Veronica and I were best friends through eighth grade. The day before junior-high graduation, we walked home together, assuring each other that our friendship would endure.
“I heard that some of the girls are going to wear lipstick tomorrow,” I said.
“Really?” she replied. “Who?”
“Pauline, Anita, maybe some others. Don’t you think that’s terrible?”
“Yeah,” she answered, popping her gum.
I wasn’t satisfied with her response. I worried that she might be pulling away from me. She had started mixing with girls who always talked about boys and dating. Veronica had been asked on a date, but her mother didn’t let her go. I wasn’t sure what one did on a date, but I didn’t think I would like it.
“I think it looks silly on kids our age,” I said.
“Me, too,” she mumbled. I was relieved.
Once I tried on my mother’s lipstick. My father demanded, “What have you done to yourself? Only whores paint their lips. You look ridiculous.”
Later, I asked my mother, “Doesn’t he know you use it?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I put it on in private. But you won’t need makeup for a long time. You’re young.”
On graduation day, everyone was transformed. The boys wore white shirts and ties. The girls wore colorful dresses — pink and white, and blue and green. With two neat braids down my back, and wearing my embroidered red jumper, I wondered if I looked childish.
When Veronica arrived, her hair fluffed in a halo around her head, wearing a white dress with a pattern of tiny red flowers, I ran to greet her. She smiled and said, “Hi. You look nice.” I couldn’t return the compliment or even the greeting. She was wearing lipstick. It was just a faint blush, but I felt betrayed and turned away from her.
After the ceremony, as I stood near the refreshment table with my parents, Veronica approached us.
“Veronica, you look lovely,” my father said. “The belle of the ball.” The unfamiliar expression on his face, a kind of hunger, made him seem like a stranger.
“What do you mean, Mr. Holland?” she asked, smiling up at him.
“Beautiful, alluring, just like a movie star,” he said, his eyes riveted on her shining face.
The time comes when it’s faded or flaked or disappeared altogether — the result of eating and talking, cups and glasses. The table shows splashes of oil, grains of risotto, pumpernickel crumbs, crème fraîche, pickle slices, stir-fry. The cups and glasses hold dredges and droplets of ice water, tea, sake, red wine, black coffee, salty margaritas. In the air hang laughter, competition, sex, awkwardness, connection, sympathy, secrets, tears, listening. Pale nakedness.
Definitely a lipstick moment.
New York, New York
When my grandmother was seventeen, she left her home in rural Wisconsin to work as a housemaid in Madison. The work was no harder than it had been on the farm, and she didn’t have to cope with a houseful of children and a nagging stepmother who had criticized her every move and punished her with field work.
She had a room of her own for the first time in her life, its wallpaper printed with bright red roses that twined around each other.
When she met my grandfather, she was afraid he wouldn’t notice her because she was too plain. Her complexion was sallow, not ruddy and wholesome like the other girls’. She found an answer in the wallpaper. Before she went out, she would lick her fingertip, touch it to one of the roses, and faintly paint her cheeks and lips. She had to work fast, before the red dye of the roses dried on her finger. She was careful to use just enough to achieve a natural look.
She never told grandfather about the cosmetic trick that made her feel pretty and special, but in time all the roses around her mirror were faded.
I can’t remember when I first started wearing lipstick, but I bet my mother suggested it. I was always the last to notice what the other girls were doing.
When I was in graduate school, I heard some students talking about a fifties party they had been to the night before. “All the girls were wearing that red lipstick,” one of them laughed. I was wearing bright red lipstick at the time. It was my first clue that the style had changed.
When I got a teaching job, I moved to California and wore lipstick every day to work. I stopped wearing it on the weekends I spent with hippie friends. In the early eighties, I fell in love with a man who cherished hairy legs and no makeup, so I sank into my natural state.
Recently I visited my hometown. I bought one tube of pale lipstick so I wouldn’t feel out of place when I went to church with my parents. One day my mother invited me to lunch with the members of her sewing club. I let her dress me in a camel-hair suit and a brown paisley blouse with a bow tied at the neck. I put on some lipstick before we left the house. It was odd to see the imprint of my lips on a piece of tissue.
