the performance of skin

At a recent arts festival in Brooklyn, I came across a young performance artist who I approached after watching for several minutes.

My initial observation was of this: Human with hazelnut-colored skin, wearing white tank top and white pants, stands, moving only her upper body. I recognize her gestures, but cannot place how. She is moving head to the left and then right. Shrugging shoulders. And repeating. 

Finally, I go up to her and read the sign beside her, describing the piece.

Black or White or      by Reya Sehgal

Passersby are invited to beautify the artist’s face using skin color-based beauty products, creating a new kind of multicultural subject. Using Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video—an early ‘90s paean to multicultural love—as a framing device, this participatory piece explores themes of race and multiculturalism in the beauty industrial complex.

Beside the artist was a palate of colors squeezed out of skin foundation make-up. Her movements were copied from Jackson’s famous video and afterwards, she sat motionless, body covered by a white sheet, as passersby painted her face.

I told her I felt uncomfortable and I knew that was the intention.

I told her that I wished she had other colors like red or yellow (which have been used to describe skin tone and even race). 

She responded that these are the only colors available for people to use as foundation. These are what are marketed as skin tone shades.

I slowly walked away, allowing more people to enter this space and get involved. I drifted my eyes back toward her throughout the day, watching people cover her skin.

After about an hour, I walked up to her once the crowd dissipated. She was covered in thick gasps of browns and beiges. I grabbed a make-up sponge and dipped it into the bowl of water beside all the colors. Then, I moved toward her face and began wiping the paint away. I wanted to remember what her face looked like before the cover-up. I didn’t think any of those colors made her any more beautiful. I noticed myself feeling anger at all the layers of cover-up on her. With each scrape, I returned sponge back into the water, heading back toward her face to remove more. No matter how much I tried swiping at the oily make-up, it wouldn’t come off. I realized she was succeeding in this performance. I was not only thinking of race: color, blending, what is added/what is taken away, but the anger of what is hidden, what feels like it needs to be hidden.

How beauty is marketed. How we are encouraged to cover up. To blend. To smooth.

I have never used foundation, nor do I currently wear any make-up. My skin is blotchy and freckled and scarred and dry. Those around me would title my skin: white, though I’m not sure what shade that would be called in the land of make-up.

There have been times in my life where I dumped mascara onto my lashes or attempted a layer of color on my eyelids. I never quite made it work. I certainly didn’t feel any more or less beautiful. I felt covered up. I definitely felt in drag.

Within the construct of beauty, a lot of pain exists. Pressure. To hide what we are often told to hide. To brighten what is told is too dark.

I wonder what would happen if we all sat with palates of colors beside us… would others paint us and would anyone try to erase away what exists.

Would anyone just leave a face….a body…..alone….



Tonight: A Performance of Gender Exploration.

Tonight, I attach placards to body and question the ways in which gender can be experimented on the body.

This is an exciting, new series of drag & burlesque performances by the Brooklyn-born NYC-based drag alliance Switch N’ Play and their special guests for the evening, JZ Bich and  Queer-E Sugar  (my performance alter-ego)! 

Come to Brooklyn and be a part of this highly entertaining, thought-provoking night.

Branded Saloon  603 Vanderbilt Ave.  Brooklyn, NY
$5 admission
Doors @ 9:00 PM, show @ 9:30 PM

this night leaks homelessness from each exit of air.

On the evening before we are handed an extra hour of minutes, I walk toward east fourth street for some poetry. In my teeth, are the dried mandarins that burst in my mouth with each clap of tooth. There is an applause of bites as I eat more until my tongue is too sugared to speak. I walk up the stairs to a bar with more red than in my hair. So many bottles lined up like stained-glass slurs. I order the cheapest beverage with Brooklyn in its name. It tastes like a hangover. One other woman exists in this bar. She is eating from several to-go tins and I sit, accompanied by broken-in red notebook and black pen. As people enter, what arrives as romantic are the dim shadows over faces. Another poet sits beside me and we roll our eyes around each other. In this light, we are both humans. My supper is this room. I want more of some things and push others beneath the ridges of my notebook. Wang Ping walks behind microphone with length of hair like letters from every lover from first grade to this one. So many words in every dark strand clasped together. She says, “Language…like woman…looks best…when free… naked.” And I want to weep toward this image of dialect on skin. Later, I purchase a stale eclair from a cart for an evening performance of drag and disrobe. I think about the ways in which I envelope my gender lately. On this night, I head toward a theatre for women and trans-folk. I make a small space for myself in a corner of small dressing room where nudity replaces handshakes. I bind my breasts in electrical tape and cannot stop fondling the flatness. When I paint my face, I am other. Two humans on this earth call me animal and I like this moniker of blur. These hours of waiting to go onstage are like curious drips of blood falling on my shoulder. I want to wipe all of this away; I want to run toward its origin. Later, I walk home. The glitter covering my face and limbs are my street lights. I follow my glow back to Brooklyn. Home is where hot tea waits for me. And a painter. A musician and bearded poet. I sleep alone, but my bed is full of the ghosts of others.

dragging gender through the track marks of punctuated body

Found and feeling this:

“The hard part of realizing and accepting your own gender is trying to explain it to people who have never questioned theirs.”

