feature image photo by Tanja Ivanova via Getty Images
A couple weeks ago, I dragged my kiddo into a Sephora. I needed to pick up one thing, and since we had time to kill, I wandered over to the NARS section. There was a lipstick pencil I wanted to try. Somehow, that led to me swiping five different lipsticks on my hand and asking my kiddo which one he liked best. He picked a rose pink color, and I liked it when I tried it on. I spent $35 on this lipstick, and a week later I was at Sephora returning it. It was the latest in a long string of lipsticks I bought and then abandoned.
I’ve been into lipstick since before I was even allowed to wear it. Lip Smackers and Chapstick were permanent fixtures in my pocket. I’d buy $1.99 tubes of silver and black lipsticks from Wet&Wild at the drugstore and steal my older cousin’s raisin colored lip liner (it was 1995) to play around with. I remember thinking lipstick was the epitome of femininity. I was desperate to be a lipstick girlie, but I was only in like fourth grade. Moms weren’t as progressive back then (at least mine wasn’t); the only time I could wear lipstick was for playing dress-up or for dance recitals.
Whenever I put lipstick on, I always felt so sophisticated, so glamorous. In my seventh grade musical, I got to wear a full face of makeup, and while false eyelashes were pretty exciting, nothing beat getting to slick on the burgundy lipstick I was wearing. That’s where my character came from: She was refined, cool, put together. A strong, powerful, feminine woman. My idea of femininity was changing at that age — gone were the pink and sparkles of elementary school. Now I was trying to figure out how to be girly while also not being too visible. Lipstick felt like a way to express myself in a way that I didn’t want my clothes to. I still wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick, but that didn’t stop me from playing around with it in the house when no one was around.
To this day, I have never seen my mother put makeup on, even though I’ve seen pictures of her wearing it. Everything I knew about lipstick came from reading my mom’s old issues of Cosmopolitan, which is probably why I thought it was so feminine. As I moved into my teenage years, I was cobbling together my own version of what being girly was; I couldn’t use my mom as an example, and the hyper-femininity I saw in my teen magazines didn’t feel right either. I wanted to be cutesy and girly, but I didn’t want to wear skirts; I wanted to wear jeans and sneakers. I began to trade in my ever-present Softlips for tinted lip balms and L’Oreal’s version of Juicy Tubes. They gave me a subtle hint of color and the girliness I needed but didn’t mess too much with the way I chose to express myself through my clothes.
When I hit my twenties and had disposable income, I started buying makeup like it was my job. I worked retail and had a uniform, so makeup became a form of self expression. I had an entire makeup pouch full of nothing but lipsticks — a mix of drugstore finds and purchases from Sephora, which was my favorite store other than Borders. I’d tuck the tubes into whatever purse I was carrying, becoming a pro at applying lipstick on the subway. My love for lipgloss was beginning to show itself, but still I pushed myself into collecting lipsticks in a cacophony of colors.
I spent so much money on brightly colored lipsticks, but truth be told, I have a serious aversion to wearing them. There was a bright red one called 5150 from Urban Decay I bought back in like 2011, mainly because I liked the name of it. It came in a really pretty tube, and I think the only time I wore it was in the house because I remembered how much I hate red lipstick. It looks amazing on other people, and I desperately wanted to love it, but it’s just not me. Then there was the orange lipstick I bought because I’d seen it somewhere and thought maybe that would be the one that changed my mind. (Surprise, surprise, it didn’t.)
My favorite color is hot pink, and I’ve bought hot pink lipsticks before, but I never wear them more than once. One year, I dressed up as Lady Gaga for Halloween and had to wear brightly colored lipstick. I think I dropped $25 on a hot pink lipstick at Sephora and wore it twice. I was self conscious the whole night. Are people staring at me? I wondered. Of course they were — I was a Black woman dressed as Gaga in a blonde curly wig. But I was more concerned about the pink lipstick and not the bright blonde curls. My friend assured me it looked amazing on me, but I felt so exposed. Wearing lipstick no longer made me feel empowered and feminine; it felt like I was wearing a neon sign.
When I came out and started trying to figure out what my queer identity was, I wrestled with leaning into being a lipstick lesbian. I hadn’t worn makeup in years, and off I went buying a bunch of lipstick I knew I wasn’t going to wear because I was trying to remember how to be feminine. I even bought a new hot pink lipstick. (Truthfully, I bought it because I liked the packaging and not because I planned on using it.) After buying a new tube of NARS’ Orgasm lipgloss, I stopped kidding myself and embraced my lipgloss lesbian identity. I don’t have to perform femininity by wearing lipstick — my feminine identity goes way beyond what I put on my lips.
That doesn’t mean I don’t still fall prey to the lipstick trap. I did buy that lipstick I was only lukewarm about. But this time, I was smart enough to return it instead of pretending I was going to wear it one day. I do find value in owning at least two lipsticks; they pack a stronger color punch than lipgloss, and they usually last longer. It’s just that now I’m on the quest for the perfect neutral or nude color. I’ve definitely spent time this week browsing the Sephora website to bookmark colors I might like for the future. Being a lipstick girlie doesn’t leave you; sometimes, it just has to evolve.