The members of the sewing club were women in their seventies, familiar to me since my childhood. But I knew them more intimately from my mother’s stories: one’s husband neglected his insurance, so she had to go to work after he died; two of them once dressed to kill in the middle of the afternoon to view a wedding together on their favorite soap opera. They talked as we ate pork and corn and okra and cherry cobbler from the buffet. I felt a drowsy interest.
How startled I was when, one by one, the women started reapplying their lipstick. They pulled tubes and compacts out of their pocketbooks and snapped them open. They could take the top off a tube of lipstick with one hand. One spread the color on her mouth while another pressed her lips together and a third looked in a mirror and rolled her lips back to check for smears on her teeth. All the while they were telling about the maid who didn’t know how to read and the violets that wouldn’t bloom. At that moment they seemed as exotic to me as those tribal people who stretch their lips for beauty.
Lipstick repulses me. When I was a child, I was disgusted to find a big red lip print on my yellow Melmac drinking cup.
I prefer to see the natural tones of red in my lover’s beautiful lips and cheeks. Hiding our true colors only masks how we feel.
I’ve heard that lipstick and blush simulate sexual arousal. What’s the purpose of walking around all day looking like you just had an orgasm?
I’ve also been told that prostitutes once wore lipstick to indicate that they would perform oral sex. I don’t like lipstick on my penis either.
We always knew Mother was leaving the house when we saw her lips outlined with Cherries In The Snow. The five of us would dutifully line up by the door, prepared to press our cheeks firmly against her lips to print a vivid red stain on our faces — the proof of her affection.
During holidays, a tube of lipstick was always passed around, so we could coordinate lips for family photos. My sister Kathleen was particularly adept at applying lipstick without a mirror. Through the years, my sisters were usually too busy to notice or acknowledge the changes in my life, yet upon seeing me after long absences, one of them would notice my naked lips and whisper, “Where’s your lipstick?”
Although I wore lipstick on first dates, I rarely did so after my relationships had progressed past the kissing stage. When relationships ended, I celebrated my freedom with the purchase of a new lipstick, usually red.
The fragile gloss, when applied deliberately, was capable of such power. As women, my sisters and I were encouraged to paint our mouths — not to open them, not to use them. Decorating our lips legitimized their function, as if we could dress our silence. Recently, after another arduous confrontation with my mother, in which I begged her to take me seriously and acknowledge me as an adult, my mother ended the argument by resignedly saying, “You’re right. Now go put on some lipstick.” I did.
As a young naturalist, I was always seeking ways to give my sixth-grade students close encounters with wild creatures. For instance, once I placed a scarecrow in a chair amid a collection of bird feeders with a tray of choice seed on its lap. After a few weeks, when the birds had grown accustomed to its shape, I took the rowdiest kid in the class, dressed him in the scarecrow’s jacket, and put the tray on his lap. How still and bug-eyed my students became when a song sparrow landed on his lap.
One day, I donned a bright red stocking cap and the reddest lipstick I could find. I found a blooming currant bush that had hummingbirds vigorously feeding on its flowers. Plucking one flower from the bush and sticking it between my teeth, I sat down quietly among the branches. Soon the air hummed with the subtle, wind-up toy sound of the feeding birds. One bird came up to my ruby red lips and hovered closely for a few seconds. Its wings whirred like tiny eggbeaters, inches from my startled eyes. My cheeks felt faint bird-wing breezes. It put its tiny bill into the currant flower I held in my lips, then flew off into the lilac-scented air.
Until that day, I never fully understood the role of cosmetics in the grander scheme of things. I had thought lipstick and makeup were unnatural. Thanks to that hummingbird “kiss,” it’s easier to see lipstick and the urge to wear it in terms of natural selection.
Trout Lake, Washington
I started wearing lipstick when I was forty-two. A late age, I know, but polio had paralyzed my arms and legs when I was six. Before then, I used to watch my mother touch pretty golden tubes to her lips; I also used to try to push my little boy’s genitals back inside of me.
Being totally paralyzed made it difficult to rebel. I was a suburban conformist, as hard-working at my studies as my parents were at their jobs. My disability embarrassed me by drawing attention to me, so it became important for me to find ways to blend into the crowd.
