The last thing I do before leaving the house in the morning is put on lipstick. That done, the line between my private and public selves is drawn and I’m ready for the street. No, I’m no beauty buff. In fact, my entire cosmetics collection consists of lipstick and its kissing cousin, lip balm. I have salves that soften, glosses that shine, creams that protects, and tints that darken. I’ve amassed a sizable collection in my quest for the Holy Grail of cosmetics: The Perfect Lipstick. My requirements are really quite simple: The color must be a sheer red, with a hint of berry to it. It must look natural rather than clownish. The consistency must be light and very faintly slick. Finally, it must be emollient and last long enough to make frequent reapplication unnecessary.
What is it about lipstick that makes even a woman who is apathetic to other forms of makeup so passionate about it? Well, for one thing, lipstick is easy – with a minimum effort you can achieve maximum impact. It looks great on an otherwise bare face, and there’s no need to guess about where to apply it. Makeup artists suggest using liner and a brush for greater precision, but most women (like me) follow the modus operandi described by Elizabeth McCracken, a self-confessed lipstick addict – “Do I use lipliner? Did Van Gogh paint by numbers? I don’t cotton to any of other lipstick niceties. I just whip out the stick, twirl it up, and slap it on.”
Women have worn some form of lip color for thousands of years – sticks of ocher have been found in tombs that date back to 5000 BCE. But before the first commercial tube went on sale in 1915, color was dabbed on with a finer or painted on with a brush. The tube came into being just as women were making their mark: getting the vote, entering the professions, and graduating from universities. Pulling out your tube and swiping on a lick of color became a way of asserting your independence. It’s still a thrilling gesture, though not seen as often as it was in lipstick’s infancy.
But the appeal of lipstick goes deeper than the ease and satisfaction of its application. It’s a cosmetic that packs a powerful psychological punch – putting it on can transform your mood. “When a woman has lost her lover, when a girl has lost her job, when the doctor has told his fatal news, when the luck is leaving, the dinner party flopping, the birth pains beginning, the scandal breaking, the storm striking, the other woman sailing by in triumph… then sudden streak of lipstick across the lip spells courage.”
For the past 2000 years, the primary purpose of lipstick has been to enhance the looks of the wearer. In our society, Lipstick is worn only by women (though this wasn’t always so; like the high heel lipstick has at times been a unisex accessory) so it carries certain sexual associations. Though male and female infants and children alike have fairly full, intensely pigmented lips, hormonal changes bring an end to this similarity at puberty, when boys’ lips thin out and girls’ lips curve and swell. The sexes attract one another by emphasizing what makes them different, which is why men cultivate muscular physiques and women wear low-cut tops. By darkening her lips, a woman makes them look even lusher than they already are. Men with very red lips are often a little unsettling, because they confound our ideas about sexuality.
The pneumatic, rosy lip is also a sign of youth and the ability to bear children. As women age, their lips tend to get thinner and lose some of their color. Lipstick can be interpreted as an attempt to look fresh and ever-ripe. (Collagen is another option, albeit a costly and painful one.) Adding a dab of clear gloss to the center of the lower lip creates a sort of optical illusion – a sexy 3D effect and gives that full, poufy Lolita lips. There’s nothing better than lips that look big and sexy, but natural, too.”
The lips reminds us of the labia, says Diane Ackerman the author of A Natural History of the Senses because they flush red and swell when they’re aroused, which is the conscious or subconscious reason women have always made them look even redder with lipstick.
However, I would guess that for many women lipstick isn’t sexual but feminine. Like most women, my introduction to lipstick came via my mother. I have a vivid memory of her leaning toward the bathroom mirror, gliding color onto her lips. I would linger in the doorway, watching; I felt I was observing a ritual that I would one day be initiated into. When she clicked the tube shut, it was a signal that we were about to leave the house. To my five-year-old self, lipstick was the very essence of femininity. Until she finally bought my first lipstick – a pink-colored lipstick from a Barbie brand. I was so thrilled and happy!
The idea of lipstick as the key to the meaning of womanhood has been the subject of many female artists’ work. Janine Antoni, for example, uses lipstick to explore topics such as beauty and self-image. For Diary, she wore 100 different lipstick shades for each of 100 different daily activities. The used lipsticks were then displayed as a diary of her life during this period. As part of a work called Gnaw, Antoni chewed on a large block of lard for several months, collected the bits she spat out, and shaped them into lipsticks. The lipsticks were then arranged in a cosmetics counter-style case, opposite the chewed-on block of lard.
The photographer Stacey Greene takes more straight-forward approach – she documents the used lipsticks of friends, acquaintances and strangers to illustrate how mass-made objects take on personal meaning. Though lipstick has come in approximately three shapes – all variations on the bullet – since the late 1930s, every woman puts it on slightly differently, resulting in thousands of different shapes, some flat, others wildly asymmetrical. Just as lipstick makes its mark on women, so women make their mark on lipstick.
Sexual undertones aside, wearing red lipstick carries a certain responsibility. It’s a color that requires constant vigilance and upkeep – nothing looks worse than faded and smeared red lipstick. You can’t be laissez-faire about a scarlet mouth. If you’re going to paint your lips red, they will be the center of attention, so you better have something to say.
At the other end of the lipstick scale, pink is a less intense version of red – the femininity minus the sizzle, the color baby girls are traditionally assigned.
In the 19th century, when any form of makeup was taboo, a woman who wore lipstick was considered sexually available. Even when makeup became generally accepted, it retained many subtle symbolic nuances. A woman with a crimson mouth was a siren; one who chose a paler, more subdued pink lipstick was a nice girl. But the nice-girl category is a confining one – given a choice between red and pink lipstick, women will often go for red, as the cosmetics maker Volupte learned in 1938. That year, the company launched two shades of lipstick, one red called Hussy, the other a pink called Lady. Even today, pink lipsticks are given sweet, innocent sounding names such as Debutante, Barely There, and Blush. Reds, on the other hand, get dangerous-sounding monikers: Shanghai Express, Rouge Diabolique, Decadence, etc.
Lipstick, I’m happy to say, isn’t going anywhere. Makeup fads come and go, but lipstick is a perennial. The reason lies in the intense feminine associations this enigmatic cosmetic arouses. Lipstick is femininity in a tube, packaged, color-coded, and yours for as little as 100pesos. As such, its lure is irresistible – even women who rarely wear it find themselves mesmerized by drugstore lipstick displays.
Applying lipstick is an all-around sensual experience, from the satisfying instant spent contemplating the color to the intimate caress of gliding it along your lips. Its scent evokes memories as powerful as the taste of Proust’s Madeleine, while a lipstick color can recall an entire era – think of Erwin Blumenfeld’s famous Vogue cover of 1950, which showed nothing but Jean Patchett’s doe eye and the immaculate rose red arc of her mouth.
With that kind of power behind it, who would willingly give up the tube?