The Thing about Lipsticks
I heard the most beautiful story via an old episode of one of my favourite podcasts – Christine Barberich’s ‘Unstyled.’ Barberich was speaking the psychiatrist Dr. Samatha Boardman about some of the things that interest me most – fashion, style, identity, psychology and their many intersections.
Dr. Boardman shared a story she’d heard elsewhere, a story that had left a lasting impression on her. After the end of World War II, a British Red Cross volunteer was working at one of the newly liberated concentration camps. He’d grown accustomed to witnessing sights of unspeakable devastation. Supplies were always coming in and immediately running short. Among the boxes he was unpacking on a particular day, he found something that seemed utterly wasteful – a large box packed to the brim with red lipsticks. To his surprise, the women at the camp greeted the lipsticks with eagerness, even joy. As he watched them, he realized that the lipsticks were giving them something they had long been denied – their femininity, their humanity.
Their right to be beautiful.
I’m not sure which of these details I’m lightly embroidering. I could go back to the podcast to fact-check, but why would I? Everything that matters in the story comes down to a cardboard container full of red lipsticks, and a group of women who have survived horrors, thrilled to see this unexpected gift3.
It feels so, so right to me that lipstick gets top billing in this tale. Not perfume, which would be an almost – but not exact – substitute.
What is it about lipstick?
Few objects are as charged with meaning as lipsticks – coveted and collectible; the promise of beauty, glamour and desire condensed into that instantly recognizable, seemingly innocuous tubular form. Lipsticks are the only beauty product I know of that inspire their own economic phenomenon. The eponymous ‘lipstick effect’ speaks to the persistent appeal of small indulgences and luxuries during financially challenging times. Data tells us that when the crisis calls for it, lipsticks are often the last stand of choice.
My own relationship with make up in general, and lipsticks in particular, is fraught. I find lipstick simultaneously alluring and alarming. I suppose this has a lot to do with the fact that I was a child growing up in the 90s, and ‘make up’ as I saw it deployed in magazines and the movies was a kind of aggressive disguise – concealing, colouring, ‘othering’ well-known faces. I was fascinated by my mother’s dresser as all young girls tend to be, but make up felt and looked stridently chemical and artificial, harmful in any but the most modest quantities. The whole practice and pursuit of beauty seemed to require a kind of transformation that felt false, that I didn’t think anyone should need. Lipsticks seemed to loudly embody this transformative promise. They seemed to shout something I didn’t want to say.
The generation of young women that has followed mine are luckier, in that they’ve grown up alongside a more inclusive idea of beauty, and a gentler, softer idea of make up. I won’t minimize the corrosive effect of beauty standards, but it does feel like there’s been much more dialogue, openness, questioning and ease than was considered normal even a decade ago. It’s easier to form a relationship with beauty products when you see them as tools for expression , artistry and play, when there’s room to engage with them on your own terms.
But lipstick stills sets certain conditions. Which is only fair, because it performs an unholy amount of labour. Women turn to lipstick to make a bad day feel better, to embolden themselves when they’re nervous, to exert control and ‘pull it together,’ to make the transition from morning to evening, to underline a power-play, to signal that they haven’t quite given up, that they’re ready for more. They lean on their lipsticks when there’s something to be declared, and something to be claimed. It’s no surprise to me that the feisty and polarizing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wears a signature red lipstick. She’s a worthy successor to a long line of women who let their lips make a statement.
I remember hearing that a particularly tone-deaf and obnoxious man at work once spoke of a younger colleague as ‘looking like a h—ker’ because she wore bright red lipstick. There’s so much that’s wrong with that statement. But not having been there at the time to bite his head off, I find myself wondering what it was about this woman’s lipstick that had him reach for every misogynist’s go-to insult.
Was it that she looked good and knew it? That she seemed ready to demand and command attention – and who could say whose? Not all lipstick-wearing is self-affirmation, and why should it be? Women who wear lipstick are willing to be seen, to fleetingly and momentarily create a little static.
That’s the thing about lipstick that I’ve come to understand – it asks something of the beholder, but it also asks the wearer if she’s ready to pose the question. The scariest - and the best - thing about lipstick is that unlike so much other make-up, it unmistakably sends out a powerful micro-proclamation – whether or not anyone else is looking at a woman, by putting on her lipstick, she is definitely looking at herself.