But my dream of being a beautiful woman wouldn’t leave. Whenever I saw a man dressed as a woman on TV or in a magazine, I envied his courage and freedom.
I’d been living on my own for twelve years before I worked up the nerve to buy a blouse, skirt, and makeup. Now I wear lipstick — and eyeliner, powder, rouge, eye shadow, skirt, blouse, and a wig of long, black hair — as often as I dare. Lipstick makes me soft, sensuous, and free. It transforms me into another person, someone more given to laughter and less burdened by duty. But after my attendant removes my lipstick and makeup, I feel confused, disappointed, and guilty. Have I stolen women’s power? Am I contributing to their oppression by dressing up? I wonder whether I’m a man pretending to be a woman or a woman caught in the wrong reincarnation.
Lipstick is a bone of contention between me and my mother. For me, lipstick represents everything that is false and pretentious, not to mention a waste of resources. For my mother it is a joy, and one element in her arsenal against time. My mother has always been pretty. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, and slender, she has undoubtedly figured in many a man’s fantasies. And she enjoys being pretty. Her closet is filled with clothes that flatter her, her day at the hairdresser’s is sacred, and she owns an intimidating array of lotions and creams. She is always attractive and well-groomed.
It must be embarrassing for her to be seen with me. I tried wearing lipstick and makeup as a teenager, and cosmetic counters and all their promises of beauty still hold a certain fascination for me. But I discovered years ago that no matter how I painted my face, I was not going to be pretty.
It has been easier to pretend not to care. The truth is, I would love to be pretty. I would like to step out from behind my own proud mask. I would like to be desired.
I am middle-aged now. My mother is still beautiful, and I am still dowdy. I sincerely believe that naturalness is best and that there is no shame in wrinkles. But I have also come to think that there is, perhaps, a place in the world for lipstick.
In 1960, we seventh-grade girls displayed our lipstick skills to one another in the bathroom before, during, and after school socials. Soon I took to wandering along the beauty counters at the drug store. By walking slow, then fast, I could drink up the latest colors without drawing the attention of an eager clerk. This courage led to braver acts. I began wearing lipstick in secret, layering on lavish shades like Plush Purple and Crisp Coral. So that it would vanish by the end of the school day, I put it on early. My lips radiated through The Great Plains States, Complex Division with Fractions, and Making a Corner Shelf, and hung in there after bologna sandwiches with corn chips and milk, and a shoving match with Rick Cain. The lipstick held fast even through Reptiles and Amphibians and O Antonia. I was careful not to fall under the stern eye of Miss Hendershott, who never wore lipstick, and, it followed, ate her dinner alone among stacks of old National Geographics. By last-hour gym class, my lips had faded to skin tone.
One day, Mother picked me up from school without warning. There was still a hint of Plush Purple on my lips. She threatened the switch, her own mother’s method for staying her daughter’s girlhood. My pleadings coupled with my size had the desired effect. She decided that practice lipstick would stay my urgency for things adolescent. So the Avon lady came one drippy humid day; I remember Mrs. Billings’s heavily floral perfume, which lingered atop our couch cushions and piano music for a full week.
My mother bought me Country Garden Clear. It came, of course, in a set, paired with toilet water that smelled like my great-aunt Catherine. The lipstick was the palest pink translucence, barely more color than petroleum jelly mixed with a dab of strawberry jam. My mother was hardly ready for what real lipstick would unleash.
I used my Avon for kissing practice at the bathroom mirror. I bent my head slowly and carefully to the left, eyes closed in perfect timing, lips slightly parted, and pressed my mouth against Rick Cain’s. No matter that behind him lay bottles of antiseptic, boxes of blue swabs, and my father’s rusted metal razor. At age thirteen, I was briefly with warm male lips.
Patricia Carino Pasick
Ann Arbor, Michigan
When I think of our first date, I recall her tight white jeans and red lipstick. I did not like lipstick then. On other women, lipstick seemed cheap or affected, yet she wore lipstick with authority and grace. Her lips were stunning, sensuous, shaped for pleasure and the dearest utterance. With her, lipstick was somehow natural.
