"When I am in drag, I have a new courage, a new voice with which to subvert gender or to make people laugh"LOIS WRIGHT

Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of eating disorders, self harm, BPD and recovering from mental illness.

Sexy. That’s how I felt walking up the ADC stairs, my entire body hugged by corset and fishnets and hot pants and thigh-high boots that stretched all the way up to the 11pm sky.

I had never felt sexy before I started drag. I only started when I was unwell, entrenched in illnesses that were so much bigger than me, a high functioning mess. I felt monstrous. I felt depressed. I felt angry. I felt too big. I felt too small. I did not feel sexy.

“Drag is an armour for me. With my eyebrows glued down and lips outlined I am not scared to discuss homophobia”

One day, in August 2016, my friend suggested we spent an afternoon trying drag king contour; we improvised with warm-toned eyeshadows and half-dried mascara and photographed ourselves, manspreading to the extent of our trouser seams. I was filled with a sudden electricity. I was hooked. 

At its very base, drag has provided me with comfort and a focus during difficult times. If I am feeling low, or anxious, or triggered, to put on an audiobook and paint my face for a few hours is the ultimate distraction. It is art therapy, art therapy that I can wear on my cheekbones and across my lips.

"Every time I experiment with my makeup, I am recalibrating myself. I am no longer self-defining based on my intellect, but self-appreciating based on my imagination and skill."LOIS WRIGHT

But beyond that, drag is, for me, empowerment. When I am in drag, I have a new courage, a new voice with which to subvert gender or to make people laugh. I can put on a new face and say the things I didn’t quite dare to say earlier that day, when it was me, bare, in my dungarees and frayed, second-hand sweater. Drag is an armour for me. With my eyebrows glued down and lips outlined I am not scared to discuss homophobia, or satirise lad culture, or even just to dance without worrying what I look like. And each time I speak out in drag, I get a little bit braver out of it. I have a little more emotional energy to call someone out for prejudiced language, because I have a refuge, too.

“Drag has changed that. When I am painting myself or performing, I feel able to integrate all of the parts of my identity.”

And it has changed how I see myself. When I first became unwell at the age of 13, I hated myself, and I hated myself for six years after that. I had always defined myself by my brains: I was top of the class or I was worthless. Aged 13, I thought I was getting stupid, slower, thicker, and so then it followed that I was annoying, overly loud, and hideously large. Self harm became something which showed on the outside what I felt was on the inside. I found both solace and punishment in food, and another physical expression of the churning sickness inside of me.

I remember putting on some nice underwear and heels late at night and standing in front of my mirror. I told myself I liked what I saw. I think I was lying to myself. Maybe I thought I looked better because now I was in control of my food and so in charge of what the mirror said. I wasn’t. I was delusional, a hollow ghost behind my eyes, no matter what underwear I wore or how I changed what I ate or how harshly I judged my body.

"Each time I perform, I remind myself that this would not have been possible if I was still ill."LOIS WRIGHT

I was also torn from seam to seam about who I thought I was. Identity disturbance is no small matter in BPD. It is not a teenage phase, or a desire to follow fads. I felt a deep and, quite honestly, disturbing sense that I was not who I seemed to be, and not who others thought me to be, and that no matter what I did I could never reconcile the disparate parts of my identity. Was I Helena the outspoken lesbian, or sarcastic Helena, or Helena the performer? I was told I could be all at once, but I didn’t feel like any of them. I distinctly remember telling a counsellor that I was a fish out of water in the world, suffocating in the air, but that I didn’t know who or what or where else I was meant to be, only that it had to be something other than this.

“It may sound paradoxical but drag, while ostensibly the act of reinventing oneself, has made me recognise myself as a whole, and wholly valuable, person”

Drag has changed that. When I am painting myself or performing, I feel able to integrate all of the parts of my identity. I am queer, I am loud, I am creative, I am recovering, I am clever, I am sensitive, I am brash. Even more than that, when I take off my makeup or step off that stage, I don’t stop being all of those things. I am a fish who has found water, thriving in the oxygen of being myself. Drag has taught me how to collect all of my identities into one, composite whole, whether I am in drag or not, and I cannot verbalise how significant that is after years of feeling so desperately out of touch with the world around me, the only black and white character in a technicolour film. Drag has rebuilt me, in colour.

And it has played a part in resetting my thoughts about myself. Every time I experiment with my makeup, I am recalibrating myself. I am no longer self-defining based on my intellect, but self-appreciating based on my imagination and skill. When I am on stage, my scars are but an insignificant part of me.


READ MORE

Mountain View

The Instapoet experiment

Drag has also given me the most incredible experiences: performing on the Corn Exchange stage for the Rainbow Ball and putting on a sell-out show at the Edinburgh Fringe, for example. Each time I perform, I remind myself that this would not have been possible if I were still ill. If I weren't nourishing my mind and body, there is no way I would be able to do any of these incredible things, many of which, all clichés aside, rank among the best moments of my life. I can look in the mirror and genuinely think, wow, I look empowered, and I continue to think that even once the wig is off and the false eyelashes boxed.

It may sound paradoxical but drag, while ostensibly an act of reinventing oneself, has made me recognise myself as a whole, and wholly valuable, person, as messy and complex as that person may be. After such a long time feeling truly, sickeningly uneasy with my existence, drag has anchored me, and I refuse to downplay the part it has played in my recovery.

On the ADC stage, in Pembroke New Cellars, at the Edinburgh Fringe, sitting in my bedroom painting my face, even taking the makeup off with mascara smudged down my face, I am never too big or too small or too clever or too cracked. I am myself.

Sponsored links