It was the blue eyeshadow which made me realize it. I was very happy about getting just the right shade — radiant light-blue with a bit of silvery shimmer, called “blue jeans” — when it hit me that there was a pattern to my recent obsession with slightly over-the-top feminine style. Blue eyeshadow has always been an indispensable token of glamour for Russian women I saw growing up: shopkeepers and teachers all favored blue eyeshadow combined with bright fuchsia lipstick, an homage to the limited makeup palette available in the Soviet years of their youth. At the age of 29 and living in London, I suddenly found myself purchasing large crystal earrings, elastic thigh-high boots, faux-fur coats, tight sheer dresses and garments in all kinds of animal print. Blue eyeshadow was a final touch: I was shopping for a version of Eastern European femininity which I resented all my life, and which I suddenly found irresistibly amusing.

In a strange cathartic process, I decoded the tacky overly sexualized tropes, mixed it up with my usual more understated clothes, assembled it from fragments and put it on like drag — and strangely it made me feel like myself more than anything else before. Of course, it was just clothes, but I could feel that it tapped into much bigger questions, like gender identity and freely expressing my sexuality. Today, making sense of femininity is a complicated path for every womxn out there, and it often winds deep into our personal histories. Mine is closely connected to understanding the pains of my heritage and accepting my queerness.

Growing up in Russia, I realized early on that I was not very good at being a woman. Being a woman required a lot of effort: dieting to be skinny, enduring pain to wear heels, investing time into elaborate makeup, complying to the heavily codified rules of how one is supposed to talk and behave. Since my teenage years, I felt like I was always surrounded by women who were much better at it than me. In every room I entered, there were always women who were more beautiful, more thin, more elegant, more groomed, more worthy of love and admiration. Their performance was flawless, their skin was glowing, their bodies were clearly inferior to mine.

The complex history of Russian beauty hadn’t escaped me. “Beauty requires sacrifice”, the well-known Russian saying goes. The ideals of beauty and femininity are connected to enduring pain and restrictive bodily practices in many cultures, but Russian history was also part of the equation. During the Soviet regime, the female body belonged to the state as a tool of labor and reproduction; and during the 1990s female beauty and sexuality have swiftly become commodities in the newly-established capitalist economy. Essentially, women in Russia were denied agency over their bodies for generations — and in the early 2000s, even the basic ideas of feminism were still new for most women. Since my days as a geeky slightly overweight teenage girl, the sense of gender failure was part of my day-to-day reality. It gave me adamant confidence that beauty was a weapon of the oppressor, and that I’ll never perform femininity for men.

In my late 20s, I spent a few years in what seemed like a happy heterosexual relationship. I barely used makeup, wore trainers most days, and I had someone who offered unconditional reassurance of my beauty. Yet I continued to quietly resent my body, and the sense of gender failure still haunted me. Romantic love was supposed to set me free — but in reality, only accepting my queerness could.

Fast forward to early morning at the age of 29, as I stand on a platform waiting for my train, and feel as if my body is illuminated by some kind of divine light. The night before I had sex with a woman, probably the first time in the last 7 years. I can’t stop smiling, but also want to cry — because I have never felt more real.

Understanding your queerness as a bisexual woman is a different experience for everyone. I have repressed, dismissed and blanked my bisexuality for years — partly due to the absence of conversation about LGBTQ+ in my upbringing, partly to the persistent bisexuality erasure in culture. I looked back at numerous female crushes I had over the years, at sleeping with women in my early 20s, at that moment when I touched a shoulder of that girl in a bar and how soft it felt and how for some reason I still remembered it five years later. I asked myself, how come have I never taken my desire seriously? I spent years constantly doubting if my experience was valid, if it was real.

Accepting that it was finally made me feel whole. Accepting my bisexuality radically changed the way I related to my body. Where I am from, queer love was not part of the curriculum — and experiencing it offered the power over the patriarchy and its ever-present male gaze. It dismantled my inherent internalized misogyny which manifested it the discomfort I felt looking at women who were seemingly more feminine or conventionally beautiful. It allowed me to accept my body the way it is, to finally move through space with joy and confidence.

It was precisely at this point that I got my interest in blue eyeshadow, animal print, and thigh-high boots. I looked at style expressions of femininity and heightened sex appeal which are both praised and stigmatized in our culture. I realized that I didn’t have to perform this for anyone, but that I also could own it, I could try it and mess it up completely and still feel like a million dollars.

Deep down, I have always been drawn to looking femme but was afraid that I was not good enough for it — but actually, there is no right or wrong way to look femme, and looking femme, in fact, has nothing to do with being a woman. Undoubtedly, women still face a higher amount of bias and judgment based on looks and clothes in the workplace and day-to-day life — but thankfully this seems to be changing. The global feminist movement should be given credit for it, but so should the struggle of the LGBTQ+ community which hugely contributed to the broader understanding of the performative nature of gender.

As a white cis-woman living in a big metropolitan city, I am privileged to experience the fluidity of my sexuality in a safe environment where it’s easy to find like-minded people. Moreover, society sees the expressions of my bisexuality as acceptable and non-threatening, and I am not very likely to face violence and discrimination (which, of course, would be a different case in Russia). Yet I still feel like talking about my experience is valid. Partly because a lot of womxn today ask themselves if it’s possible to reclaim the image of us which was created by male-gaze-dominated culture, down to thigh-high boots and blue eyeshadow — and make it our own. Partly because it’s another reminder that there are so many ways to that fluidity which exists within all of us — that freedom to subvert and reinvent the meaning of gender.