The first time I wore red lipstick I was in the 9th grade. I remember initially feeling nervous that my classmates would think it too brazen or uppity, but those feelings were quickly assuaged as I noticed the looks I received were more of wonder and awe. And just like that, at the early age of 14, I had uncovered the power of the famous red lipstick— a historically tiny weapon that for many has been a symbol of rebellion. And what better age to rebel?
I received a few shy compliments, a true feat as we were all pre-teens bursting with uncontrollable hormones constantly bemoaning how misunderstood we were, while simultaneously trying to play it cool. And other “compliments” were a bit off-center such as: You look like Pocahontas (I would also get this when I braided my hair… thanks?) or an exotic Latina. The feeling, nonetheless, of courage was extremely uplifting. And as far as I am concerned, I was the first person in my grade to wear red lipstick. A bold statement to claim because my graduating class had over 300 students.
I’m not sure what made me want to purchase the brightest shade of Revlon from CVS. Perhaps it was the Seventeen magazines stashed away in my closet or the plenty of other women’s lifestyle “guides” I grazed at Barnes & Noble. Either way, as I navigated through the many shades, I realized all the pigments available made me look opaque. Where was that shade that made the white models look bright and sophisticated? It would be many years before I realized that most shades are not made for everyone. But rather, just for one.
The year is 2021, smack dab in the middle of summer and an increasingly raging pandemic. I was aimlessly reading through beauty blogs, casually clocking in overtime hours on my blue light consumption, when I stumbled upon a stunning picture of Zoe Kravitz promoting her YSL lipsticks. I thought, her skin tone is a little lighter than mine, but a similar undertone… so why does that rouge look golden on her? Immediately I became obsessed with finding the right color. I owed it to myself to find my hue of red that didn’t make me look older and dull but enviously luminous and sun-kissed.
My search lead me to the million, if not billion, dollar store that caters to all of my facial and make-up needs: Sephora. Something about Sephora makes me want to deplete my funds and walk away guilt-free, because, self-care right? Yup, I’m a prisoner of that trend. That aside, I had scoured through their site and rather enjoyed a feature where you can test different shades of lipstick on varying skin tones. Of course, 27-year-old Isa now knows all shades of anything won’t look the same on everyone, but at the time the crimson mystery still alluded me. I marked down the colors I believed would fit best and waltzed into the store expecting an associate to jump out and assist me, as they are so good at sniffing out customers who are there to splurge without limits. A short, rather manic pixie-looking associate eagerly zig-zagged around the store pulling out and testing 10 different colors and brands, all in hopes of finding the one. And disappointedly, 8 out of the 10 I tried were just like the Revlon I wore many years before. I asked her why those colors made my skin look ashen and she patiently explained that they had purple and blue undertones, whereas I should be looking for more orange and golden tones. She paused realizing my curiosity was not satisfied and quietly confessed, “they are more for white women.”
This small but impactful statement left me in shock and all I could do was emit a defeated “wow.” I rapidly thanked her for helping me and walked aimlessly around, as I had hundreds of thoughts racing and needed to compartmentalize. I thought about all of those times that I thought my skin was in the wrong, when truly, and once again, it was society.
So, why are most reds catered toward white women?
Well, yes. Some of you at this point are probably giving a big sigh because you’re saturated with most stories and conversations ending with the same old racism tale. Boohoo. And spoiler alert, this one is too, but with an interesting twist.
The story goes likes this:
“Red lipstick and white feminism go hand-in-hand. Picture a group of women dressed in white gowns with suffragist sashes tied across their chests and wide-brimmed hats atop their heads adorned with flowers and feathers alike. They march side-by-side down New York’s famed Fifth Avenue, past the newly opened salon owned by cosmetics legend Elizabeth Arden, who marched alongside the suffragists. There, golden tubes of Arden’s red lipstick were handed out to suffragists as a symbol of female empowerment.”
And alas, the re-birth of the vermilion instrument. Not shockingly, the suffragist movement was unquestionably strategic in using women of color to help change the inferior status of white women in American society but was not as generous in reciprocating. Fast forward to the 19th amendment, where, once again, it benefitted mainly white women as many states continued to impede people of color from voting through voting suppression (literacy tests, poll taxes, and other bullshit obstacles). Herein the Voting Rights Act, where, ideally all US citizens were given the right to vote.
Returning that tangent back to the main theme at hand—and the aforementioned twist. Between the 1930s-1940s women of color attempted to embrace the power, sensuality, and glamor, that the rufescent creamy phenomenon offered, but archaic stereotypes from the 18th-19th centuries reserved for prostitutes and a dreadfully long history of hyper-sexualization that was amplified by disgusting caricatures of Black women with exaggerated red lips, seamlessly extended over the entirety of the 20th century; while, simultaneously, the sought-after tube on white women was seen as elegant and polished. The greedy conglomerate of the makeup industry continued to spit out lipsticks created with white customers in mind, while blatantly ignoring many other potential buyers. Despite, Black women being the largest group of consumers who purchased the cherry product. This ridiculous hypocrisy (as many racist acts are) pervaded the cosmetics market heavily for decades.
Goodbye, 20th century and enter the grand spectacle that is the 21st century. The internet permitted a never-ending wave of voices that began speaking out about all sorts of inequities including the many ugly folds and social constructs of the beauty industry and its detrimental effect on all women. More people began speaking out about representation, and companies caught on to the largely untapped and money-making market of inclusivity. Today, we welcome with open arms companies such as Fenty (of course it had to be a woman of color to create a fitting shade for darker tones) catering to a colossal demand of neglected customers.
In 2022, wearing red is a big F U to the past, as it is now seen as a symbol of resistance for all women-identifying people, especially women of color. We see activists and politicians that are emboldened by the ruby tints, always attracting attention to their lips and therefore their words. We see trans women using the palm-sized tool to feel closer to their identities and almost taste acceptance in our often unwelcoming society. And as for me, I feel the almost palpable confidence radiating from me when I carefully line my lips and walk out to face the world.