Even Dead Women Wear Lipstick

by Debbie Stoller

Kartina R., of This Moi blog, has an interesting post up today about lipstick, which she has allowed us to share with you.

Lipstick is a fascinating thing.

On Tuesday a New York  theater did not pick a play of mine to be a part of their one-act marathon.

On Wednesday I felt sorry for myself.

On Thursday a good thing happened to me. An accomplishment of sorts.

On Friday I wore lipstick.

On Saturday and Sunday I did as well.

Bright. Red. Thick. Matte.

Lipstick is not an unusual choice for me. I have many shades and many textures. There are violets, neon pinks, corals, and browns. Creams, sheers, stains and metallics, but, I wear them at night. When it is dark. Very dark. Not because I think it’s more appropriate, but because people have a harder time seeing me. If worn during the day, I’ll blot it down until it is but a shadow of the lipstick it once was.

But this time was different.

Two lipsticks diverged in a cluttered makeup drawer
and I, I chose the Nars Velvet Matte Lip Pencil
and that has made all the difference.

If I’m in a moment of self loathing, I will barely make the effort to disguise hours spent ruminating missteps (cream blush and a tiny bit of under eye concealer). The goal is to fake exposure to fresh air and sun. That’s it. I certainly don’t want a blindingly red lip that is more powerful that the person it’s painted on.

But what does a matte red lip say? A (cringe) frosty pink? Does the exact color matter or is it rather how bold the color is? Good or bad, lip color can signify an endless list of things: a woman’s age, taste in music, affection for bygone eras, sexual promiscuity, and even income bracket. This is a dangerous game, as its yet another way of judging a woman, but it’s interesting nonetheless to consider the conclusions we draw from a painted lip.

We may sayIt just looks good.” But that’s not always the truth.

Yes, sometimes a color can simply enhance our lips’ natural hue, while others give an unwanted impression of being “made up.” I am certainly not suggesting that we spend thirty minutes theorizing on our lipstick before we put it on, but isn’t it useful to consider, just once, what it means? If I think “I don’t have a reason for wearing this soft pink. It’s just pretty,” I am lying. There is always a reason, it’s just a pain in the ass to think about it. Pink is “pretty” because of its association with an unintimidating girlishness femininity. We put it on when we want to feel (and be seen as) soft and feminine. A frosty pink is not pretty because of its historical connection to Sweet Valley High.

This week I thought:

“I’m putting on this red lipstick because I feel confident and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

This is a lie.

I was confident, but I also cared very much what other people thought. I just wanted them to draw specific conclusions. I felt strong enough to allow the world to think the things about me that a red lip signifies. What it means is subjective (artistic, bold, fearless, whore, whore-ish, retro, trying too hard etc), but it is noticeable regardless. A red lip wants to be considered and I felt strong enough to face that consideration. When my conviction wanes (as it is wont to do) and good thoughts drift off to the happy hunting ground you can bet your ass that my lips will be their normal barely moisturized self.

Yesterday morning Jacob “that is a night time amount of lipstick” Berendes from Fujichia told me this wonderful story about his grandmother. I think it perfectly illustrates the emotional relationship between a woman, her preferred lipstick, and her self identity:

“My grandmother was a tall woman commonly referred to as “handsome”,
which is a distinct flavor of pretty for tall women only. I never
really knew her that well, as by the time i was thinking on my own she
was already pretty far into Alzheimer’s, progressing steadily from
low-level dementia to quite often not making sense, to speaking only
in French (no one else in the family spoke French), to not speaking at
all. Throughout all this and almost unto death there were a few
constants- I remember that she continued to enjoy getting her hair
bleach blonde at the same hairdresser’s (I think his name was “Mister
[a french first name]“), and she continued to wear lipstick.

Being a strong and, as I said, handsome woman her whole life up to
this point, she only wore dark dark lipstick. She was in no way a
little old lady- we called her bonne mama, in the french fashion.

When she passed away, it was naturally an emotional situation (8 kids,
15+ grandkids) but we all recognized that it was her time. The point
at which the wake turned from being a polite social contract to a
gratifying tribute was when someone realized that the mortician had
used the wrong shade of lipstick. All the aunts emptied their
pocketbooks on the floor, looking for the last bit of her actual
lipstick. When it was found, everyone turned their backs, and a single
aunt did the job, and called all clear.”

P.S. Interestingly enough, as I was thinking about this post, I began to feel embarrassed to be writing about lipstick. As I considered this sudden self consciousness (and how a woman’s makeup/feelings on makeup are often used as a yardstick for her intelligence) I unconsciously wiped off my lipstick. A minute later, I glanced at the stained napkin and realized what I had done: Proved my own amazing point.

You may also like

Get the print magazine.

The best of BUST in your inbox!

Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter

About Us

Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

©2023 Street Media LLC.  All Right Reserved.