I walked her to her car that first night, and was delighted when she stopped beside a rusty old Nova. I had expected something new and snazzy, but the Nova matched the kind of power she exuded, the uncontestable confidence in her gait, the fullness of her lips and hips. She leaned against a tree as I wondered how I would manage to kiss her. I was blunt, as usual. I said something reckless about my urge to “suck the red off ” her lips.
Over time, I learned to crave this taste I had never liked, its sweet perfumed pungency. Now, even against my will, I still associate it with the passion she stirred in me, the longing for a home and family her love inspired.
When I see such lips flashing their red alert, my heart leaps. Leaps, then convulses.
One afternoon, when I was five, I was excused from my kindergarten class, along with three other girls, and led by a woman through a maze of hallways to a stage overlooking a large auditorium. She told us we were to be angels in an opera, and this was our only rehearsal. We would stand over the body of a man on one side of the stage, while on the other a group of people would sing. I saw my mother in that group. She was a teacher at Valley City State Teachers College in Valley City, North Dakota, and this was their production of Dido And Aeneas.
The next night, well after my bedtime, we returned to the auditorium. I was in a white dress, the kind you might wear on Halloween. A college student put the most wonderful red lipstick on my lips, the color my mother wore. I felt wild, wicked. At home I was discouraged even from looking in the mirror.
When the teacher gave us a nudge, we marched out to the dead body and stood solemnly. As I looked into the auditorium, all I could see was blackness. Then, the most extraordinary thing happened. On the other side of the stage was my mother, dressed as a witch, singing with such power and such evil that I was frightened.
Later, seeing my mother up close, I became frightened. She took me with her into the bathroom, and she covered her face in cold cream, then washed it. I watched the witch drain away and my mother reappear. It was makeup, she explained, like the makeup she put on every morning before she went to work.
In addition to teaching several music-education classes, my mother conducted band and taught English — a schedule that tested her stamina and sanity. She also performed in the opera, because, she explained, they needed a mature voice and she was the only vocalist on the faculty. My mother was a widow with eight children and a mother of her own to support. She never said “no” to work. When she was leaving that college, her employer gave a speech at her farewell dinner. He did not mention her work, her relationship with the students, the art of teaching that was the joy of her life. He said that the college would greatly miss her beautiful legs. “I was so angry,” she recalls, “I wasn’t going to walk to the podium to accept the gift he was presenting me.”
“Why did you?” I ask, trying vainly to imagine my mother behaving ungraciously, making a scene. “Because I knew that his secretaries had carefully chosen that gift for me. I couldn’t be unkind to them.”
I don’t think she performed in Dido And Aeneas because they needed her voice. I think she did it because she needed that witch. I think of that witch whenever I see a rare color photograph from those days: my mother’s gentle face, with that incongruous slash of red, suggesting a capacity to shock.
In the course of the play I’m doing now, I use no fewer than seven lipsticks, in addition to the one onstage as a prop. My character has led me a wicked dance through my own psyche and has made me question, over and over, every choice I’ve made — with those seven exceptions. Certainty here is the one legacy I can count on in a role where so much else feels adopted, fragile, faked. As I look at myself in the mirror, I see a woman more confident than I feel, who uses her face, particularly her lips, as an instrument and a weapon, who does not experience femininity as a prison. I see the witch that makes the audience gasp at her audacity, the same witch who can turn inward and still terrorize me. I see my mother as she was thirty years ago, before she stopped singing in public. I see myself, age five, my shyness transcended, being transported by the magic of lipstick alone — worn by angels as well as witches and expressive of something life-affirming. Orange Flip. Poppysilk Red. Raspberry. Wine With Everything. Cottage Clay. Cherries In The Snow. Rust.
Harley Jane Kozak
Los Angeles, California
Edie wanted us to meet her new man, Tim, so we invited them to come to dinner with Edie’s ten-year-old, Beth. Tim liked Beth. That was one of the best things about him. The three of them were happy and easy with one another.
We sat talking so long over dessert and coffee that Beth got bored and wandered off. When she came back she was wearing a patchy makeup job. Edie couldn’t help laughing, but Tim looked positively grim. He asked Edie, “Aren’t you going to make her go wash that stuff off?”
“Later,” Edie said nonchalantly, and tried to pick up the conversation.
