by Allison Alcéna
[Image description: Allison’s profile is reflected between bathroom mirrors. They are pumping lotion into their hand.]
“For me, beauty and personal care are a way of customizing my body. You can see from all my tattoos and piercings and hairstyles that I’m very into changing how I look. So I guess in a way for me, my body is the first story I tell people. Who’s the character I want to be you know?
I started reading and writing very young. My mom really pushed us to learn to read and write early. I think my first notebook was at 4 and my first stories were at 6 or 7. Since then, writing has kind of been a place for me to make sense of my world. I toyed with different kinds of writing I wanted to do – fashion, journalism, academic research, children’s books, blogging – and haven’t landed any place yet. I just want to write and do everything. And more and more I’m moving in the direction of writing myself, writing my own story down.
I went to college in Pennsylvania and of course studied English lit, and then moved to Asheville, North Carolina for my first job. I think being a fish out of water – a New Yorker in the South – has made me really have to interrogate, okay, ‘who do I want to be today?’ That lonely feeling first being here had manifested into lots of hours at TJ Maxx buying skin and hair care and at Ulta or Wal-Mart for makeup. And I also just realized, ‘okay, maybe I don’t need to do my whole hair and makeup thing just to get some soy milk.’ Standards are different down here.
When I was growing up, there were six, sometimes more, people in my house. So the bathroom was usually the only alone time I’d get, and I’d really relish in every last detail – putting conditioner in my hair and combing it through, rubbing lotion into my body. I’ve definitely had a contentious relationship with my body, and I’m finally at a point where standing in the mirror naked feels okay, good even.
[Image description: Makeup and skincare products organized in clear containers on a bathroom counter.]
I had very bad cystic acne until starting birth control, so I’ve had a pretty extensive skincare routine since I was like 13. Now, I try to lighten up the hyperpigmentation I have and prevent breakouts.
In the morning, I wash with Wal-Mart’s knockoff CeraVe foaming cleanser. Sometimes I use Shea Moisture Black Soap scrub if my face is feeling a little dull. Depending how I’m feeling, I’ll use a Formula 10.0.6 So Totally Clean pad to exfoliate. They have lactic and salicylic acid. Next, I use Acure Radically Rejuvenating Eye Cream on my under eyes and eyelids. I had another of their eye creams for monthsand I loved it. I love vitamin C, so I use Jason C-Effects Lotion. And then I finish up with Alba Botanica Sensitive Sunscreen. I’ve been using sunscreen on my face every single day since middle school, so I’m curious to see how I’ll look at 40.
At night, I take my makeup off with Yes to Cotton Micellar Water. I try to make some earth-friendly decisions everyday, so I use a little re-useable cotton pad from Dollar Tree instead of single use pads. Then I cleanse with Elizabeth Arden 2-in-1 Cleanser. It’s a little less mild than my morning cleanser. I do that 60 second rule where you really wash your face. It felt so long at first but now it does feel good to get all the gunk off my skin. And then I use the same exfoliating pads, eye cream and lotion as in the morning. And I finish off with a Global Beauty Care retinol face oil that I’m trying to get rid of. I used to use vitamin c and retinol serums for years and I like those way better than this oil.
My fiancé, Jeff, and I like to do a spa day once in a while, so we use a clay mask or little eye masks. It’s so hard not to laugh when we wear them! I have a lot of sheet masks but I hate them. I don’t really feel like they make a difference, since my skin is usually moisturized and I hate having them on for like 30 minutes. I got a pack of like 4 for $2 at Big Lots one time. A lot of my skincare is from TJ Maxx or Marshall’s ‘cause I front like I’m an all natural bitch, and they have a lot of great brands for cheap.
[Image description: Allison is holding a bottle of retinol face oil.]
I have eczema and very dry skin, so I use stuff that will keep me soft. My fiancé and I are also both really into scent so we like to use scented things. Anything mountain, ocean or linen scented is our favorite. For the most part we share all our products. For me, it was nice to kind of have an excuse to start using ‘men’s’ products, and since then I’ve realized that makes me feel a lot more comfortable. I use Dove Men’s+ Care body wash in minerals-sage. It smells so good and leaves my skin nice and moisturized. For real, sometimes I don’t use lotion after and my skin doesn’t dry out. I shave with one of those Harry’s razor (I really just liked the orange color) and replace the blades every so often. Shaving cream seems too luxurious so I really just use body wash. I have to use shower puffs and sometimes a washcloth or exfoliating pad on my skin because it’s just so dry, I have to exfoliate.
Out of the shower, I use Shea Moisture Black Soap lotion. Jeff and I love Shea Moisture. Honestly, my favorite lotion is their raw shea, but I keep testing out other kinds. I need to just take my ass to Target and get the raw shea. To be honest with y’all, I’m stinky so I really have to use deodorant. I know a lot of people who don’t because they don’t sweat or smell. I do both. I don’t like using antiperspirant because I want my body to sweat as much as it wants – I just don’t want to smell. The best natural deodorant I’ve used is the Arm & Hammer Essentials. It’s so cheap and it works fairly well. Whenever I try something new, I regret it and bounce back to that one. And it’s got baking soda so it keeps my armpits from discoloring ‘cause I shave relatively often.
