A personal essay I wrote a few years ago, called “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, took me everywhere from literary events in Brisbane to Lakmé Fashion Week in Bombay, went viral when it was republished online, and still brings me messages from women who see something of themselves reflected therein. It was about self-expression and self-concealment: specifically, how women camouflage ourselves so as to not be perceived as desirable and thereby attract undesired attention, much like the bhakti poet Karaikal Ammaiyar who prayed to be transformed into an unsexy wraith so she’d be able to wander undisturbed. But it’s time for me to come clean. At some point, that camouflage ceased to be armour. It became avatar. I began to overidentify, and my self-esteem sank partly from this. In my ongoing journey to reclaiming my voice, I faced an uncomfortable truth: gradually, being dowdy stopped being a choice and became the default. The weapon I uncap to fight back? A pen, of course – but alongside, lipstick.
Megan Falley’s poem “Ode To Red Lipstick” has many quotable lines, referencing history: from concentration camp survivors “thin as smoke, naked / everywhere / except for their mouth”, to Cleopatra. But one unusual detail stands out: “In post-war New York, butches could get locked up / if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional / women’s clothes.” A slash of lipstick was often the remedy, for queer women in pantsuits, to avoid arrest. The poem doesn’t say how many of them loved, or how many of them loathed, this. But what’s certain is that it was the preferred circumvention. No simple ribbon, brooch or barrette was chosen over a blazing mouth.
The dynamic young American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who caused a particular shade to sell out when she wore it to a debate, said: “I derive power from my femininity. Any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that…. [Wear] whatever makes you feel authentically yourself and like a badass. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”
For me, why it begins with lipstick is because colour on my lips behaves like a woman who refuses to climb up a ladder without taking along others like her. The alluring, vivid burgundy or scarlet on my mouth demands that my eyes too be painted, that my hair be opened, that my skin be softened and made rosy – and because of all this, how could I do anything less than drape myself in clothing befitting that effort, that beauty?
I find myself going to my own words from that Karaikal Ammaiyar essay, which come back to me now like a note from a wiser, younger self: “If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.”
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.