About a month ago, I wore my mother’s red lipstick.
Maybe it was lockdown woes. Or the fact that I’d become tired of living in a single pair of shorts and faded T-shirts. Or that I hadn’t felt good about myself in months.
But picking up the lipstick was an impulsive attempt at reassuring myself. To make sure that little bits of my confidence were still hidden away behind the stress-induced acne and the frizzy hair.
No, this wasn’t the first time I’d worn red lipstick. I’d borrowed it before for occasional parties and a few events at college. But each time, I’d either mix it with neutral shades or dab furiously at my lips to avoid standing out.
But this time, I chose to wear the bold colour.
A few awkward pictures in, the initial hesitation dissipated. My skin was glowing, the lipstick highlighted the colour of my eyes, and the red looked beautiful on my lips. I felt confident. I felt sexy. And with this feeling came an inexplicable sense of power.
Then why had I never done this before?
Growing up, I’d been fascinated with my mother’s make-up box. And yet it would always be out of my reach, literally and figuratively. First, I was too little. Then, make-up became “dirty”. It would destroy my face and leave scars when I grew up.
By the time I entered my teenage years, I was encouraged to keep a clean, natural face. With my crooked teeth, I learned to fake confidence – I didn’t want to be “like other girls”.
I shunned anything remotely feminine. As much as I liked looking into the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw. And a part of me still believed in those childhood myths. Until I didn’t want to anymore.
Also read: The Pen and the Lipstick
But even when I found some comfort in my skin, these ideas had become deep-rooted. I’d involuntarily gravitate towards pinks and nudes. I told myself I wanted to keep it subtle; to not attract too much attention.
My desire to look attractive was at odds with my feminist identity.
I would flaunt that I didn’t wear too much make-up. I even took pride in it. And in doing so, I had given into the patriarchy that sought to control my femininity, my sexuality, and my choices.
As women, we exist in a society that wants to dictate our every move. As young girls, we are handed a long list of dos and don’ts – how to talk, how to behave, how to dress and how to sit. These long lists become the parameters that define a woman’s character.
Our conditioning even pushes us to categorise our own gender. Any woman who defies this oppressive system is immediately attacked. Her bold choices make her a target for labels and tags. It becomes acceptable to casually call her a whore, slut, an attention seeker, a “loose” woman.
The male gaze will either shame or objectify us. And the red lipstick is but one symbol of this defiance.
This struck me when a few years ago, I saw my mother wearing red lipstick for the first time. This woman – who had lectured me about the ill-effects of make-up all my life – walked into the room like she owned it. She looked beautiful, radiant, and strong. And ever since, that’s the only colour she wears.
I’ve realised, this culture that attacks and shames women fears their power. When women exert their agency and take control of their bodies, they threaten the foundations of patriarchy. For me, the red lipstick is a weaponising of traditional femininity.
Because our body’s aesthetics are not opposed to our feminism. We choose how we want to be represented. And to do that, we must stop labelling ourselves and our fellow women under these regressive categories.
The red lipstick made me feel powerful.
Looking into the mirror, I felt comfortable. This was something I did for myself, a personal protest. And it cancelled out the objectification of the male gaze.
I know that the journey from my room to the streets will take its own time. But till I’m ready, I’ll be sitting in my pyjamas and scrolling through my vogue-ish pictures with the red lipstick on.
And I shall revel in the knowledge of this reclaimed, female power.
Navika Kaith is an almost-graduate in English Literature from University of Delhi.