I have, like, two and a half inches of hair. My hair was down my back up until recently, and I really grappled with wanting to cut it. As far as, like, transitioning, having this big curly hair definitely felt like one last piece of femininity I was holding onto and scared to let go off. But I haven’t missed it once since I cut it. I think I kept it for so long because it seemed important to other people that I had long natural hair. I’ve cut my hair super short before and grew it out because I hated the negative feedback people felt entitled to give. So I like my hair a lot better now. Sometimes I forget it’s short though, and I’ll think I have to adjust a ponytail or something. I don’t want to grow it long ever again.
I wet my hair everyday in the shower to restyle it. It just doesn’t make sense to spray down my hair with a bottle to get it to curl back up after sleeping. I feel like I might as well just wet it in the shower. So I wet my hair and sometimes I brush through it. Sometimes I don’t because even when my hair was dumb long, it didn’t tangle much. So now it really doesn’t. I just do it for peace of mind, but it breaks up the curls in a way I don’t like.
So I wet my hair, then use Garnier Curl Nourish. It’s whatever – I just use the conditioner to soften my curls up and then it goes down the drain. I always try new conditioners. On days I’m washing my hair, I use Giovanni Clarifying Shampoo and then a Carol’s Daughter mask. I leave that in while I wash my face, and then rinse and put in my stylers. Right now I either use African Pride Olive Oil with Cantu curl activator, or I use the African Pride Curl Pudding and argan Eco. They don’t work interchangeably, surprisingly. It really is important to mix products on your hand to see if they’ll flake in your hair. So I use the former combo for softer, looser curls and the latter for something more defined. I towel dry gently, use Gorilla Snot on my edges if I feel like it, tousle it into place and that’s it. I also wear a lot more hats now. If I’m wearing a dad hat, I’ll spray some Jane Carter leave in just so my hair doesn’t dry out.
I’m testing out different styles and also trying to grow out dye, so I don’t cut my hair every two weeks like I used to. Lately it’s been like once a month. Jeff cuts it for me. I really like that bonding experience, especially now that’s he’s actually gotten good at cutting hair. I think I want to grow my hair into a taper cut like I used to have when I first cut my hair. It’s only this short right now because the dye jobs.
I don’t wear much makeup, or at least it doesn’t look like it to other people. My mom is definitely a diva and she used to put eyeliner on to take me to school when she wasn’t even getting out the car. So it’s definitely in my head that I should have something on my face when I’m out the house. A lot of people, even people I’m close to, can’t tell I even wear makeup. I definitely like that Glossier or Milk look, that’s very much just about adding some color without covering. My mom used to get on me for not covering up my acne with makeup, so I’m very adamant still about not having a base. I’m only now into concealer. It’s taken me a while to be like, “Okay, this is my face.”
I basically do a variation of the same thing everyday. Eyebrows, mascara, bronzer, and/or blush and lips. That’s it. Maybe concealer if I just have a raging red pimple. And if I really just need to look a little more alive, I’ll do mascara and lipstick. I’m very specific about makeup. I think a lot of it is too sparkly, too Insta baddie. A friend of mine told me to shut up and just buy Glossier, but I don’t wanna spend the money.
So I start with either a clear or brown Rimmel brow gel. I tweeze my eyebrows and I’m trying to stop all the trimming and shaving. A few months ago, Andrea’s Choice on YouTube made a video about how to look good without makeup and talked about using greens. So I got a $1 green primer from LA Colors to cancel out any redness I get around my nose, to see if that trick worked. And it does! I use it maybe half the time I wear makeup. Then I’ll do bronzer, either Essence Matt bronzer for ‘darker skin’ (eye roll) or NYX Bright Idea stick in Bermuda Bronze.
For blush I either use Black Radiance in Toasted Almond or NYX Bright Idea in coral. I don’t usually do bronzer and blush together unless I’m really wanting to feel done up. I’ve been curling my eyelashes everyday since I was, god, like 14. I brush my eyebrows and curl my eyelashes almost everyday. Supposedly it changes the direction your hairs grow so now my eyelashes grow straight up. I don’t care too much about mascara as long as it isn’t clumpy, ‘cause my eyelashes are long and black anyways. Right now, I’m using Wet n Wild Mega Protein…$2 maybe? Lastly, I put on lip color. I need lipstick. I look undead without it. To be honest, my lips are literally pink, but not pink enough. I really love NYX Powder Puff in Cool Intentions, because it doesn’t break my lips out. I use other colors sometimes like a red, but I really just love a good brown and NYX colors don’t make my lips break out. I used like two or three tubes of Dubai lip cream before I got into the Powder Puffs. I just got my first wig, so I got LA Girl in Fawn to conceal the part. I haven’t used it on my face just yet but I know it’s my color. I used to use it a few years ago. Oh, I also usually have my nails painted. Polishing my nails is like the one hour of self-care I give myself no matter what, so I try to do it. I used to never wear nail polish in college ‘cause it felt to femme, but fuck it. I literally dream last night I was giving myself a pedicure.
For me, wearing the same makeup look and hairstyle everyday is like a uniform. I know how I’m gonna look besides my outfit and that definitely quells anxieties I used to have about leaving my house and about my gender dysphoria. I’d literally sit in front of my closet and cry when I was 21, 22, because I didn’t feel like how I looked matched how I felt and I had so much other anxiety. Now I feel a lot more comfortable with being me, whether people think that’s plain or beautiful or stylish or boring. I don’t care. I like me. There’s hella privilege in how I look and that’s something I always try to be mindful of. There’s hundreds of lil mes all over social media getting lauded for being light skinned and thin and I don’t wanna disregard that. But yeah, I’m finally feeling okay in my skin.”
Allison Alcéna photographed by Jeff deLeón in Asheville June 13, 2019.