“It’s seduction,” Tim cried. “She’ll attract older boys. You have to protect her.”
Edie protested that the child was just trying to look pretty, that male lust had nothing to do with it, that her daughter was free to make her own choices.
We watched and listened as this man and woman talked at cross purposes. I have wondered since if we could have helped them understand each other. Could they have understood each other? Ever?
Kansas City, Missouri
We’re late. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed watching, as the stick of red slides out of the gold tube, as red presses out over right half of upper lip, left half, then slides along the bottom. It’s blotted on one single square of toilet paper, just like my mother used to do — the final makeup ritual.
I’m thinking about how much money we spend on bombs and missiles. I’m thinking about all the money spent on lipstick, makeup, hair spray, perfume. I wonder what we could do with all that money if we lived in a culture that knew how to look at women as they are and not as we would have them be.
None of it makes sense to me. If I ruled the world, lipstick would be illegal.
He puckers a few times, rubs his lips from side to side. Finally pleased, he takes his wig off the styrofoam head and wriggles into it. He looks smashing: it’s clearly the lipstick that pulls it all together, bright red and hot.
I reconsider. If I ran the world, women couldn’t wear it, but drag queens could.
Brooklyn, New York
We were a family of seven. We lived in the country, and although we had very little money, we lived well. My mother canned, froze, pickled, sauced, and preserved every edible morsel that came out of my dad’s garden. She knew aromatic and flavorful ways to cook deer, pheasant, duck, and rabbit. She could artfully disguise the more plentiful but less appealing game for hungry but squeamish children. She sewed everything, from hoop skirts to three-piece suits to prom gowns, with remnants she found at the bottom of piles at the discount fabric store. She could dye a pair of pumps to match an outfit in an afternoon, and dye them a different color for another daughter the next weekend. She played the piano, organized neighborhood plays, recitals, and potluck suppers. She also worked as a substitute teacher.
She was not a woman who spent time or money on herself: she kept her red hair cut short (in pictures of her as a young woman, it had been long and wavy like a movie star’s), and her clothes, though neat, were chosen for practicality. She never wore makeup except the required lipstick of her era. Sometimes I’d watch her put it on in the morning, and for a brief moment, right after she pursed her lips together, she was more beautiful, more glamorous than all the mothers of my wealthier girlfriends. “Please leave it,” I’d silently beg her, but she’d snatch a tissue from a box on her dresser and wipe most of it off, except for a faint red stain. Then she’d run a comb through her hair, signaling the end of her daily grooming ritual.
To this day, though she has more time, more money, infinitely more shades of peach, pink, and mauve from which to choose, though she has luncheons and shopping trips instead of endless household chores, she still puts on her lipstick, purses her lips before the mirror, then wipes most of it off. And though I have teased her about it for years, I do the same.
Billie Jo Hance
Flemington, New Jersey
Thunder and lightning tore through the canyons of the Sangre de Cristo mountains as ragged bellies of battleship-gray clouds scraped across the canyon tops. Torrents of rain from a late spring thunderstorm overflowed shallow rills with muddy terra-cotta washings. Flotsam of dirty white hail sloshed along the swelling streams.
I’d been on a back road through the storm when I passed a short, brown man walking alone, on the wrong side of the road for a hitchhiker. Rain dripped from the bill of his black leather cap, and his thin cotton shirt and blue jeans were soaked and clung to his skin. He strode through the deep puddles purposefully and seemed oblivious to the rain.
At the top of a small rise, I braked for a swollen stream that had flooded the road. The wash was fifty yards wide and looked two feet deep. As I waited, a few other cars accumulated on both sides. In twenty minutes or so the man caught up with me at the wash. He tested the edge in the chilling rain and stood staring across the water. The rain wasn’t abating, so I decided to backtrack to the main road. I pulled beside the man and rolled the window down a crack.
“Hey, I’m giving up on this and going back. You want a lift?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I’m going the other way.”
“It sure doesn’t look like it’s about to let up.”
“That’s OK, I’ll wait it out,” he said.
I sat for a moment, the engine idling.
“What’s worth the wait in weather like this?” I asked.
He flashed a toothy grin. “It’s her lips, her red lips. They’re worth the wait.”