There’s a lipstick I wear whenever I want to feel like a bad bitch. It’s black, in glossy gold packaging, and every time I twist the container to reveal it in all its obsidian glory, I feel fancy as fuck. No one will mess with me today, I think. It is my armour.
I have worn lipstick nearly every day for the past three years, each shade more bold and vibrant than the last. It’s so ingrained in my look that it’s become a fundamental part of my identity – a way to distinguish myself among my peers – but it hasn’t always been that way.
Lips like mine are having a bit of a ~moment~. Suddenly, it seems, everyone wants them, and they're willing to shove their lips into plastic plumping devices just to get them. Big, bold lips are a craze that has captured the attention of young women all over, and for the naturally endowed, it’s a pretty great (and kind of hilarious) coincidence. Five years ago, there was no Kylie Jenner telling teenage girls that it’s cool to have full lips. My lips, which weren't quite dainty enough to fit into the Western beauty ideal, were something I was determined not to draw attention to. And thanks to the seemingly endless stock of sparkly pink glosses and creamy beige “nudes” that dominated every makeup aisle, I never, ever wore lipstick.
I get my full lips from my mum, the original Queen of Lipstick™ in our household. Over the years, I’ve watched her delicately adorn her lips with an assortment of berry reds and deep purples. When I was an awkward adolescent, my mum was the first person I ever looked at with envious admiration, thinking, I wish I could wear that, but I could never pull it off.
It’s not difficult to see why I formed such an idea. It could have been, for example, the heaps of white models within the pages of Shout and Sugar who wore flawless lipstick, but never on lips like mine. Or it could merely have been the fact I was a frightened teenager, terrified at the prospect of doing anything that meant I’d be less likely to fit in. I suspect it was a combination of the two. Whichever way, I’d bought into the lies of my own insecurities – reinforced by the culture, of course – and refused to see the beauty in the one thing I most adored about my own mother’s appearance.
The first time I wore lipstick properly (outside of raiding my mum’s collection and pouting privately in front of the mirror), I was a less awkward 18-year-old. Fresh from exam hell, my two friends and I decided to treat ourselves to an exhilarating and glamorous weekend away in the sun. We eventually settled on Portsmouth, an endearingly grey and sunless city, a thrilling two-hour train journey away. As we got ready for our big night out at Tiger Tiger (which was the biggest a night could get at that age), trying on and discarding body-con skirts and the kind of dresses you’d expect from audacious 18-year-olds who dress primarily for fashion and certainly not warmth, my friend suggested I try her red lipstick. Instantly foreseeing a future of being mistaken for a clown, I declined her offer, telling her it would make my lips look too big. Her response? “But your lips are so nice. People would pay for lips like yours.”
And it was true. Somehow I’d never seen the absurdity in feeling ashamed of having big lips while people paid good money to have lips even half as full as mine. Applying the lipstick felt unfamiliar and false; it was nothing like when I’d try it on at home, and the tube almost slipped out of my suddenly sweaty hands. It’s a sign, I thought. I was so used to hiding that covering my lips in red felt like painting a giant stop sign on my face. I immediately dismissed it as “too much”, but my friend was convinced it looked amazing, and we took a picture to commemorate it. I still have the photo, and to be honest, I did look a bit like a clown. But that moment with the red lipstick was the start of something. And I’m not alone when it comes to this red lipstick epiphany – when I ask my black female friends with lips like mine the colour of the first lipstick they ever wore, many of them say red too (which is probably why every black girl I know has worn Ruby Woo by MAC at some point). It was different, and the paranoia that came with trying something new made me remarkably uncomfortable, but it was important.
At 21, I moved to California, and crossing the ocean did much more than reset my body clock – it made me give fewer shits, starting with the hues of lipstick I was prepared to rock. Nobody knew me, and I knew no one, which filled me with both a sickening dread and a freeing sense of possibility. On the first day of university – or college, rather – too chicken to take a shot of liquid courage so early in the morning, I rummaged through my makeup bag and found courage in something else instead: the brightest lipstick I had. It was a mid-tone plum that looked magenta in the Californian sunshine, and was fittingly named “Rebel”. I can’t imagine what I thought was going to happen once I put it on. Perhaps I thought it would be a convincing shield to hide my fear behind. Perhaps I thought I’d be whisked away by a hot Californian guy, impressed by my confident attitude and brazen taste in ridiculously named lipsticks.
In reality, it turned out to be the former. On that blazing hot day, the thing that used to make me feel such discomfort instead imbued me with confidence. There was something wonderfully liberating about taking on the persona of someone who didn’t care, and slowly but surely I stopped anxiously checking my reflection in shop windows, and conceded that this was me.
As the months of my Californian reinvention went by, I became more and more obsessed with pushing myself out of my comfort zone – in classic “Teen Rebel in a Bad Movie” style, I got a tattoo (on my foot, of all places) – a process that hindsight reveals probably began the moment I stepped off the plane. The myth of not being able to “pull off” a lipstick shade was something I wasn’t prepared to buy into any more, so I bought everything I was told not to. The bolder, the brighter – and frankly, more obnoxious – the better. It was a “fuck you” to every self-deprecating thought I’d ever had about my lips. It was a “fuck you” to beauty standards that never included me, but profited off of the very thing I was ashamed of. And, more personally, it was a “fuck you” to my own insecurities.
When I returned from my year away and settled back into regular uni life in Warwick, I brought back with me another persona, a woman just slightly different to the one who had left England just 12 months before: “badass lipstick-wearing Gena”. Besides the initial queries as to why I was wearing bright purple lipstick to a lecture on “Sexuality and Race in 19th-Century Brazil”, the reception was positive, if not actually a little underwhelming. Ultimately, nobody cared as much about my appearance nearly as much as I did, and nobody’s opinion mattered more than my own.
Now, in homage to the lips I’ve come to love, I am a diehard lipstick fan, and my relationship with lipstick is one of deep, intense love with my sobbing bank account as a direct consequence. The voice that tells me I can’t pull things off is an almost inaudible murmur that I regularly ignore, and I implore you to do the same. Trust me, you’ll feel much better for it. In fact, tell that voice “fuck you”, and say it with lips coated in the boldest lipstick you can find.