). I used to feel a bit embarrassed by her makeup choices, maybe because she didn’t look like the women on TV, but now I really adore her style. I would say she’s a big inspiration.
I’ve started making a rule that I only wear makeup if it’s fun and doesn’t feel like a burden or an extra thing I have to do. If I don't like my face that day, then I have to look at it in the mirror bare and leave the house that way. For me, makeup needs to be fun and artful, not a tool to hide what I dislike about myself.
My biggest self-care mantra, as my favourite cabaret group Hot Brown Honey would say, is to “decolonise and moisturise.” My daily routine is about making sure my skin feels good, so I use toner and moisturiser before foundation. I also use the Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r. When it comes to makeup, I just look at the colours and get inspired by how they look next to each other. I recently bought the Blush Tribe palette named Blossom, which has amazing bright colours. I love drawing lines and shapes as part of my makeup, and really reinventing where eyeliner and lipliner should start and end. For example, I’m not using eyeliner to make my eye look a bigger; I do it because I want that certain colour or shape on my face. I see it as an art form more than an alteration.
I read a quote that said, “Self-care is not about putting on a face mask, it’s about knowing your boundaries and cutting out toxicity from your life,” and that’s so true. For me, I see beauty and taking care of my appearance as being motivated by a desire to feel good. It's in the same vein as learning to set boundaries and remove toxic behaviour from my life. I personally feel there’s a strong link between feeling good and positive inside and out at the same time — you can't have one without the other.
Looking back now, if I could give any advice to my younger self, it would be to experiment more with alternative ways of wearing makeup and not being too worried about the fact that I didn’t look like the girls at school who were predominantly white, and to do it for myself and no one else’s pleasure. And, to learn the power and importance of resting. It’s OK to sleep all day if your body needs it. Listen to yourself, and don't worry about how everyone else looks and lives their lives. This is also advice I would give myself today.