By Laurel Dammann | Featured image published in American Beauty, January 1957
The first thing I ever did with lipstick was eat it.
There are pictures of me at 2-years-old, plump and puzzled on the living room floor as my mom snaps pictures of my mouth smeared siren red— the early warning sign of a complicated relationship with makeup and normalcy. She recounts uncapping tube after tube, each one marked by baby teeth and half-devoured. I ate chapstick too, but I’m told it wasn’t my preference; the color payoff was never as good.
My grandma never leaves the house without “putting on her face.” What she means by this is she never goes anywhere without decorating herself in mascara, eyeliner, shadow, blush, and a shimmery nude lipstick that reminds me of seashells. When I was little, I looked for a secret drawer in her house, one with another face in it that had lashes like spider’s legs, permanently blushing cheeks, and mermaid lips. When it was time to go out, I imagined her disappearing to the secret drawer and taking her current face off (I’d occasionally check her hairline for a seam), replacing it with the other, done-up one.
“How long does it take to put on a face?”
I sit cross-legged on the bathroom counter, my grandma fiddling with the wands and potions of her morning makeup spell. To my 6-year-old self, it looks like witchcraft and incredibly risky behavior; I gulp as she presses a sharpened pencil to the rim of her eye.
“Well, I can be quick, but it’s nice to take your time. You know how your daddy drinks coffee in the morning? This is like my coffee.”
“Do I have to do this when I’m older?”
She purses her lips at her reflection in the mirror, lines them in rose.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, honey.”
In the urban fairytale of Southern California twilight, my younger brother and I liked to draw stories on the back patio with chalk. Usually, the chalk would end up all over our hands and clothes; sometimes, it’d also end up on our faces in garish imitation of the women in our lives. Holding our breath so as not to inhale the dust, we’d trace our lips with toy fire engine red and fill in our eyelids playdough blue. I’d pretend to be a sorceress queen and my younger brother would be the mirror, twirling and leaping around me in an attempt at being mystical. When I asked him who was the fairest of them all, he’d cackle and scream: “Not you!”
“If you wear lipstick it means you don’t want to kiss,” Carmen announces with authority.
She is the older sister of Rosaline, a classmate I play Barbies with on occasion and unabashedly use for her cupboards full of junk food. The two share a room and while Rosa and I sit on the floor and enact epic tragedies that usually end with Ken needing saving from evil incarnate, Carmen lords over us from the higher vantage point of her bed. She spends hours flipping through her mother’s issues of Cosmopolitan and imparting advice as if she were practicing for her own column.
“I don’t get it,” Rosa raises her eyebrows at me and I shrug back. Kissing is something that, at 7, we only giggle about. Our understanding of it is limited to the sweet pecks from our parents and the toe-headed boy who smashes his lips into girl’s heads during tag at recess. Carmen told us that the latter wasn’t even kissing, just weird.
“If you’re wearing lipstick and you kiss someone it’ll get all messed up and all over you. It’ll get all over them. So, if you wear lipstick your lips aren’t open for business,” Carmen sighs with affected world-weariness at our confusion and naive alarm.
“But what if I like wearing lipstick and I want to kiss someone?” I ponder this out loud. “What if I’m wearing lipstick and I don’t want to kiss anyone and then I meet someone that I want to kiss?”
“Nope,” Carmen shakes her head with no further elaboration.
One day, a girl in 4th grade comes to school with glitter on her eyelids. The color reminds me of the dried lavender my mother keeps among her clothes and I’m mesmerized by the sparkle every time she blinks. The boys barely notice, but the little girls are full of questions, comments, even advice.
“You should try pink. Pink would look so good with your skin color.”
“My parents don’t let me wear makeup yet. How’d you get yours to?”
“Love it. Do you have mascara? You should wear mascara too.”
I picture the black caterpillar on a stick that my mom brushes her lashes with on date nights and I am pretty sure that is “mascara.” I can’t even begin to imagine what it would feel like to wear it, what I would look like with stars on my eyes and ink-dipped lashes. Before my parents get home from work, I sneak into their bathroom and rummage through my mom’s makeup drawer, finding a black cylinder covered in fluttery cursive that looks promising. I unscrew the cap and pull— the caterpillar emerges as prickly and alien as I remembered it. I hold it up to my eyes, close enough to make them water, then blink rapidly like I’ve seen my mom do.
