In a recent Zoom meeting with some colleagues from another state, one of them switched on her camera to reveal a stripe of freshly applied red lipstick.
‘Don’t you look lovely!’ we all exclaimed.
Limited to a 5km radius from home and with kids unable to attend school, she must have felt so tired and overwhelmed. But her vivid smile against a backdrop of bookshelves added some unexpected glamour and cheer to our mid-week conference call.
A week or so later, inspired by this small act of cosmetic revelry, I decided to apply a liquid lipstick on a day when I had a series of online meetings scheduled.
‘You look pretty today, Amber. What’s going on?’ one of my workmates joked during our morning check-in; another colleague commented on how nice I looked later in the day.
And I felt good.
I felt good for a moment.
But then I felt silly.
Like many of the seemingly personal choices a woman can make, the choice to wear makeup — or not — is a curiously fraught one.
On the one hand, we’re implicitly expected to present ourselves in a manner that fetishises youthfulness, appeals to men, and says we ‘care’ about our appearances in certain codified ways — including the size and shape of our bodies, the clothing we wear, and the ways in which we groom our hair and faces.
On the other hand, however, women who seem to genuinely enjoy fashion and derive pleasure from 'girly' avocations such as painting their nails or mastering winged eyeliner are often dismissed as frivolous, vain, and less intelligent.
At worst, women who indulge in these feminine, or feminised, pursuits are not only derided by men but also antagonised by other women for undermining the principles of whatever-wave feminism and 'betraying the sisterhood'.
A particularly pernicious strain of these no-win expectations is, I believe, to look good but not as if you tried.
No matter how much thought, labour, and money we might invest in curating our appearance to please/appease the most people, we must, at all times, make it appear effortless — somehow only incidental.
To try is to have failed.
Radical feminist writer Julie Bindel rightly observes that as women we are ‘pummelled with the message that we are not good enough as we are’, and she argues that refusing to wear makeup might represent a more revolutionary act, even now, than burning your bra did in the 1960s.
But perhaps the most revolutionary act we can perform in 2020 is to choose as mindfully as possible, to carefully interrogate these choices and to ask ourselves regularly whether they are grounded in fear or in joy, whether they are motivated by a sense of deficit or delight.
Although I lack the skills to apply makeup in a more sophisctiated way, I still find that scribbling on my favourite eyeshadow stick (a discontinued Nyx product, for those of you playing at home) or wearing some bold earrings are simple ways to subtly but effectively lift my mood, when I think or care to try it.
It's not about the way it looks per se; it's about how it feels.
Catching sight of a sharply defined cupid's bow or feeling the cool metallic kiss of a hoop against my jawline are moments just for me, little pockets of colour, sound and sensation I can experience as part of my self.
As Caitlin Moran has suggested, 'When a woman says, "I have nothing to wear!", what she really means is, "There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today."'
In this sense, something like a slick of red lipstick can be less about aesthetics and more about a very real and present need for identity expression, a way to achieve visibility and agency in daily lives — as much for ourselves as anyone else.
(For the record, the Stila 'Stay All Day' liquid lipsticks really do stay on for ages.)
ODE TO RED LIPSTICK
by Megan Falley (from Rattle #59, Spring 2018)
Cleopatra crushed beetles
to make red lipstick
because even in 30 BC
she knew speaking 12 languages
would be even more impressive
when the words jumped
through a ring of fire.
Ruby Woo. I smile and split
The Red Sea.
In medieval times, religious groups
condemned makeup for challenging god
and his workmanship,
but I and any good femme know—
God invented lipstick.
In post-war New York, butches could get locked up
if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional
women’s clothes. Lipstick, stashed in a pinstripe suit pocket,
swiped on quick when someone threw their voice across the bar
to warn that the cops were barging the door,
could keep a queer from being a casualty
for the night.
And when Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
was liberated, each pair of lips as pale as the next,
along with the British Red Cross arrived a shipment
of lipstick. No one was quite sure
who asked for it—seemed petty—what
could a tube of maroon do for women
whose hair, whose babies, were ripped from their bodies?
Who could pick up a shard of a war’s mirror
for long enough to apply a smile?
How could lipstick be necessary
when there’d been experiments on children? Twins
sewn together at the back? When the nail scratches
in the gas chambers made their way
Five hundred a day, still dying.
Even when liberated, the prisoners could not be looked at
as individuals. Some of them would still die
One lieutenant said he believed nothing
did more for the survivors than that lipstick.
Women, thin as smoke, naked e v e r y w h e r e
except for their mouths:
Red, like they might one day
flirt again, arm
on a jukebox,
The next time it’s deemed frivolous,
something left on a napkin
or absent cheek,
in its tube,
like a bullet,
but in reverse,