A Complicated Relationship, or: Why I Wear Red Lipstick

I have been in the same complicated relationship since I turned 14. It was early in the morning, on my birthday (unfortunately, a school day), and I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom. My  mom interrupted my usual routine and presented me with a Clinique bag shaped like a sunflower, containing mascara, light tan eyeshadow, and a stick of brown eyeliner. I probably squealed with delight, and then promptly asked for help because I had no idea what to do with those particular implements. That was my first memorable experience with the breathless thrill of being able to change my physical appearance, albeit temporarily. The exhilarating rush of feeling that I was somehow more beautiful, and more worthy of attention or affection or whatever my teenaged brain was feeling, was new to me.

I have struggled with makeup not only in the literal application, but in what it means to me, how my identity is or isn’t changed by wearing or not wearing it, and how I perceive myself without and with it. I’m still struggling with this – it’s something that I consider on a practical level (how much time am I willing to take up with it), a professional level (will I be perceived as credible without it?), and an intellectual level (am I contributing to my own devaluation every time I put on makeup?).

Furthering this confusion is the fact that my face-paint of choice is bright, fire-engine red lipstick. It’s not exactly what you could call subtle. Red lipstick has a bit of a history in the west – if you’ll allow me the license, maybe even a bit of baggage. Associated variously with formal self-presentation for women in the 1940s and 1950s, sex workers, burlesque dancers, and their famous counterparts like Grace Kelly, Dita von Teese, Marilyn Monroe, and Gwen Stefani (and many more), red lipstick has signified sexuality and flirtation, passion and provocation. Women who are “taken seriously” are rarely known for wearing bright red lipstick.


Enter Dr. Lindsay Kite and Dr. Lexie Kite – two brilliant and engaging women whom I respect and admire. Their research speaks to my struggle in many ways. Their project, Beauty Redefined, looks at media subjectification/objectification of women and girls and the impacts those processes have on us and our development in all spheres of life – health, education, happiness, and pretty much everything else. Reading their amazing work for the hundredth time, I suddenly felt like I needed to write this down and get it out of my head. I needed to understand this relationship better for myself.

Practical matters first: with 24 possible hours in the day, I am willing to spend .003% of my time on my appearance every day. That includes brushing my hair and putting on makeup – roughly 5 minutes. If I put on makeup every work day for an entire year, that adds up to a rather whopping 21.6 hours – basically a full day every year. Granted, there are plenty of days that I refuse to put on any makeup at all, but even so, I consider that a lot of time. That’s time I could spend studying, playing with my dog, spending time with my beloved, reading, drawing, enjoying a cup of coffee, writing, or about a zillion other things that are arguably more valuable to who I am becoming in the long run. In this dimension, red lipstick is a really fast way to bring my normal appearance to a slightly higher level without feeling like I’m completely caving in to vanity.

Professional neuroses next: I started working in my first professional-level position when I was 20 years old, and I had so, so many doubts about whether or not I was remotely credible in the position of authority I’d suddenly found myself in. Even today, I still have doubts about whether or not people will take my advice seriously based on my appearance. This insecurity drives me NUTS! I am a competent, smart and creative professional, but I still feel like I need to look a certain part. To some extent, bright red lipstick is a shield.

As a ‘professional student,’ I know the currency of looks in the academic world. Time spent on appearances is often assumed to be a sign of inner shallowness, a symptom to diagnose a lack of worthwhile ideas. The plainer I appear, the deeper my thoughts. There are most certainly those who dismiss such ridiculous stereotypes as just that. Nonetheless, physical appearance remains something of an issue in some academic circles. Ironically, it’s “appearing” to spend time on one’s appearance that seems to count, rather than any actual metric – how many beauty blogs have tutorials demonstrating a detailed seventeen-step process to looking like you aren’t wearing any makeup at all? In this capacity, red lipstick is a polite way of saying “Don’t be silly.”

To my mind, bright red lipstick is a reminder and a challenge. It’s a reminder to me to always aim for vivacity. It’s a challenge to one-dimensional ideas about femininity (particularly when paired with less ‘feminine’ elements of physical appearance like short hair and a biker jacket), a challenge to assumptions about intellectual strength and rigor (as in, I can wear lipstick and still be serious about learning), and a challenge to everyone I see to be blazingly, exuberantly, sometimes messily and smudgily, fiery in approaching life.

As with all good relationships, my complicated relationship with makeup is always unfolding as I am always in the process of becoming. Ask me again in ten years and I might have a very different answer for you, but right now, I’ll stick with the boldness and the vivacity of bright red.

Love, peace, and complications,

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