My lashes become dark and dangerous. They become swords.
On the cusp of tweenhood, I snuck away from my father at the drugstore for a few cautious minutes and spent my allowance on a lipstick the color of cranberries. I kept it hidden in my art supplies (among the pastels, tucked into the sleeve of a missing shade of brown) and only took it out to admire how the color shimmered in the light. It looked powerful, as if one swipe could change my life forever. I never put it on my lips, but one day I licked it, curious if it would recall old memories. It tasted like nothing.
Sometimes I’d draw designs with it on my arms— deep red swirls and waxy spirals that bled together from shoulder to wrist. When it was dinnertime, I’d slip on a sweatshirt and eat with a blossoming sense of self-satisfaction; I was wearing lipstick.
When I take up one mantel of womanhood and begin to deny the hair on my body, my mother hands me my first razor with no shortage of warnings: “Your hair will grow back darker and thicker. Once you start, you can’t stop. You’ll have to do this almost every day from now on. Sometimes you’ll get razor rash or cut yourself. Don’t get blood on my towels.”
She looks a little sad as I disappear into the shower, as if when I re-emerge I’ll be shorn beyond recognition.
“Hold on there, girl.”
One week before graduating middle school, I tried to scoot past my parents in a nearly full face of makeup, but my father’s low demand stopped me in my tracks. He beckoned me back to the breakfast table, gave me a calculating once-over, and asked me what the hell was on my face.
“Nothing,” I played cocky, but the unimpressed look he gave my black eyeshadow took me down a notch.
“It’s like you think we’re stupid,” my mother sighed.
They didn’t push the issue any further and let me leave feeling slightly deflated, but with my attempt at beauty intact. My new face was the hot topic of the morning, as I was the first of our group to wear makeup to school.
“I like the color with your eyes,” my friend smiled at me.
I recalled my father’s distaste.
“Really? I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.”
My little brother hates lipstick. His discomfort and dislike borders on the phobic and for every step I take in his direction while wearing color on my lips he takes two steps away. Sometimes I wear it just to annoy him, other times to try and cure him.
“You look like a clown,” his lip curls and he deftly dodges as I lean in, lips puckered. “Don’t get that on me! I might break out!”
I remind him that he used to wear lipstick when we played dress up, that he let me paint his lips with sticky, shiny gloss not that long ago.
“And I’m still traumatized!” he shoots back. “I really don’t get why women think it makes them look beautiful.”
I want to respond, but I find that I’m not so sure either.
“Kiss me,” the boy says, and I stand frozen with fuschia lips.
“But I’m wearing lipstick…”
“It’s okay. It’s not poison,” he moves a step closer and puts his hands on my waist.
“But it’s, like, a lot of lipstick,” I turn my head as he leans in and his mouth hits the side of my nose. He sighs, straightens, and eyes me with a mix of frustration and amusement. Carmen’s authoritative voice from years ago picks away at my confidence.
“How about this,” I barter. “We’ll hang out tomorrow and I won’t wear lipstick and then we can kiss.”
He laughs out loud, throwing his head back so my eyes see the echo of each chuckle in his adams apple.
“This is silly, isn’t it?” I shove Carmen’s advice back into the mid-90’s edition of Cosmo where it belongs.
When she was 5, my youngest cousin decided that she would never wear makeup. I couldn’t believe it.
“What about when you get to high school?” I was flabbergasted by the thought of her navigating the Southern California public school system without at least a stick of gloss. They’d eat her up. “What about Halloween? Stage makeup?”
“Well, Halloween is an exception. And theater. But I’m not going to wear any makeup any other time,” she was so sure of herself and I was so cynical that we made a bet.
No makeup until she was 18— with the exception of Halloween, stage makeup for performances, and chapstick (“It can’t be tinted though!”). Fifty dollars was on the line.
At 15, she caved to the pressures of nasty children and nastier social norms and, in a moment of desperation, used concealer. She looked ashamed when she told me, so defeated that the temptation of “I told you so” vanished. I was angry, but at so many different things at once that it quickly turned to exhaustion.
“You did what you felt you had to,” I told her. She looked relieved, but no happier.
We called off the bet.