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Alison Fishburn

When Lips Speak for Themselves: A Reading List on Red Lipstick

Humanity’s love affair with red lipstick dates back to 3500 B.C. when Queen Shub-Ad of Ur, one of the Sumerian city-states of ancient Mesopotamia, first wore a red lip made with a base of white lead and crushed red rocks.

Mine dates back to 2013 A.D.

I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier. Everything felt beyond my control, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Indulging in cheap retail therapy seemed like the only thing I could do to feel like I had any power over anything. Finding a new lipstick, spending six or seven bucks on a cosmetic that would stick with me when my face went sideways at any moment, became my mission. And lipstick would stay on my face — it wouldn’t betray me like my wimpy waterproof mascara had.

I stared down rack after rack of tubes sealed shut with plastic, my eyes scanning for something called Pacifies Hurt or This Kind of Thing Happens to Other People. My puffy eyes gravitated toward the darker shades of red: a spectrum that reflected back to me the degrees of anger and grief I felt. A palette that required confidence, a quality I was stripped of but wanted to seem like I had — just to get through the next 24 hours. After spending hours comparing the tiniest of shade variations under fluorescent light, I went home with a tube of matte Really Red.

Really Red got me from the first time I applied it in the bathroom mirror of my childhood home. Seeing myself with it on, I saw who I wanted to be: someone who was brave to face the day ahead. Even if the world as I knew it was over, I was someone who looked as if there was a shred of her world left. At the funeral, Really Red spoke for me when words stuck to the top of my mouth, or when it was for the best that I didn’t say anything. With a smile, Really Red could say, “it’s okay to approach me.” And with a purse of my lips, I let Really Red say “go to hell” to those who said that “god just needed another angel” and “it was part of God’s plan.”

For years I wore Really Red to make me look like I felt OK. Six years later my collection of lipsticks has expanded, but every shade is red. It’s the color I wear because when I wear it now I actually believe I’m OK, because it’s still the color that gets me, and because on any given day when I catch myself in the mirror with it on, I see the person I want to be. And therein lies the power of red lipstick: its innate ability to be anything at any time for its wearer. Read more…