Five Writers Unpack the Power of Red Lipstick
There’s something almost mythical about red lipstick. Here, five writers attempt to unpack its power to shield, embolden, and transform.
Musician, poet, and author of I’m Afraid of Men
A common stereotype about trans people is that they suffer from “special snowflake syndrome,” but I am actually quite content to be a pumpkin spice–loving, Ariana Grande– listening basic girl. Fashion-wise, the Canadian tuxedo is my wardrobe staple, and you won’t find playful purples, greens, or blues in my lipstick tower. My most exciting makeup decision (said without sarcasm) is choosing which shade of red I will paint my lips. Brick and wine tones for fall and winter, scarlet and fire tones for spring and summer, and rose tones with gloss for a gig or a shoot. If I feel adventurous, I might dabble in a soft pink, but at heart, I’m a red girl.
At first glance, red seems like an obvious and perhaps even lazy go-to, an effortless boost of glamour. And yet many of my women friends won’t wear red lipstick because they don’t feel confident enough, or because it draws too much attention. Herein lies an important clarification: Basic doesn’t mean subtle, nor does it mean easy.
For a trans girl, wearing red is a defiant choice—red refuses to be invisible. Before I even open my mouth, my red lips echo the color of blood, declaring: I am alive. They assert my sexuality—and yours, daring you to desire, to admit desire for what is often cast off as undesirable. My red lips are a manifestation of my rage, a reminder that I will no longer contain my anger inside my body, that I will not be silent about misogyny and white supremacy.
Because of these assertions, my red lips place me at risk more than black eyeliner (kohl on brown men is relatively commonplace) and maybe even more than wearing a dress (thanks to the gender-neutral fashion trend). But throughout the history of transness, taking risks has been essential to our survival. In this context, my red lips are a small gesture of gratitude to the trans women of color whose daring has built a world where I can proudly wear every shade of red lipstick—and even write a piece like this.
For My Mother
Novelist, short-story writer, and author of The Water Cure
I’d always loved red lipstick, but it felt like it belonged solely to glamorous stars in black-and-white photographs—not Welsh teenagers with acne and greasy, badly dyed fringe. My own beauty routine involved smothering my angry skin in foundation and white powder, then ringing my eyes in kohl. I bought my makeup furtively, as if I didn’t have a right to it—like it was embarrassing to think anything could be done to redeem my face. Secretly, I wanted glamour, but the closest I got was drawing on the occasional wobbly cat-eye. My mother and I were in a department store when we made our first trip to a beauty counter. As we passed through the makeup area, I shot sideways looks at the beautiful packaging, at the rainbows of eye shadow and gloss. My mother noticed. She must have also noticed the discomfort I felt every day: how diligently I scrubbed and toned and covered up; how my liner was often smudged from crying.
“Let’s get you a treat,” she said. We went to the Chanel counter, a brand name I recognized, so I assumed it was good. “How about a lipstick?” she suggested. Surprising both of us, I found myself gravitating to red. The assistant showed me how to apply it, how not to be afraid. When she moved away, my face was transformed. I wasn’t fixating on my skin texture now, but the sharp line of my mouth. The lipstick somehow made my bumpy nose elegant, the muddy green of my eyes clearer. The magic of it made me giddy; my mother clapped in delight.
I used that lipstick for years, right up to the start of college, though by then it was long past its prime and I had to dig into the stub of the gold tube with my nails. Every time I wore it, I pictured my mother telling me I was beautiful. Soon I started to believe it myself.
Martha Hall Kelly
Author of the New York Times best-seller Lilac Girls
I wasn’t expecting the bright red lipstick. I was meeting Wanda Rosiewicz, a Ravensbrück survivor arriving by bus at the for mer concentration camp to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of its liberation. She was one of 74 Polish Catholic women who were experimented on at the German camp, their legs surgically mutilated to test sulfa drugs. Nicknamed “the rabbits” by Nazi doctors since they were treated like lab animals, these incredibly brave women were the inspiration for my novel Lilac Girls. As I watched 92-year-old Wanda walk down the bus steps wearing a blue-and-scarlet commemorative scarf, her former camp number printed along the edge, I was blown away by her triumphant smile and scarlet lipstick.
