Lipstick and Femininity

Marilyn Monroe was famed for her painted red lips

Lipstick has a strong connection to femininity. The female face is a battleground and no feature feels the wrath of our cosmetic arsenal quite like the mouth. Whether matte, glossy or neon, the urge to put something on our lips is difficult to resist. In fact, the average woman consumes between four and nine pounds of lipstick in her lifetime! But why is lipstick so popular to females? I believe that the popularity of lipstick and glosses is inextricably linked to the importance of the female mouth. It is the one facial organ without which we are unable to survive and the first to develop after fertilization. It allows us to communicate with enormous expressive potential. Our mouths allow us to sigh, sneer, and growl and on occasion, smile. This physical communicative ability is enhanced by the application of a cosmetic, which in itself constitutes a means of communication. Lipstick is inherently loaded with meaning which is evident in its often controversial history. Since its first documented usage in an Ancient Egyptian illustration, it has alternated between periods of social acceptability, imperativeness and stigmatization. In 1781 French women used roughly two million pots of rouge a year on cheek and lip, yet it was the last cosmetic item to be rehabilitated in the early twentieth century loosening of the tight stays of Victoria’s England.

For today’s emancipated woman, the symbolism in which lipstick is steeped is something to consciously exploit. As Diane Von Fustenberg would have it, “Lipstick is to the face what punctuation is to a sentence. It sets the tone and offers insight into the author’s intent.” If lipstick is seen as predominantly feminine and different shades can signal different meanings, I thought it important to understand what said meanings are. And so I began researching the meanings and pre-conceptions that are often linked with two lipstick colours: Red and Pink. When I think of red I think Marilyn, screen siren, passion and blood. However, when I think of a man wearing red lipstick I instantly think Rocky Horror Show and garish. When I think of pink I think innocence, summer and Virgin Suicides. In relation to gender bending, pink for me would be more subtle, pretty and accepting. Evidently, pre-conceptions are linked to lipstick shades but where did they come from? Why do I see red as passionate and pink as innocent? Let’s explore.

Soft pink when applied to the lips, seems unanimously identified as “natural” and “sweet”. It is essentially a polished and consolidated version of the naked lip; idealized but without too much exaggeration. In this sense, it belongs to the Victorian school of lip presentation, which focused on a healthy and unadulterated appearance. Natural beauty, without negative connotations of vanity or artifice, was equated with a holistic inner goodness. And natural beauty is still very much chased after in modern society. Thus, pink appears to be the ideal colour for evoking sweetness and natural beauty regardless of sex and gender. Pink is worn to create and bolster the youthful, feminine archetype of its wearer. Pinks deliberate inoffensiveness suggests a shy and artless personality and an appearance cultivated to please rather than attract. The nervous, youthful connotations of this unassuming approach are powerfully consolidated by the girlish associations of the colour pink. Pink dreamily evokes: new born baby girls wrapped in pink blankets, ballerina tutu’s, cherry blossoms falling on a warm day in spring, high school girls blowing bubblegum, candy floss and cupcakes, princesses, little girls’ blushing cheeks and so on. Pink is inherently girly, its connotations endlessly syrupy and innocent.

With all this knowledge in mind having my pretty “boys” lips tinted pink could signal a sense of innocence, wanting to fit in as well as natural beauty. Some of my pretty boys are transsexual and transgender. Meaning they want to physically become female one day. The process of changing sex means they must, or feel they must look as if they are naturally female. As outlined above tinted pink lips evokes natural beauty and femininity with endlessly girly connotations. Thus, painted pink lips would make my subjects appear naturally pretty and feminine in a subtle way. Sheen to a lip is often seen in Bettina Rheims portraits for her series, “Gender Studies”. It is such subtleties which have the power to speak volumes.

For me, red lips evoke two very extreme and conflicting images. On the one hand it evokes a Marilyn-esque movie star, overflowing with romantic passion and Hollywood elegance. On the other hand, the deathly red mouth makes me think of a garish unconvincing cross dresser miming “I’m just a sweet transvestite” as he tumbles around in matching red heels. My mind presents two very different pre-conceptions upon the mere sight of a painted red mouth. But how can this be? How can Marilyn and a Tim Curry type live side by side? Well, red lipstick is in fact loaded with popular culture references both contemporary and historical which are often if not always conflicting.

Red lipstick’s multitudinous connotations and often controversial nature mean that it can be worn by just about anyone for a whole range of reasons. Young fashion esters trying to make a statement, Hollywood starlets gracing the red carpet, a drag queen performing on stage, blonde people, dark people, prostitutes and transvestites. Red lipstick bears no rules, regardless of who wears it. Red lipstick carries a lingering and mixed odour of exoticism and sexuality as well beauty, theatricality and glamour. The controversy of red, then, lies not in uncertainty of meaning but our opinions and interpretation of it. Is it elegant or excessive? Is it beautiful or garish? This is exactly the sort of thing I will be exploring (or exploiting) through my own images. I want people to unravel and challenge what is being displayed before them, the items and identities; completely open to interpretation or perhaps more fittingly misinterpretation. The colour red when painted on the human mouth oozes different meanings, becoming a symbiotic war in its own right. And so the use of red lipstick on a few of my models could add further fuel to the gender confusion fire that I’ll be creating. Will it enhance the beauty of a male to female transsexual or make a laugh at a camp drag queen?

The application of red lipstick could even be argued to have a scientific and biological explanation. According to Morris in “The Biology of Love” female lips provide visual echoes to other parts of the human anatomy. In both shape and colour lips resemble that of the external female genitals which males find attractive. When the labium reddens during sexual arousal the lips also become swollen and redder. This change can be artificially heightened through the application of lipstick, a cultural exaggeration, which has been employed by women since the days of ancient Egypt. In summary, thick red lips can signal sexual arousal which is attractive. And so the application of red lipstick can accentuate this feature deeming you more feminine and beautiful. Many Hollywood starlets have long painted their lips red, maybe that’s why they are deemed so desirable. In fact this may explain the successes of Angelina Jolie, famed for her plump red lips.

And so again, the application of red lipstick to my transsexual and cross dressing subjects could suggest sexuality and even arousal. Cross dressing is often linked to sexuality and eroticism so the use of red lipstick could heighten and mock that fact. “Yeah we’re erotic, yeah this is subversive and yeah I’m wearing red lipstick and what are you?!” Red lipstick is a strong colour and could emphasise the strength of these individuals who aren’t afraid to make a statement, however unacceptable their appearances are by society’s rigid standards. Even being excessive could work, making a laugh at the Marilyn-esque stereotype. “I have a penis and Monroe in one, what are you?”.

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