When I was twenty, my mother gifted me a stick of Mac Red lipstick for Christmas.
She was a historically expert gift-giver, but when I unwrapped the tiny present, I knew she missed the mark.
Women fell into one of two categories: those bold enough to pull off red lipstick and those who knew better than to try.
I fell into the latter category. Red lipstick was for other women–other, more fabulous women.
It was for my mother, a serial red lipstick-wearer and the type of person who lights up a room when she walks in. Red just makes sense on her. She could wear red lipstick because she always had.
So could those other women who wore red lipstick, because they were inherently glamorous. They were beautiful creatures worthy of this bold color.
I was neither glamorous, bold, or sexy. Not to mention, I had nowhere to wear red lipstick, because clearly you had to be going somewhere for that sort of thing. I was a college student whose most important event was class.
Given the overwhelming evidence that I was ill suited for it, I buried that tube of Mac Red deep in my makeup bag. Mom, for once in her life, had gotten it wrong. Red was everything I wasn’t.
The lipstick remained there for several months entirely ignored.
That is, until one fateful night when I was getting ready for a night out.
Noticing the red lipstick abandoned amongst my cosmetics, I threw caution to the wind. I may not have been worthy, but in a moment of reckless daring, I decided I could fake it for a few hours.
I filled in my lips, lined my Cupid’s bow, and headed out with my girlfriends.
Something peculiar happened.
No one accused me of lacking the glamour required for such a statement. Nobody told me red was not for me. In fact, more than a friend or two told me how good I looked in red.
Realizing no one had called my bluff, I began to test the waters and let that tube of lipstick out to play.
Its appearance was initially limited to long nights exercising my newfound right to enjoy the bars. Its purpose seemed best served on those occasions, an aid to fun in the dwindling days of my college career. With adulthood looming on the horizon, I was anything but confident, yet those swipes of red emboldened me.
I began to understand there was something behind red lipstick.
It makes you feel things. It makes you different somehow.
A few months after college graduation, I boarded a plane to Spain to teach English. Spain is where my red lipstick habit, which until then had been reserved strictly for bars and dancing, seeped into everyday life. After all, if any place demands red lipstick on the regular, it’s Spain.
While conservative in many regards, the land of flamenco and sunshine and late nights is a country that accepts women who adorn their bodies however they please.
Accepted are the grandmothers who dye their hair five shades of purple. So are the middle-aged mothers who bare their post-baby breasts at the beach without a care in the world. Also accepted are the women of all shapes and sizes who don crop tops and short shorts in the summer, unconcerned about whether or not they have “the body for it.”
Spain allowed me to fully buy into the idea that I could be whatever type of woman I wanted, just as I realized this was something I would have to decide.
Spain made me realize I needed no one’s permission to wear red.
Buoyed by this culture of acceptance, applying a coat of red lipstick became part of my morning routine. It was the way I armed myself against the unknown in a foreign country, day in and day out. It became my shield as I explored what it meant to be completely independent for the first time in my life.
I made discoveries.
I discovered the previously unknown feeling of butterflies in my stomach and shortness of breath, sensations that accompanied stealing kisses from someone whose lips matched mine perfectly.
In retrospect, he was completely wrong for me, but he had a face like an angel and no one had ever looked at me like that before.
He told me all the time that I was too beautiful.
Eres demasiado guapa.
One day, as we sat in a quiet plaza, reveling in one another’s perfectness, he contemplated me, his fingers lightly caressing my face.
“You’re too beautiful,” he told me, for what seemed like the thousandth time.
He hesitated as he traced the outline of my lips with his fingers, on the verge of an unsolicited addendum.
“You know what my friends say about you? That you know too much. You know, because of your red lips.”
Dicen que sabes demasiado.
In a world where being overtly sexual is still a liability for women, those who choose to highlight their lips with loud colors–the most visibly sexual part of our bodies–proclaim their indifference.
“Knowing too much” was a roundabout way of saying that red lipstick made me aggressively sexual–too sexual for Angel Face’s comfort. “Knowing too much” tapped into this idea that women should present themselves in just the right way, and that I had crossed the line.
Men are taught that women exist to be their sexual playthings. At the same time, women are reprimanded for acts deemed overtly sexual. Men are taught that women exist for men’s consumption.
“Knowing too much” was my first lesson that red lips challenge these notions.
Yes, I am featuring this sensual part of my body. Yes, I am aware of its boldness. And no, I don’t care what you think.
I exist independently of your perceived right to consume me.
If you really want to know how society sees women, ask Google if red lipstick is appropriate for the workplace. Even now, at the height of the #metoo era, women still must be worried about men viewing them in the “correct” manner and catering to this ideal–being seen as attractive, but not highly sexual; confident, but not domineering; modest, but not prude.
And the verdict is still out as to whether or not red lipstick toes this finicky line.
Taking up this mantle, an acting requiring hitherto unknown courage, gave me power. Which is why I continue to wear red lipstick anywhere and everywhere. I refuse to change my habits because a man might view me too sexually, too confidently, too aggressively, too whatever.
I look fabulous in red. And if it’s too much for you, if you think I’d look “sweeter” in a more demure color, if you’d rather I was less intimidating, guess what?
I couldn’t care less what you think.
For as much as I saw myself as unworthy of red lipstick, at some point, without conscious thought, the opposite became unequivocally true.
Red lips became my trademark. The act itself of putting on red lipstick is what confers the title, nothing more.
You needn’t be glamorous to wear it; you are glamorous because you wear it.
You needn’t be confident to wear it; you are confident because you wear it.
You needn’t ask permission; the only permission you need is your own.
The tube of red lipstick nestled in my cosmetics bag is my superman cape.
It’s my superman cape at work, where high school freshmen occasionally feel they have the right to come onto me because they like the way I look.
It’s my superman cape in a world that sees fit to pay women less than “the lucky people with dicks,” to use Jennifer Lawrence’s words.
It’s my superman cape on the street, where I, along with countless other women, endure unwanted advances, grotesque catcalls, and generally unpleasant interactions with men who are praised for this harassment.
In other words, red lipstick is a small luxury afforded women in a world constantly reminding us of our inferiority.
Author: Danielle Decker
Danielle is a California native who somehow ended up in Spain. She is an English teacher, freelance proofreader and writer, and a great lover of words.