My relationship with lipstick began in 1980 when I was 10. All my ideas about beauty were fragmented then: I was on the cusp of puberty and captivated by Deborah Harry’s sultry glamour. My immediate influences were more understated. My mother’s one extravagance was her impeccable manicure, red or black lacquered nails with silver sparkles. She wore a whisper of mascara and a touch of plum lipstick for special occasions.
Daughters are often in uncomfortably proximity to their mothers and cannot see them clearly. Instead, I looked for makeup inspiration in the other defining women in my life, like my aunt Paula. Only 12 years older than me, she had a bohemian glamour that emanated from her like the exotic perfumes I breathed in when she hugged me. After adventures in India and California, she spent the early ’80s in New York working for a jazz festival. Once, when she was back in Toronto, she left behind makeup at my grandparents’ bungalow. On a weekend visit, I rummaged through her leftover treasures and found an earthy pink lip liner. I dragged the dry pencil across my chapped mouth, admiring the effect of the colour.
Shortly after, my mother's friend Antonia, a makeup artist, came to our apartment and gave me a purse filled with lipstick samples. Oh, how I loved those tiny lipsticks! Coming from sophisticated Antonia, the gift of makeup seemed like an invitation into an elite club.
That night, after a bath, I wiped the foggy mirror clean and saw something new in the reflection. My hair was shiny, my eyes were bright and my cheeks were pink from the heat. In a spark of inspiration, I remembered the tiny tube of lipstick. In my bedroom, I picked up the purse and scurried back, ignoring the voice in my head that said it was ridiculous to put on lipstick when I was about to go to bed — and that if my mother saw me, I'd be in trouble.
I locked the door, twisted the tube and revelled in the pristine stick of colour. I pressed my lips together the way I'd seen the older girls at school do. The velvety texture and deep plum tint created a dramatic effect that would have unsettled any adult when seen on a child. But I wasn't thinking of how others would perceive me, least of all men. All I knew was that for the first time, I felt a sense of power that was innocent and pure and just for me. I have painted my face, this sense said. I am becoming something more.
I wouldn’t understand the significance of this moment for another 40 years. Now, I recognize it as an experience shared by women across all cultures over countless generations — the powerful relationship between identity, beauty and sensuality as expressed in the ritual of adornment. But back in 1980, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper, wiped off the lipstick and shuffled off to bed.
That understanding of how lipstick transcends vanity to become a visceral expression of identity came back to me over the years, often in my most deeply felt moments. When I was 14, a close family friend died suddenly in her mid-twenties. At the funeral, I was struck by the hushed intensity of Antonia, the makeup artist, as she surveyed the face of our friend in her open casket. “That funeral-home makeup isn't her style,” she said with a mix of disapproval and grief. “And she needs lipstick.” She pulled a tube from her purse and quickly applied it to our friend's lips while my mother hovered awkwardly to give Antonia cover. It was one of the most badass, loving acts I’ve ever witnessed.
After my aunt Paula died of pancreatic cancer at age 33, my grandmother kept a tube of her lipstick and would sometimes dab it on. “It's like getting a kiss from her,” my grandmother would say, breaking my heart. A few years later, when one of my closest friends lost her mother, she sobbed her heart out in the hospital bathroom. After a few minutes she stopped, pulled out a tube of M. A. C’s “Taupe,” applied a fresh coat, put the tube away, and went back to crying. There was a logic to it that needed no explanation.
My own experimentation with lipstick tended to line up with milestones — and my moods. In the ‘80s, I was all about colour, any shade I could get my hands on. Stumbling into adulthood in the 1990s, I married too young and wore matte brown lipsticks that I felt suited my new married-lady lifestyle and initiation to motherhood. When my first marriage ended in 2005, I chose intense reds, in an attempt to recover a sense of my lost former self. Nine years ago, when I fell in love again and remarried, I wore a soft pink. Right now, I'm thinking about buying a deep wine — I recently saw it on a friend while we visited in candlelight, and I liked the way she looked when she laughed.
Today, weeks after my fiftieth birthday, my relationship with lipstick has only deepened. I laugh about it, but I take it seriously too. Sometimes I catch sight of the girl I was in 1980, bare-lipped and full of hope, and when I do, I hold space for her. I let her know it's OK to be all the things she dreamed of, even if life went sideways and looks different than expected.
Spring lipsticks to love
A classic red fit for every occasion. Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Volupté Shine Oil-in-Stick in Make It Burn, $49, sephora.ca
This lipstick delivers a pop of pigmented colour in a soft, kissable finish. Givenchy Le Rouge Valentine’s Day Lipstick in L’Interdit, $46, sephora.ca
A fabulous fuchsia packed with nourishing vitamin E and argan oil. L’Oréal Paris Karl Lagerfeld Satin Hydrating Lipstick in Karismatic, $15, shoppersdrugmart.ca
This pigment-packed lipstick lasts and lasts thanks to its built-in primer. NYX Cosmetics Shout Loud Satin Lipstick in Cherry Charm, $12, shoppersdrugmart.ca
This beautifully packaged limited-edition tube melts into lips, yielding a second-skin finish. Chanel Rouge Allure Camélia in Grenat, $50, holtrenfrew.com