I am something of a lipstick queen. Literally – my favourite brand is Lipstick Queen by Poppy. I own a lot of lipstick, and I generally don’t leave the house without it.
My signature shade is, of course, red – don’t I strike you as a red lipstick kind of girl? It’s become something of a trademark of mine, and I like it. Poppy King, the creator of my favourite lipsticks, often speaks about how lipstick makes you feel, and how that’s more important than how it makes you look. I feel that. Lipstick is a mask, a facade, to be sure; but it's a genuine one, a genuine expression of yourself, of your art - so blatantly artificial that it becomes authentic.
Quite honestly, my penchant for dresses and lipstick comes from a place of laziness; I genuinely don’t have the time to care about matching separate pieces of clothing, plus my body shape and my great love of lunching with the ladies doesn’t really agree with skinny jeans. My standard uniform is usually a dress, by itself in the summer, with a jacket and stockings in winter. It takes three seconds to look fabulous, which gives me three extra seconds to run for the bus.
Lipstick is also a time saver. I like looking quite put together, but beauty and the beauty industry is so heavily focussed on white faces and white people it’s very frustrating trying to make my yellow skin and non-existent eyebrows and hooded eyes look presentable. Lipstick looks high maintenance, but it takes three seconds to apply, and it gives me the polish I need to look confident and presentable.
When I was younger I was obsessed with the idea of 'natural makeup' - partly because it was the trend at the time, but mostly because I knew that men didn't like makeup, but I didn't feel confident without makeup, and I was savvy enough to know that 'no-makeup' still meant we had to aspire to impossible standards of beauty, even though we weren't allowed to show it. We had to make ourselves beautiful and con people into thinking we #wokeuplikedis. That was what I was taught femininity was.
I remember, vividly, the day of my first kiss. I still have the tube of lipbalm I wore; it was a fancy Dior one that was clear, but changed colour so that my lips look rosy pink; even though anxiety had drained any trace of colour from my face. In the confusing tumble of thoughts that cascaded afterwards, I wondered, stupidly, if lust was just a manufactured response to a manufactured body; it didn't feel real, and so I started worrying that it was artificial.
I had always been drawn to women with bold lips; I thought it was such a beautiful aesthetic. But whenever I did wear lipstick - mostly shitty $5 ones or old tubes I found in my mother's makeup stash - I smudged it in so it looked like I wasn't wearing anything at all. My mother - quite rightly - thought I was too young to wear lipstick, but the more pressing matter was that I didn't want my performance of gender to be explicit; I didn't want to let the cat out of the bag, that I wasn't born as beautiful as I was expected to be.
I also wondered why women wore lipstick; nobody could kiss someone wearing lipstick, and I had learned from a young age that part of being a beautiful woman was being accessible. And men didn't like women who wore lipstick, and I had absorbed this toxic and misogynistic idea that women wore makeup for men.
Once you catch the lipstick bug, it never really lets you go. I started playing with different colours and textures, and I loved the compliments - mostly from women. Men seemed indifferent, or told me I didn't 'need it'; and most of them met me in the small hours when the lipstick had been drunk away. My mother accepted that I had grown up, and that was that.
But I was itching for that thrill again; looking bolder than you are, having your presence and your gravitas affected in the way that Poppy King said. Every time I tried to go dark, I chickened out. It wasn't that I wasn't used to how I looked, or that I thought it didn't suit; I had gotten used to red lipstick. I was worried about what people would think.
And then, eventually, I took the plunge - Nars Train Bleu, which is a lusciously dark purple. My mother hates it and I'm still getting to used to how it looks, but dear God, I am in love with how it makes me feel.
The first time I wore it was in Hobart - I was at a conference with a very progressive crowd and I was far from the most kooky person there. But I also had to walk from UTAS back to my accommodation and Hobart is sort of...conservative. Small town in the middle of nowhere kind of vibe. Dear God, the stares.
A younger and more vulnerable self would have been intimidated by it. A younger and more vulnerable self would have wiped $40 lipstick off, just to appease the crowd. But I'm not that person anymore, so I started to think about why people were tut-tutting.
(Incidentally, it's not that it looks bad. The purple lipstick by far gets the most compliments; again, mostly by women. And also by my gay friend. More on that in a bit.)
As an Asian woman living in an Anglo society, I’ve long known that my body does not conform to standards of beauty here; my body as a commodity only serves a very niche market – a fetish for the alienness of my existence, if you will. And one of the many forms of oppression I experience is being informed that I have to look and act a certain way that conforms not only to people's perceptions of my ethnicity, but also to conform to the conflicting and contradictory white Western beauty ideal. All of this is to say that I have been trained, from a young age, to conform to the white, straight, male gaze; to live in the knowledge that people will assume that everything I do is for the attention or benefit of a certain group of people. The natural makeup bullshit was that; and some people's attitude towards my penchant for red lipstick was that I had missed the mark, but the overall effect was quite pleasing to the eye.
I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with natural makeup; hell I do it more than anything, because a) I work at a daycare and b) I only just figured out how contouring works and c) burgers and red lipstick really don't mix. But it's the attitudes towards makeup that pushes a lot of girls into wearing nothing but 'natural' makeup that is disappointing; the idea that makeup is an act of insecurity. Makeup is an act of defiance. It's fucking warpaint. Wear it like armour, and never let them hurt you.
There is a certain disgust or pity aimed at women who don't perform Womanness According To The Cis-Het White Males. Red lipstick is misguided; purple is deliberate, flagrant, disgusting contempt for the Rules. People are deeply uncomfortable that a woman of my age and class should dare to openly perform gender, openly construct identity, in a way that is not focussed on heteronormative narratives. There is no question, when I wear purple lips, that I am not doing it to allure men. Perhaps it's the first thing I've ever done for myself.
When we live in a society that tells men that sexually attractive, perhaps worthy of human dignity and aesthetically pleasing are interchangeable when it comes to women, they have a sort of checklist approach to women and how to treat them. I like the aesthetics of black leather boots and an oversized red blazer with dark purple lips. I like how it makes me feel, and I like the people who can appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level. I really don't care about indifference (the only response to indifference is indifference, really), and I certainly don't care about the haters. I do not spend $40 on lipstick so that men might think me fuckable; I do it because when I glower at people with my dark purple lipstick and kooky 80s clothes stolen from my mother, I feel brave and beautiful and untouchable in a world that tells me that I am timid and ugly and fair game.