I was trying to explain the punctuation mark called period ( . ) to a student of mine.

Use it when you are done. When you have completed your thoughts and you’re ready for another, I suggested. It is the end of one thing, which begins another.

So then of course, I think about body. Will I ever reach a time when I am ready for that period…a time when I can say: it is done. Complete. I understand it and now I am ready to begin something else. 

We are more like exclamation marks amidst a crowd of questions. We must be loud and stern and sure. But what if we are not.

What if when you ask me what it means when I call myself queer, I answered:

I just need to give myself room to understand what all this means. Queer is my elipses. 

I search out my body among others. I want to know that what have exists elsewhere.

I sit beside a human with the backdrop of sunset and concrete fountain and notice hair on their legs so I let mine exhale in their direction.

I speak about breasts with another and want to understand what it means to want them there or not want them there but still have them touched.

When I am asked what it means to perform in drag. I say:

I cannot choose between masculine or feminine because neither feel enough. So, I create a hybrid of both and all and that is my performance.

All of this feels like weaponry. But it doesn’t need to be dangerous or threatening. It can be powerful and conversational. I want my body to be a dialogue that allows space for opinion and observation and reconfiguration. Stares can be heavy, causing discoloration to the skin. If you notice something like a scar or rip out of space, search out some words and ask me what it means to live like this. But then but then but then be prepared to answer it yourself.

map out body hair through stares and winces

My arms were beginning to hurt. I was pressing them so closely to my side that I felt like a butch Barbie doll masquerading as a femme, walking stiffly.

A song came on and the raspy, computer-edited voice of a pop star chanted out: put your hands up/put your hands up. And everyone’s hands went up while mine hot-glued themselves to my sides.

This is not you, I kept telling myself all night. I am wearing high heels that are binding my toes together and I feel one step away from falling and why can’t black, high-top Converse sneakers be an acceptable choice of footwear at weddings?

My lumpy skin is pressed into place inside a black dress that I keep telling myself is masculine. However, that dark purple suit I tried on was far more hunky though challenged my economic class far too hard.

My rebellion…my ME‘ness remains hidden beneath my arms in the dark blond strands that run out from my skin like eager marathon runners.

At a wedding full of red-lipped beauties and breasts cascading out of low-low-low cut dresses, I am an anomaly. I almost pass. A stunningly tall woman compliments me on my shoes. She starts listing off multi-syllabic names of designers.

Are those Floreasdfasdfasfd Hserernasdfk shoes? His latest Italian line? Where did you get those? she asks.

Payless, I mutter.

As we all take the dance floor, I am feeling sexiest when I am dancing alone, jumping up and down, being messy with my dance moves and losing myself in the rhythm of the song. Suddenly, I feel my breasts stage a runaway as my bra lifts up, pressing against my breasts in an awkward and uncomfortable way.

All I can think of is: I can’t even wear an undergarment correctly.

While I give my suffocated feet a rest, I sit at my assigned table and watch everyone. I realize that these women in dresses are also humans housing their own insecurities and that as they take over the dance floor, it doesn’t really matter who’s eyebrows are threaded or skin airbrushed or legs cut up from shaving with dull razors. They are most beautiful because they are letting go.

In fact, it doesn’t take long before they remove their uncomfortable heels and exchange them for flip-flops.

After several hours of judging myself, I unpeel my arms away from my sides. I dance harder. I lift my arms a little higher. I take my shoes off and let my bare feet feel the cold, slippery floor.


The next morning, I was back in “butch gear” or just gender-less threads that make me feel as close to comfortable as clothes can make me feel.

Sometimes it is fun to dress in drag, or dress up as others might say.

Sometimes it is important to pay attention to these moments when we ask ourselves: who am I dressing this way for?

This hair beneath my arms and on my legs and covering other parts of my body is for me. When I press powder on my eyelids splashing on a color like sparkled grey or blue, that is for me too. When I pack a cock in my underwear on a night alone, just to walk several blocks in my neighborhood, that is for me too.