My Life in Lipstick is a memoir almost every woman could write.
It begins as a little girl, when you watched your mother wield that magic wand of womanhood, transforming her instantly into someone else.
She would look into a mirror a certain way as if trying to see herself with a stranger's eyes. She would make a moue. Carefully, the lips would be coloured; pressed together; curled into a brief, glorious smile. Then she would pull out a piece of tissue, pull it tight between her hands and blot her lips. It would then be thrown away, into the wastebasket or down the toilet, a discarded kiss of red lips on white.
It has often been described as an "affordable luxury" but now, with an array of bold, new colour options, lipstick has become even more of a transformational tool that defines personality, mood and sometimes even intention."I change lipsticks all the time," says Susanne Langmuir, founder of Bite Beauty, a Toronto-based cosmetics company that produces colourful lipsticks with food-grade ingredients in partnership with Sephora. "But there's one colour I always wear when I mean business. It's a blue-based red called Tannin. If I'm wearing my Celine bag, that's the colour on my lips."
For others, a bold lip colour is a flag of courage. Geralyn Lucas, who was previously a "gloss girl," remembers watching other women in public washrooms as they applied red lipstick, thinking that she could never be so bold. "Every stroke they applied seemed to say 'Notice me' and 'I deserve this.' I wasn't that daring yet. I thought the red lip was reserved for women in magazines who were very confident," she says. But then, at 28, the New York-based writer and TV producer was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. On the day of her surgery, she wore red lipstick, a decision that led to her first memoir in 2004, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy. (Her new memoir, Then Came Life, comes out in October this year.) "I dared myself to become the woman I never thought I could be," the cancer survivor and mother of two explains in a telephone interview.
She liked the incongruity of being "a little glamourpuss in my hospital gown. Lipstick and scalpels don't mix. There I was, intubated, with perfectly applied lipstick."
Lipsticks speak silently. Lipstick lesbians, a term for gay women who reject a masculine stereotype, wear it to proclaim their femininity. If a novelist writes a line about a woman who walks into a room, a slash of Black Orchid on her lips, you know she's not the type to make cookies for amusement – at least not at that particular moment. And in that collective My Life in Lipstick memoir, we girls could write about how demure pink on a bride suggests a submission not dissimilar from an agreement to obey.
We could describe the lipstick rite of passage, too, when you begin to wear some as a daily routine. I remember when I did, and that moment seemed more profound than wearing my first bra. It was asking the world to take me seriously, sexually and otherwise. Which is why lipstick on a child is like blood in the snow, a seemingly violent spoiling of purity.
In recent years, lipstick sales have been on the rise as women experiment more with colour. According to the most recent data from leading market research firm, NPD Group, North American sales in the lip segment of the cosmetic industry – the third largest category behind face and eye – grew by 13 per cent in 2012. (And lip colour sales are outpacing lip gloss.) "About four years ago, everybody was talking about the fact that nails were up, lips were down," comments Langmuir. But now lips are the new nails – a place for unexpected bursts of colour. "It's like the transition from a nude nail to a lime green nail or a blue nail. It can feel a little bit embarrassing at first. But once you do it, it's liberating."
Started three years ago, Bite has an office in New York and employs 74 people in Toronto – annual sales revenue has grown to more than $12-million, Langmuir says. "Women who would have worn neutrals and softer colours are choosing violets and reds and oranges," she says. "There's instant gratification with a lipstick that's the right colour. It's like high heels for the lips."
That heightening of style has a rich history. There's evidence that more than 5,000 years ago, women in Mesopotamia coloured their lips with crushed gemstones. Ancient Egyptian women dyed their lips red with a mixture of fucus-algin, iodine and bromine, a combination that often caused illness. Queen Elizabeth I popularized the look of bright lips and pale skin. Some religions have struck lipstick down as a sign of immorality. And of course, there have always been social behaviours that attend its application. Smeared on at a dinner table among guests, it could be considered gauche. Then again, some women can do it with such artful, deliberate poise – with the help of a pretty, small mirror – that the public act comes off as a defiant, I-don't-give-a-damn assertion of femininity.
Glosses, by comparison, are the cosmetic equivalent of microwavable dinners. You slap the stuff on, anywhere, without looking and go. Which is why we might think of the rise of interest in bold lip colour as a sign of unapologetic, lean-in, read-my-lips confidence. You have to apply it carefully, like war paint.
And consider this: sticks of lip colour have a new name. You see them arrayed on cosmetic counters and lined up in advertising campaigns. But they're not called tubes any more. They're called bullets.
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.