I knew from researching Ravensbrück that beauty products had been strictly forbidden at the camp. Prisoners caught wearing anything other than the baggy, blue-striped uniform shift and regulation kerchief were severely punished. Yet the more the Nazis tried to dehumanize the women, the harder they fought to find ways to feel beautiful. The prisoners who worked in the vast warehouses where the military stored the spoils of war could sneak a scrap of silk or a tiny perfume bottle back to the block to share with their camp family. But the greatest prize by far was a tube of red lipstick, in some ways more precious than food. If a prisoner was lucky enough to find one, she could help a sickly-looking woman at risk for a death selection rouge her pale cheeks. For others, the simple, familiar pleasure of applying lipstick raised their spirits and steeled their resolve to survive. Seeing Wanda in her red lipstick, I knew her choice was not about looks or fashion. For her, it said, “I triumphed”: a celebration of her survival, of beating the odds.
For My Sanity
Esme Wei Jun Wang
Author of The Collected Schizophrenias, 2016 winner of the Gray Wolf Press NonFiction Prize
A bright red statement lip is my go-to before leaving the house. What I never forget, as someone living with schizoaffective disorder, is the smeared red lipstick trope that signifies being unhinged. If I can wear bright red lipstick well, it serves as an indication that I am sane. Examples of smeared or overdrawn lipstick abound in pop culture: Courtney Love and her ’90s “kinderwhore” look; Ellen Burstyn’s amphetamine-addicted character in the Darren Aronofsky nightmare, Requiem for a Dream. In one chilling scene from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Bette Davis looks directly at the audience as she slowly applies lipstick to her already overly painted mouth.
When I was a teenager, my high school counselor insisted that my parents take me to see a psychiatrist for a severe case of depression. At the appointment, my mother told the doctor that, no, there was no history of mental illness in the family—and I had no reason to doubt her. But when I received my college acceptances, she wrote me a letter explaining why she was so afraid of my going away to school. Her aunt, whom I had never known, had experienced a psychotic break upon leaving for college and had lived upstairs in my mother’s home as the proverbial madwoman in the attic. She eventually died in a mental institution. The only visual memory of my great-aunt, passed down to me from my mother, is of a woman trudging downstairs for dinner with a lipstick-smeared face. Crimson lipstick is considered a “statement,” though it is essentially the only lipstick I choose to wear. I am always deciding to make a statement when I enter the world: I am trying to say that despite my mind, which is sometimes confused and wild, I adore glamour. I am like my great-aunt in some ways, but unlike her, I have found a way to live.
The first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own network television sitcom, Cristela
My mom was born in a tiny village in Mexico to an old-fashioned family that believed women should be submissive to men—even her brothers would hit her to discipline her. Despite such an upbringing, she was the first woman in her family to separate from her husband because she couldn’t handle his abuse. She found new strength through this and made sure to teach me how important it is to become your own person—one who doesn’t have to rely on a man. As I grew up, she would remind me that it’s my words that matter most, because my word is all I have.
Years later, after starting my career as a stand-up comedian, I was shopping for lipstick and found one that was bright red. The color reminded me of the cherry Popsicles I used to eat in the sweltering South Texas summers. It wasn’t something I’d typically choose, but I decided to try it on anyway. I was immediately amazed at how good it looked and how great it made me feel. The boldness of the shade against my brown skin made my mouth the center of attention. It was at that moment that I realized this was a color that would force people to look at my lips and really listen to the words I was saying. My mother sacrificed her relationship with her family in order to come to America in search of a better life for her children. I want to make sure that her lessons, her words, and her legacy don’t get erased. And every time I apply my bold red lipstick, I know they won’t be.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of ELLE.