A couple of years ago, I complimented a classmate on her outfit as we were waiting for the professor to arrive.
“I love that lipstick color on you,” I said.
“Thanks!” she replied. “It was just a red lipstick kind of day, you know?”
“Well, I don’t really wear red lipstick, but it looks so gorgeous on you,” I said.
“Why don’t you?” she asked. “I bet you’d look amazing with it on!”
I laughed — that one awkward laugh I reserve for unexpected and sincere compliments from other women — and said, “Nah, I’m not the red lipstick kind of person.”
Then I started asking myself — who is “the red lipstick kind of person” anyway?
Only a year ago, the thought of wearing red lipstick would never have crossed my mind. It’s not that my aesthetic tastes have changed. I’ve always admired bright scarlets and bold crimsons on the smiles of others. What has changed is my level of self-awareness and self-love.
I believe wholeheartedly in the idea of people presenting themselves in ways that make them feel most like themselves. I believe in self-presentation as self-care. I don’t mean just in the grand, important ways either, like expressing one’s gender or culture or religion. I also mean in the small, everyday ways.
I don’t wear red lipstick every day, or even most days. But when I do, it’s because it makes me feel like I’m being a little bit more myself in that moment.
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Contrary to many beliefs about the subject, red lipstick is not about standing out from the crowd or blending in with trendy fashion statements. It is not about other people — impressing them, defying them, seducing them, or imitating them. It is something wholly about self.
Everyone has a personal version of their “Red Lipstick” — whether it’s that old grey sweatshirt, a certain cologne or perfume, a long beard, rimmed eyeglasses, French manicured nails, a nose ring, bright floral sundresses, or purple hair.
Red lipstick is not my only Red Lipstick. Most people have more than one Red Lipstick. Red Lipstick is not a constant either. It’s for certain moments, but not for every moment.
These things seem superficial, and they mostly are. But they are also very important.
Surprisingly, Red Lipstick is also not always about femme identity, although that is a big part of it. Femmeness is often devalued because of its close association with “self-presentation.” Material items associated with femmeness are generally considered “extra” and “extravagant” and even “excess.” Things that are “masculine” are the blank slate, the standard model, the norm.
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But self-presentation is something every person in the world must consider. Despite whatever arguments people have about which adornments on the human body are for “practical” purposes and which are “accessories,” it’s a fact that everything says something about the person.
Red Lipstick is also not necessarily about classism. Economic marginalization can definitely be a barrier to those gorgeous matte MAC Russian Reds and Ruby Woos. When I was growing up in the nineties, Bonne Bell Lip Smackers were the big thing. Everyone I knew had a beautiful collection of Cotton Candy, Nilla Mint Frost, Candy Confetti, and Tropical Punch. However, as cheap as they were, my family still couldn’t afford something as frivolous as flavored lip balm. I despaired, but there was nothing that could be done. Lip Smackers, as enviable as they were, could not be my Red Lipstick.
Instead, I made other things my “signature.” Ribbon headbands in my hair. The pearly bracelet I was gifted from my Thai aunt. And every August, when it came time again to go to Payless Shoesource and pick out our yearly school shoes, I’d always make it a point to choose light blue and white sneakers.
The best way to describe how these details made me feel is “ready.” They made me feel ready for anything that came my way. Ready to take on the world. Ready to be the best version of myself.
The Red Lipstick kind of person is the kind of person who chooses to wear red lipstick. That’s all. Let nothing hold you back from choosing to present yourself in the way you want to.
[Headline image: The photograph features the face and neck of a light-skinned person from the nose down, applying red lipstick to their lips. Behind them is a white background.]