On Lipstick


We wanted to find a name for the blog that somehow encompassed us as a pair – two women at different stages in life, but who would totally dance side-by-side at a Grouplove concert. After a few Jane Austen plays on words, and even a clever reference to the movie Big, we landed on The Lipstick Controversy. You’ll see why.



The first time I wore lipstick without feeling like a hooker was a few months ago.

In my youth, I followed the natural progression of makeup failures: sappy lip gloss and glittery eyelids in middle school, spider-leg mascara in high school, and eyeliner thickening every day I got closer to getting my driver’s license. A sigh of relief likely hit my mother when I cleaned up in college, occasionally wearing a tasteful hint of eyeliner for a soiree, or some Cover Girl foundation to lessen my chin acne.

But lipstick was always a challenge – it had always been a historical signature of career women so far from my reality. If anything, my college friends and I would have made lip stain out of beet juice and then denounce it because Dead Heads don’t wear makeup. But now and then, I tried, painting it on and then viciously rubbing it off, turning my mouth into what looked like an oral herpes outbreak disaster zone. Following my lip line was like trying to color inside the lines while wearing a Band aid. Impossible.

So back in September, when I finally found a shade of burgundy that made my lips as dark as an eggplant, something felt different. As a woman who doesn’t wear too much makeup, lipstick had always felt like wearing a self-adhesive scarlet letter – as if my lip color somehow manipulated the words I was saying, or said something false about my identity. Like I had a visible reason to be judged.

But this shade finally felt right. I wasn’t a clown. I didn’t look like I just got caught under the mistletoe with the Kool Aid man. I felt confident. A little more sure of myself. Sassy.

I understood lipstick. And I loved it.

After college, you re-enter life at entry-level. It’s like being a high school freshman with less rules. Every minute is open season for failures and opportunities, not just from the hours of 8-3. So when you’re back at the bottom after climbing the social totem pole for eight years, having a little something—anything—that makes you feel a little more secure can’t hurt.

At work, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside ladies who sport careful shades of red for reasons of professionalism and creativity (and maybe to be a total badass). The rosy-lipped career woman I felt so distant from as a teen was now my stylish, confident colleague. She is now, effectively, me.

Lipstick doesn’t make you Superwoman, but hey, sometimes it feels like it does. And I say: roll with it.



I hate lipstick.

That’s a bit harsh and not entirely true. I harbor far less hatred for the actual product than I do for its thematic existence in my life. 10 years of professional experience has named lipstick the “Dumbo’s magic feather” of women in the work place.

Let me preface with the fact that I’ve always worked for women—very strong and successful one’s at that—so the continuing resurgence of lipstick as a professional tool is disappointing.

This topic instantly brings to mind a scene from Mad Men during which Joan and Peggy participate in a focus group for the new Avon account. Aware a team of men is watching through one-way glass, Joan seductively bends and curves in a tight-fitting red dress while naïve and lipstick-less Peggy innocently drops her ideas into the hands of the account execs.

During the scene, this dialogue occurs:

“They’re brainstorming.”

Laughing, “I wouldn’t expect more than a few sprinkles.”

Another manager, while watching women apply their lipstick through the glass, asks the room, “Anyone mind if I take off my pants?”


1. Lipstick was part of my uniform.

In true Mad Men fashion, my first job was at the front desk of a high-end fashion brand in NYC. I wrangled celebrities, helped set up the showroom, kept appointments with fashion writers and stylists and my uniform was the product (which I could never afford on my salary)—every girl’s dream right? Not mine.

I had just graduated with a double major in psychology and sociology focusing on gender and sexuality studies. So, you can imagine how a 21-year-old “feminist” from Long Island took it when she was told on by her FEMALE boss that she looked like shit and should go put on lipstick. In one of my prouder moments, in only the second week of my professional career, I gathered all my nerve and my belongings and did something I only wish I had the audacity to in the years that followed. I walked out.

2. Lipstick makes me feel powerful.

…Actual words spoken to me by another boss from positions past—the same woman who would insist that I button my dress shirts up to my neck. Enter my Dumbo’s magic feather theory.

I’m fully aware that this statement may brandish a rash of hateful comments, but lipstick, to me, does the complete opposite in the work place. It brings on the kind of attention I don’t want. The purpose of lipstick is to draw attention to the lips—a very sexual part of the body—and a slathering of Brandy Wine before a meeting begs your audience to focus more on your mouth than the value of your words.

