It’s midday during the week and I’m on vacation sitting at a table in Starbucks trying to concentrate on the words I want to write. I pull out a tube of dark red lipstick and my phone camera to smear on a swath of color as two young girls giggle. As usually happens, I’m now back on that hot summer day in Chicago when Jums eyes my three sizes too big Margaritaville tee and baggy jeans: “You’re not going anywhere with me dressed like that—except to maybe buy new clothes.”
“We’re going shopping so we can go shopping?” I asked, playing with the hem of the shirt that hung down to my knees.
She nodded and forged our way down the sidewalk toward the nearest Gap. “You need clothes that actually fit you. Fitted clothes.”
I had never been in a Gap before, which at 30 years old brought a look of disbelief to the face of Jums and the girl helping pack a fitting room full of clothes for me to try on. It was the same look that I got as I said, “I’m pretty sure I can’t fit into a size 8.”
“Nikki Barr,” Jums used my full name when I was being capricious, “just get in there and try these on.”
I begrudgingly locked myself in the fitting room with a pile of clothing I had no idea how to begin to wear.
“And you will let me see everything!” I heard her say from the other side of the door. There was to be no arguing here; if I failed to show her anything I knew she would be in the already crowded room with me. Jums was a new mother, but she had the mom thing down already.
I tried on countless items. I wish I could remember exactly the clothes purchased that allowed me a pass to go shopping down Michigan Ave later that day other than the fabulous jean jacket that reminded me of something an English rock star would don.
It was late afternoon when we beleaguerly walked into Nordstrom’s. It hadn’t been planned. But it was there and we entered, as usually happens, via the vast expanse of make-up and fragrance displays. I probably said something innocuous like “I should get some lipstick” as we passed the Chanel counter thinking it was a safe purchase from the overwhelming day of fitting rooms, shirts that buttoned up, and things with belts.
Jums immediately said something like, “she needs something sassy, we are re-doing her today.”
Red lipstick is something that never, ever occurred to me. Red lipstick was something worn by models. Women with power. Harlots. But never fat girls in a Chicago Nordstroms staring down a mirror at Chanel.
There was something terrifying about the way Coco Red—the absolute finite in red lipsticks—looked on me. Did I have the audacity to believe that woman when she said I could wear this? Did I believe Jums when she said I had to buy it? I wasn’t sure… but I plunked down $30 on a bet that I would never wear it again.
It felt weird. Wearing red lipstick that first time. Not just any red, either. No, I had to go full out with Coco Chanel Red. Go big or go home, I whispered to myself. This is just lipstick.
Back home in Michigan the tube sat like a false trophy on the shelf—looking beautiful, pretty, and sleek but vacant. And yet, I desperately wanted to wear it again. I picked it up and opened the tube giving my lips a messy swish of color. I stared hard in the mirror while my right hand set down the tube and deftly picked up a Kleenex. Wiping it away. Another time.
I couldn’t imagine what people would think. Who is this girl that goes out wearing red lipstick? It doesn’t even match her outfit. They’d see through the façade. I couldn’t–I didn’t. I was a fraud in the world of grown-ups and I couldn’t be discovered. Red said it all. Every insecurity I had showed through… there was no mistake you could make with red that wasn’t obvious. I could wear a tailored shirt and sometimes a belt. I could even wear four inch heels without a thought. But not this.
At the core, red is power. It draws attention. It’s why emergency vehicles use it. It’s why middle aged balding men buy sports cars in the color. It’s why it gets highlighted selectively in advertising. It’s why stop signs aren’t a weird shade of fuchsia. Red means stop. Pay attention. Look!
Red also means danger. It’s the color of untouchables.
I reserved the red for special occasions, like maybe when I would go out with friends. Never replenishing it once it marked a few martini glasses under the observant glare of the bartender.
During the birth control crisis of my mid-30s one of the “promo” stash of pills my nurse practitioner threw at me came in a makeup case emblazoned with the name of the pills along the side—and inside the bag was not only the month supply of pills but a tube of pink glitter lip gloss. I threw it to the side in horror and wondered who in their right mind down in the marketing department through that a makeup bag emblazoned with the name of the birth control d’jour and pink glitter gloss inside would make anyone feel remotely better about the situation in their uterus. I can’t explain rightly why but I picked up the red lipstick and wore it for the rest of the day.
I was tired. Tired of being sold a concept. Tired of my ovaries and the medical establishment. Tired of the marketing in magazines. Tired of feeling horrible and pale when I woke up. Tired of being dictated that pink glitter gloss was somehow the choice of women who took control of their reproductive choices. It felt like a not-so-subtle slap in the face and suddenly red lipstick was the fuck you I needed.
I went on a date with a guy who told me he didn’t like lipstick. I shrugged and said that I did. We didn’t go out again. I was no longer willing to be something I wasn’t. Lipstick was no longer negotiable.
Today I have multiple red in my arsenal; Coco Red is still a staple. Always and forever. One of the greatest gifts of my life was that impulsive purchase; Coco Red has been my lifesaver many times over.
The power in red lipstick is truth. Women who wear red lipstick are untouchable. We don’t give a fuck what you think of us. We can do without you. We own our shit. We get stuff done. We have sex on our own terms. We speak from those red lips with authority. We don’t care if you like us or not.