This has been the year of devastation. Just to start, there’s the staggering death toll from COVID, the collapse of the economy, the millions out of work, threatened by homelessness—and that’s not even saying a word about the savage animosity surrounding the election or the reckoning with American racism that has resurfaced in recent months.
In such a year, we might want to cling to our small comforts and rituals even more tightly—that latte with your BFF after a walk in the park, dinner at your favorite Italian place where every meal feels like a celebration, an afternoon at a museum or a Saturday night at the movies–but we are deprived of those too. And although none of these compare even remotely to the loss of life and living, they inflict a particular kind of pain because they are set against the backdrop of such monumental tragedy. One of those small sorrows is the loss of lipstick—and by this I mean red lipstick because for me, that’s the only kind there is.
Pre-COVID, I was never without my red lipstick. I owned more than a dozen tubes, and I always made sure there was one in my pocket or purse. On the damnably rare occasion I forgot one, I ducked into the nearest drug or department store to quickly remedy the lack. Like any addict, I couldn’t be without the stuff. At home, I’d keep tubes tucked everywhere: bathroom, bedroom, front hall, and desk drawer. There was even one in the fridge, for those blisteringly hot New York days when I needed to have my red on ice.
I wasn’t always so exclusive in my devotion. In my youth, I dabbled with coral and plum, berry and rose. No more. Now that I’ve achieved a certain, shall we say, patina, it’s red and only red, even when I’m walking the dog or sweating at the gym. Red lipstick is both ammunition and armor, a good luck charm, a valentine, a talisman and a fetish. Red wards off the blues, brightens the skies, lifts the spirits and stirs the soul–every single time. When you wear red lipstick, you can’t hide; it won’t let you. Red commands attention, instills confidence, projects power. Red is bold, red is brilliant. Red finishes off the perfect Little Black Dress, punches up a classic white T and jeans, turns a bathing suit and flip-flops into a I’m-ready-for-my-close-up moment. Red lipstick adds gumption and guts to everything you put on. The incandescently lovely Marilyn Monroe was a fan of the red lip. And so is the fierce—and fiercely awesome–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her go-to shade is Stila’s Stay All Day Liquid in Beso, and whenever she expects a day to be more stressful than usual, she makes sure she’s rocking it.
Yes, red leaves its mark: on the rims of glasses, napkins, and too many of your fresh-from-the cleaners clothes. But embrace it as your own personal trademark, your brand. Even after years of wedded bliss, I still embellish birthday and Valentine’s Day cards to my husband with a big, fat red-lipsticked smooch under my name.
But now that we live in pandemic-land and masks are a part of daily life for who knows how long, all my ravishing reds (Chanel, YSL, L’Oreal, and Revlon among my current favorites) have been rendered useless—null and void. There’s no point to wearing red (or any other color) under the mask. No one sees it and it makes a mess of the inside, as well as your face.
I know that in the scheme of things, this hardly warrants mentioning, much less whining about. Yet I almost don’t know myself without my red lipstick; it’s a loss that feels so essential, so personal as to almost be disorienting. Helena Rubinstein—a woman who knew the value of a good red—built an empire on the belief that wearing make-up was a self-assertive, empowering act, one that allowed a woman to literally create the face that she showed to the world. Well, the pandemic face is a new face in what may be a new world. That it robs us lipstick-loving lasses of a little bit of our identity is a loss that compounds the bigger losses. Yes, I’ll learn to cope, as I’ve learned to cope with so much else these last terrible months. But I’m still longing for the day when I can doff the mask and paint my mouth a dazzling, bright-as-a-beacon red once again.