Yes. Put yourself together before a presentation. Have a personal ego-amplifier; it’s totally the way to go. But, I can’t help but wonder if she would feel the same way about her lipstick if we didn’t work in a male dominated industry often referred to as a “boy’s club.” Perhaps men expect more than few sprinkles out of a woman’s mouth if said mouth is wearing Revlon Rum Raisin (that one’s all yours Don Draper).

3. And always wear lipstick.

I’ve heard this from women—strong women whom I admire—more times than I’d like to admit. Why oh why, oh rouge colored tube of feminine mouth stain, do you haunt me so!?! What is it about lipstick that seems to make these women feel so empowered?

I think, “always speak clearly, look your audience in the eye, don’t say uhm, and don’t bite your nails in a meeting” would be better advice to professional women today. Mastering those tiny skills has made me feel stronger and more confident than any beauty product ever could.

If you didn’t click the link above, that fondly recalled scene from Mad Men concludes with Peggy serving up a trash basket full of tissues, naming it a “basket full of kisses” and winning the account. No magic feather needed.

17 thoughts on “On Lipstick

  1. Love this! Expertly written by both authors. I’ve never cared for lipstick myself. I’m a guy btw. Hi.
    I tastes like wet chalk. Which, believe it or not, is far worse than good old fashioned dry chalk. What I’m trying to get at, is that the first portion of the article grabbed the attention of someone who doesn’t even like lipstick. I enjoyed reading that perspective of someone who, over time, grew into it. A kind of “coming of age” tale if you will.
    The second part, in which is my personal favorite, is more in line with my beliefs. So perhaps I’m being biased. As someone who sees men and women as equals- it kind of irks me a little that women have to “doll” themselves up (excuse my 1930’s lingo). Lipstick does in fact draw your eye to the mouth. It’s sexy lingerie. It’s hard to understand how this does anything but sexualize the individual. One would think that a woman’s performance record should hold more definition of success than red panties on lips. Anyways, again, beautifully written. Both were fun to read, both had two different perspectives, and both managed to make this guy, actually want to read an entire article about the odd ritual of putting red clay on a mouth. Seriously. Who started this tradition?
    I’m thoroughly enjoying this series. The duality of perspectives, separated by time, and yet from the same sex, is a genius concept. Really fantastic article.


    • Pete- while i’m a bit curious about the amount of lipstick you have eaten in your life, (we can discuss that later), I have to tell you that i regret that i did not come up with the metaphor, “red panties on the lips.” That is just pure art.


    • Lipstick and make up in general is said to have been introduced by the fallen angels, a group sent by God to protect his flock but who decided instead to take the women for themselves in collective sin. They were subsequently banned from heaven and forced to live on earth. They also taught men the art of war and the use of weapons. 40 days and 40 nights of rain was supposed to clear the earth of them but alas, fallen angels and evil still walk among us. At least that’s what some religious bible zealots believe. I just think it’s a really good story.


  2. As the last post, I loved it. Although I get many of Kellys pov’s, I have to fully agree with Melissa on this one- I’ve never liked lipstick, for mainly the same reasons. I’m more of a lipbalm kind of girl, and since they now come in a vast majority of colors, it’s a win win 🙂 Well done with post nr2, ladies! Looking forward to the next one.


    • You know…i don’t HATE lipstick altogether. To each his own regarding wearing it, and I, myself have worn it on occasion. I remember, like Kelly, even idolizing women who wore it well when I was younger. My issues is more symbolic and grew over time….but I’m with you. Aaaallll about a yummy lip gloss (although I think it can be just as seductive as, to use Pete’s words, “red panties for the lips).


  3. I am grateful to be a part of the sports/fitness community, where lipstick would destroy my credibility and my chisled abs and back…not to mention professional bio… leave no question of my strength. : ) To each her own.


  4. I’ve always ranked lipstick right up there with shoes shaped like stilts when it comes to being befuddled by the ways of women (this is evolution?). I have a 16-year-old daughter who I’ve raised to be self-sufficient, independent and opinionated yet am often gobsmacked by her choice of heel size and lipstick. Thankfully, she still takes my advice when it comes to fashion (after all, it’s what my degree is in) and I’ve managed to walk her off, on more than one occasion, the glitz-cliff, but I know those days are numbered. I can only hope she grows up to acquire the same confidence and studied attitude exhibited by you two. Thanks for another great round of insight. Still waiting for you to add the 40+ year old!


  5. Pingback: A Fresh Start | The Lipstick Controversy

  6. Pingback: A Lipstick Controversy: Fierce Fashion Or Oversexualization? - the Lala

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