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Glitter Is About So Much More Than Making You Shine — Just Ask A Drag Queen

Image by Liliya Rodnikova / Stocksy
June 27, 2022
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Little traces of Divina GranSparkle are scattered across Brooklyn. Inside every bar the drag and burlesque star has ever performed, you'll likely find remnants of their full-body glitter—a nod to their electric stage presence, a souvenir of their magic, and a reminder of a damn good time. 

If you're partial to sparkly makeup, perhaps you've found a few of your own iridescent fingerprints nestled in tiny corners of your world—in your bed, on your lover, in between your toes—and smiled. Glitter just has that ability to strike a chord, and no one knows this better than the drag community. In fact, glittery makeup simply would not be where it is today without their influence, and it's about so much more than making everything shine. 

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Glitter's origins in the queer community. 

With glitter's ties to nightlife, dance clubs, and drag, it makes sense why it quickly became such an emblem for the queer community. But for many queer individuals, glitter was also the first easily accessible makeup item to try—after all, you could snag it at your local craft store without a second glance. "That was one of the first places you could buy something that was a little flamboyant and showy, but you could be discreet in the store when you were buying it," celebrity makeup artist Dillon Peña recounts. 

But glitter itself is not very discreet at all: Some would even consider it hypervisible, a must-have makeup item for extravagant, look-at-me glam. Practically speaking, its ability to quickly draw attention is what makes glitter such a mainstay for drag—before modern glitter was invented, queens even used crushed glass to achieve a captivating, magical performance. "It sort of plays tricks with your vision in the way that it's sparkling," says Miss Malice, a high femme drag performer and femmecee of the Brooklyn drag collective Switch n' Play. "Drag is not always about illusion, but I do think it's about fantasy and transforming the dullness of reality." 

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Drag is also about celebration and joy, which goes hand-in-hand with a pot of glitter. Think about it: Whenever you're tasked with creating something cheery (birthday cards, banners, holiday decorations), you'll often grab glitter and a glue stick. It's a cultural symbol that automatically screams happiness and light, so how can you not crack a smile under a megawatt face beat? 

Glitter as a tool for self-care & healing. 

Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the environmental implications of microplastics—just as stubborn sparkles can remain on your clothes days after donning a shimmery beat, glitter lingers in our waterways and even shows up in our soil1. But we also can't ignore the fact that for many, glitter is a token of freedom, expression, and even healing. 

"It helped me work through some issues with objectification in this body that I'm in," explains Divina, who often sports full-body glitter. "I could be fully nude, but because I'm covered in glitter, it's taking the light off of the sexualization of my body, and it becomes more of a glorification." It's similar to the theory that smiling itself can make you feel happier—adorning yourself with glitter, which demands attention, can help you feel comfortable with being seen.

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So rather than stuff the urge to keep on shining, scientists have discovered a way to create plastic-free glitter2 (they create shimmery films from cellulose instead, which comes from the cell walls of plants). We still have a ways to go before plastic-free glitter becomes mainstream, but you can find brands (like Submission Beauty and BioGlitz™) that use plant-based, biodegradable ingredients without sacrificing an ounce of sparkle. 

And, yes, glitter appears fun and free as it floats through the air, but make no mistake: Working with glitter takes, well, work. For Malice, whose signature look is a pair of sparkly, ruby-red lips, it requires sheer precision to glue each speck into place. "It really feels like an act of self-love to sit there and carefully place that glitter," she says. "You're demanding that attention and asking to be looked at, and that ritual of sitting there and applying it [helps you] celebrate yourself."

Glitter as a symbol for resistance. 

Glitter is resilient. It's a fitting parallel for the queer community, who also isn't going anywhere, and it's one of the reasons glitter has long been used as a symbol of support for LGBTQ+ activism. And drag portrays this resilience quite beautifully: "Drag as an art form reminds us that joy and celebration are forms of resistance, and they're also really vital for our survival," says Malice. "It's a way of being powerful and saying, 'I'm important, I'm worthy of taking up space.'" 

As those flecks of shimmer literally fill up the space, they become physical reminders of belonging that remain long after the show comes to a close. It's why whenever Malice sees a leftover shiny speck, she feels a tiny flutter of joy. "I love that glitter is this material reminder of where we've been and what we've done," she says. 

Divina agrees: "It's like, Oh, there I am. I exist." 

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