Tag Archives: lipstick

The Venus Flytrap: Lipstick On The Ladder

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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.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.