“The Lip That Launched A Thousand Sticks”

“This is the first red lipstick that I ever bought.”
“So this is the lip that launched a thousand sticks?”
“…You’re really proud of that one, aren’t you?”
“Yep!”
– C. and Jeff

My love for lipstick is fairly well documented, but I was well into my 20s before I slicked that first wash of carmine on my face.

I wasn’t quite a tomboy as a kid, but I certainly wasn’t interested in makeup and fashion for most of my adolescence. A good portion of that was frankly bad old fashioned female-on-female disdain, I’m sorry to say. Growing up I always put a lot of value in my brainpower and based much of my sense of identity on my intelligence and interests rather than my personal appearance. This in and of itself is NOT a bad thing, but my major error was in simultaneously being harsh on girls who did put effort into their appearance. I too fell prey to the common but sloppy thinking that girls couldn’t be brainy and stylish at the same time, that to be interested in clothes or makeup was to be silly. It took me years to untangle that sort of black and white thinking around female identity and presentation!

The other reason I was so hesitant to really explore makeup in general and red lipstick in particular was because they intimidated me. Makeup was a skill that I didn’t possess and I was terrified of looking or feeling foolish in adulthood, as I often did with my early teenage forays. This is of course more or less a right of passage growing up, but to the young brain I think such fears are common. From time to time I dabbled with cosmetics, sometimes well but usually unsuccessfully. I particularly admired girls and women who worse intimidating slashes of red on their lips. They looked grown up, in command, at ease with themselves, and slightly dangerous–how I wanted to look and feel–but I never really bit the bullet and the few cheap drugstore lipsticks I bought usually languished barely touched in drawers for months before a move necessitated throwing them out.

I remember the actual image I saw that convinced me to just go for it, already. Here it is, I’ve saved the pin for years. I was working my first job after university at the time and remember being stunned at how pretty and simple the model looked wearing it–she wasn’t covered in a full vintage style slap, she looked fresh and chic. Aside from her obviously stunning red hair, the lipstick was her only highlighted feature, the only product doing any heavy lifting on her face. That doesn’t look so hard, I thought to myself. I bet I could do that.

Jo Goddard (of a Cup of Jo fame, the site where I spotted the image) was able to confirm the exact shade thanks to her contacts in the magazine world. The shade was Red Red Red by Clinique (which I think has been discountinued, or is at least as far as I have been been able to deduce, unfindable in the UK). I bought it the same day I saw that blog post, and wore it almost every day for months/years. Eventually I wore it down to the nub; to date it is still the only lipstick I have ever fully finished, but I still own the tube for sentimental reasons.

 photo Red Red Red_zpsrzw7gw7s.png
I will never, ever throw this tube away.

That color became my totem for early adulthood. It was a silly, small thing, but it made a big difference in how I felt about myself when I slid the bullet over my lips. I was now a girl who word red. It gave me a sense of bravery, command, and self that I honestly didn’t have before I discovered that it was okay and not at all shallow, shameful, or otherwise silly to want to feel pretty. I coined the phrase, “Lipstick is armor,” during this phase, and I still mean it today. Much later on, lipstick has became a sort of brand item for me–a fact I realized when someone at my old job couldn’t remember my name to a colleague but described me as, The Girl With the Lipstick. My lip arsenal has grown by leaps and bounds since them, but I’m never without at least a couple on my person–different shades ready to be deployed as circumstances warrant. I could feel embarrassed by how many I own…but I don’t. They makes me feel beautiful.

Lipstick was a gateway drug into the world of beauty and make up, that strange place that in my adolescence I simply never felt brave enough to really enter.  The consequences have been, ah…pricey, but also really satisfying. I’ve made some beauty mistakes along the way, I’ve continuously experimented with different style personas, and I’ve occasionally laughed at my expense when the results don’t turn out great. I’ve had some hilarious misadventures in trying to find my correct foundation shades, and the skills required for a really killer smokey eye still escape me after years of trying. More than once I’ve left the house thinking I look fine only to catch sight of myself in a mirror hours later and think, I’ve made a huge mistake. That’s okay.

It’s just make up. It comes off. And if all else fails, I can put on a red lip with nothing else and still feel pretty damn great about the way I look.

10 thoughts on ““The Lip That Launched A Thousand Sticks””

  1. in retrospect, it’s a wonderfully happy accident that we became friends in middle school. i guess my occasional wearing of capes and ivy crowns managed to offset my abercrombie-and-glitter-eyeshadow aesthetic…? our styles were so different then but they’ve dovetailed nicely.

    (we were prescient.)

  2. I can so relate to this! I too, had trouble diving into the makeup world early on in my adult life. Even now, as I approach middle age, I still don’t feel quite sure of myself when selecting foundation shades. Lipstick has always been my one thing that I could pick out…once I figured out that light pinkish hues were not a great choice for me. 😊💄

    1. Foundation, the fight that will never be over for most of us! I think that Lipstick is kind of like shoes…you find what you like, and it/they will always fit, no matter what else is going on with the rest of your “outfit.”

  3. What a great post!

    I’m only just starting to feel comfortable with my makeup routine, and I still feel I have a lot more to learn. I keep my routine fairly minimal (Urban Decay tinted moisturiser/BB cream, set with Japonesque powder, then mascara and lipstick) but I’d like to experiment with different looks. The assistants at Bobbi Brown makeup counters are really helpful and they do free tutorials, so I was thinking of booking one.

    I’m curious: if you’re working in an office, how/when do you reapply your lipstick? It might sound like a funny question, but I work in an open plan office where some of my colleagues would definitely notice if I took my lipstick out of my handbag and headed off to the bathroom to apply it. It would make me feel a bit self-conscious! Especially seeing as we’re a very informal office where most of the women don’t wear much makeup.

    Current lipstick shade: Bobbi Brown ‘Spring Pink’. 🙂

    1. I’m one of those people who really enjoys putting on lipstick and I don’t really hide it. Now, I certainly don’t whip it out at interview or the like, but I have no problem swiping a fresh coat on at my desk after lunch or before a team meeting. A discrete mirror check, a tidy swish around the lips, and done.

      Let the record show, though, that people putting on their whole face at a desk is way too far. There was a team assistant I had once who would do her whole routine at her desk in the morning…but then continuously apply more throughout the day! She’d “touch up” her powder every hour or so, spritz some kind of scent every time she got up from her desk, and spent a lot of time looking at herself in the mirror. It was distracting but also kept HER distracted from her work.

      I think a major perk of finding your clothes/makeup staples is a degree of confidence that you don’t need to check in on yourself every five minutes. You can be reasonably confident that you look nice!

      PS – I’ve got a number of Bobbi Brown lipsticks on my wish list but I have to make it through some of my (not insignificant) existing stash, I’ve decided. #givemestrength

  4. I did genealogy work for an octogenarian in north Provo who had travelled the world with her chemist husband. She’d gotten her degree in the war. She had the best phrases, like “lipstick improves morale!” That has stuck with me for a decade. 💄

    1. Not just a great phrase, but true! During WWII, Winston Churchill refused to limit it’s production, claiming it was too important for female morale (and therefore would boost male morale, because patriarchy, but still) to limit.

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