I nailed my look when I was 16 and haven’t changed it since – good English-rose base, panda eyes; that’s basically it. I’ve spent over two decades perfecting this look to the almost total exclusion of lipstick. Perfect red lips ruled out snogging and eating spaghetti, the two cornerstones of my teenage life. The only lip colour I ever wore – Black Cherries by Rimmel – I would mix with Vaseline, so it dissolved into a berry stain. Even on my wedding day, I wore nothing more than a lipliner the exact same colour of my lips.
I’d always secretly loved the bold statement of a red lip on other women, from a chic wartime matte to the high-gloss, I’ve-been-drinking-nail-varnish look of the 1980s. It looked great on almost anyone else, but on me? Too formal. Too ladylike. Too high-maintenance. Too done.
And then, last year, I turned 40. I got crow’s feet, Spanx, confidence, a mortgage and thought if I can’t try ladylike on for size now, when can I? Also, I had lunch with my Auntie Pat, who is still rocking a pearlescent coral gloss at nearly 80, and while she owned that look and I respect her continuing devotion to glamour, the colour was feathering all over the damn place, so I thought I’d try scarlet before my face falls apart and pursing my lips makes me look like I’ve burst all my blood vessels.
Deciding to go for it was one thing; shopping was another. It’s ridiculous that something as ostensibly trivial as a new lipstick should dredge up old insecurities, but the way we look is an identifier and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Standing on the threshold of the Selfridges beauty hall – usually my happy place – long-forgotten teenage insecurities came flooding back. At 13, I used to read Looks magazine hidden inside a French textbook, because I felt like too much of a frizzy geek to deserve beauty. Red lips haven’t got time for all that bollocks – they exude confidence and declare self-worth. It was that thought that spurred me through the revolving doors.
Inside Selfridges, I went from beauty counter to beauty counter, bewildered by the choice, until I’d tried on so many reds that my lips were too stained for anything to show up and I eventually went home empty-handed. Then, one inauspicious afternoon while I was buying Tampax, I found the perfect red lipstick in Superdrug of all places, by Maybelline of all brands. Siren In Scarlet sounds like a Cluedo character, but I am telling you it’s The One. A red that evokes London – buses and pillar boxes – and old Hollywood at the same time. A face-focusing, tooth-whitening, mood-altering shade that could have been made for my pale skin and red hair. Its packaging has all the chic of a Ventolin inhaler, but it glides on, stays put and I loved it instantly.
It’s ridiculous that something as ostensibly trivial as a new lipstick should dredge up old insecurities, but the way we look is an identifier and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
I had a "dress rehearsal" first, wearing it around the house when no one else was in, and then, after a week, in front of my family. My husband approved of the 1940s glamour and my kids loved the "face paints".
Going public was the next step. I cheated a bit by wearing it somewhere nobody knew me – the first day of a new term at the evening classes I sometimes teach. Even though I was debuting my new look in front of strangers who wouldn’t comment, it was insanely nerve-racking. I am no stranger to self-consciousness. As a rookie journalist doing work experience, I once had to buy a 14in dildo in a sex shop (don’t ask) and I can honestly say I felt less self-conscious then than I did sitting on the Tube with a crimson mouth.
Reader, I bloody LOVED it. I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to forget about it, and I was right, but I actually love that. The slight tack on my lips makes me hold my head higher, slouch less, speak with greater care and pride.
The more I wore it in everyday life, the more compliments I got. The first few times, I heard myself making excuses – "Yeah, I’ve just come from a work meeting" – and realised that defeated the whole object. Now, if anyone comments, I follow up my thanks with a wide, scarlet smile.
In the year since I embraced red lipstick, I’ve broadened my beauty horizons. A foot of hair chopped off and a bright copper rinse put in. Wearing bold prints and not caring how it makes my arse look. What started as embracing a grown-up has made me feel closer to my teenage attitude of experimentation and dressing-up than I have in years.
Now, I carry it everywhere and often put it on before conversations which make me nervous (which means pretty much talking to anyone outside my house) or for occasions when I need to speak with authority. It’s about my voice as much as my face – there’s an important subtext here. What comes out of my mouth is important, valid and worth highlighting. Listen to me. Look at me. Read my lips.
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