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Red lipstick is a kiss to womankind

Photo: Stocksy

For Sali Hughes, it’s a small, easy and bold change and the perfect companion to tackle the bigger, more substantial and important ones this International Women's Day

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By Sali Hughes on

Today is International Women’s Day. This year, the festival’s official theme is “Be Bold For Change”, one that can be interpreted in a thousand positive, far-reaching and life-enhancing ways – from increased assertiveness in relationships and the workplace to making big, confident decisions about our lives and the world around us. And so it may seem small fry, frivolous, even counterintuitive for me to make today of all days about beauty, since the narrowest interpretation of the word so often holds us back. We still live in a time when some women are sent home from work for not wearing a full face of make-up, when we are arguably under more pressure than ever to hold back the years, injecting and lifting our faces and bodies at huge financial cost, in order to cling on to validity that should be our entitlement. And yet, despite all of this, I still consider it entirely fitting that my small suggestion for bold change is to whack on a red lipstick. Because I believe it is the most feminist statement a woman can make in five seconds flat.

Hear me out. Almost everything that is wrong with beauty – and there’s a lot – sits on the heavily marketed, pervasive and patriarchal notion that beauty is found in one look: slim, Caucasian, young, female and appealing to men. And yet red lipstick is the perennial fly in the ointment. Despite the lazy and simplistic belief that all make-up exists to attract a mate (I’m not opposed to “pulling make-up” myself but, as sweeping statements go, this is purest nonsense), my all-too-considerable personal experience shows that, on the whole, red lipstick does the opposite of man-pleasing. It steals the scene, commands attention and, consequently, requires a brave and confident personality to wear it (tellingly, a 2016 study by Avon revealed that 54 per cent of women feel red lipstick can grab “too much” attention). It transfers so messily and embarrassingly on to a partner during a snog that, if anything, it actively discourages advances from suitors.

Red is so much more than a colour. It’s a statement of intent, a demand to be acknowledged, a sign of simultaneous individuality and sisterly solidarity. It does not give a fuck when we women so often give far, far too many

Red lipstick is so powerful, defiant and bold that it has historically been a threat to those who’d like women to sit demurely and quietly in the background. In 1770, British parliament passed a law condemning the colouring of lips, ruling that women found guilty of seducing men into marriage by cosmetic means could be tried for witchcraft. Adolf Hitler, whose female Aryan ideal was a pure-looking, make-up-free face brimming with wholesome good health, loathed red lips and banned them from his country retreat, claiming that lipstick was made from "animal fat rescued from sewage” (conversely, according to the British Red Cross’ tear-jerkingly powerful account of the liberation of Belsen, female Jewish concentration-camp prisoners, having been robbed of their individuality, identity and humanness, clambered first for red lipstick in aid packages, before food and water). From 1915, American suffragettes wore a uniform of red lipstick, just as women now don knitted pussy beanies, to march through the streets. Red lipstick has been a weapon of women and an antagoniser of men since Ancient Greece, when society dictated that no respectable woman would wear it. Far from being a tool of the patriarchy, it is non-conformity in a tube.

Red lipstick is also brutally honest. So much is made of the perceived “con” of make-up. “It’s a lie,” people bleat. Its crime is in the loaded pretence that one’s eyes are naturally wide, that our skin is flawless, that our cheeks are flushed with youthful glow when our authentic selves should be perfectly acceptable (a full face of slap is as authentically me as nothing at all, and I revel in each without apology). In wearing make-up, women are pretending to be something we’re not and that’s not on. “True beauties don’t need it,” they say, as though this qualitative statement on women’s appearances is a kindness to free us from the drudgery and appalling vanity of making up, and not reductive and sexist in its own right. But red lipstick makes no attempt to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It isn’t designed to mimic natural beauty. It exists purely for its own sake – to colour the mouth in bold, unnatural crimson. It positively announces its own artifice, saying on its wearer’s behalf, “I am wearing make-up, I have thought about how I want to look and it doesn’t matter a jot that you know this.”

Despite its underplayed feminist credentials, let us never forget that red lipstick is also fabulous, and that alone would be enough. It’s frightfully stylish, iconic, flattering, uncompromisingly bold and offers instant Dutch courage in spades. I will never stop wearing it, whether on days when I need cheering, or when I want the world to know I mean business. Women tell me all the time that they too would love to wear red lipstick, but worry it’s too strong a statement. But that is exactly why, if one is even remotely inclined, one should feel the fear and wear it anyway. Red is so much more than a colour. It’s a statement of intent, a demand to be acknowledged, a sign of simultaneous individuality and sisterly solidarity. It quite simply does not give a fuck when we women so often give far, far too many. It’s a small, easy and bold change that makes a perfect companion as we tackle the bigger, more substantial and important ones. I’ll be wearing it today as a kiss to womankind.


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