Read My Lips. Part 1

If the female face is a battleground (and, really, we all know it is) no feature feels the wrath of our cosmetic arsenal quite like the mouth. Whether matte, glossy, neon or vanilla-scented, the urge to put something: anything; on our lips is hard to resist. My own love affair with the sticky stuff began on a trip to the zoo, when a strawberry popsicle stain resulted in a highly successful air kiss being blown to a gorilla. 18 years on and I’m proud mistress of a converted spice rack / lipstick stand, which contains every colour you could ever want to see on someone’s mouth and some that you would not.


The average woman consumes between four and nine pounds of lipstick in her lifetime. In my case, we’re definitely talking double figures. Such rabid consumption can’t help but provoke the odd moment of introspection, particularly when your boyfriend’s shouting at you, “What’s that sticky stuff on your face? You look like you’ve crashed a Porsche!” The popularity of lipstick though, is inextricably linked to the supreme importance of the mouth. It is the one facial organ without which we are unable to survive and the first to develop after fertilisation; an excellent fact to have up your sleeve when justifying another apparently unnecessary purchase. The plasticity of our lips gives them enormous expressive potential, allowing us to sigh, sneer, growl and, on occasion, simper. This physical communicative ability is enhanced by the application of a cosmetic, which in itself constitutes a means of communication. That lipstick is inherently loaded with meaning 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 stigmatisation. 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.

"The average woman consumes between four and nine pounds of lipstick in her lifetime. In my case, we’re definitely talking double figures."

For today’s emancipated woman, the symbolism in which lipstick is steeped is something to consciously exploit. As Diane Von Furstenberg 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.” Reading that quotation a few months ago for the first time, I suffered an uneasy half epiphany, which rapidly escalated into a full-blown ‘cosmexistential’ crisis. Soon questions of authorial intent and whether or not I had any were putting me off everything except condensed milk and tofu. The crux of the matter was this: if my lipstick was to say what I wanted it to, I must first understand how others interpreted it. No wonder my “come hither” look had been occasionally interpreted as “does making facepacks with porridge count as ‘unbridled experimentation’?.” Immediately limiting the damage, then, with a self-imposed lipstick ban, I set out to uncover the most popular preconceptions surrounding two colours. As a freelance semiotician, and former qualitative researcher, it was a relief to turn to my investigative skills to something more personal than responses to global warming and oven chips. I began with a little book research and finished by interviewing six female twenty-somethings, whose responses you will find scattered throughout the reports. I’ve chosen to leave them anonymous, if only because I worry that the weary good-humour with which they fielded questions like “If this lipstick were a world, what world would it be?” and “What does the woman who wears this lipstick like on her pizza?” might otherwise steal the show. The following analyses are, needless to say, exhaustive. After all, this was a project that I took very seriously. They are also, as far as they can be, unbiased, although my strong feelings on the subject sometimes made this like trying to give directions without moving your hands. The two colours to go under the microscope are Red and Pink (other colours / shades to follow soon in the manual ‘Lipstick, Neuroses and Me’). Read, ponder and make an informed decision, when applying your lipstick, about who you want to be. Alternatively, just laugh at the self-obsessed lunacy of it all.

Photography Liz Collins for Beauty Papers Issue One

The pink analysed here is a soft one that, after being shopped around the twenty-somethings on various shirt collars, tea cups and handkerchiefs, was unanimously identified as ‘natural’. It is essentially a polished and consolidated version of the naked lip; idealised 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. (A lovely idea in theory, although perhaps a little hard on the naturally ill-favoured and, therefore, depraved). This moralistic approach to facial adornment was magnificently espoused by the imperious Madame Lola Montes in the The Arts of Beauty, 1858, who laments lipstick’s “sure destruction of that delicate char associated with the idea of ‘nature’s dewey lip’.” (One imagines that if Madame Lola were still in the beauty business today, she’d be doing bridal styling for the Young Republicans). When asked to describe the type of woman who wears this lipstick to me, the interviewees marked her out as someone who doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd but aspires to look, and therefore feel, good. She also likes River Island, mid-range cocktail bars and eating noodles on a Sunday.

Given such historical antecedents, it’s not surprising that interviewees were quick to identify the shade with a traditional Doris Day-esque model of femininity. Its 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, which interviewees developed into an exaggerated relationship with things that are sweet. When asked what world this lipstick would be, one interviewee said that the air would be filled with fairground sounds and the beds made of marshmallows. In other responses, traditional romantic, feminine associations would abound; a floral dress, a teddy bear and, of course, a One Direction CD and associated merch. Perhaps not surprisingly, this quiet romantic is imagined to be a success with both men and women, who are able to perceive her quiet inner goodness; “She’s a candy floss kind of girl… She gets on well with other girls and boys think she’s as sweet as sugar.”

"More recently, the stylised femininity of the 1950s face was a mask of conformism donned by post-war women in an attempt to find stability during a time when traditional gender roles were increasingly questioned."

There is, however, an essential paradox inherent in any artificial product that is designed to look natural. An apparently ‘honest’ makeup, be it natural or highly expressive, can be deliberately misleading; just let me get a bottle of cleanser near Jane Fonda. The act of choosing and applying a lipstick can never be done entirely without guile and, resultantly, not one of the interviewees thought that the unassuming wearer of this lipstick would genuinely want it to go unnoticed. Rather, she would intend “to show that she has made an effort to make herself up without making any major kind of statement.” This is typical of a more conservative approach to cosmetics where polished presentation is a means of showing respect for others and oneself. Such an attitude was at its most extreme in the Early Christian period when making herself up was considered a wife’s moral obligation if she wished good health and long life for her husband. (The implications of a bad hair day don’t bear thinking about). More recently, the stylised femininity of the 1950s face was a mask of conformism donned by post-war women in an attempt to find stability during a time when traditional gender roles were increasingly questioned. The placid, painted features of the perfect housewife convey an inner contentment that, in the Victorian tradition, logically extends to goodness. There’s an unpleasant imperative in Max Factor’s 1958 claim that “a woman who doesn’t wear lipstick feels undressed in public, unless she works on a farm,” which is typical of this era.

This natural looking pink is therefore perceived as enabling its wearer to move somehow more easily and better-protected through the world. Whilst for some interviewees this motive seemed a guiltless one, for others the deliberate inoffensiveness of this woman released a tidal wave of hypothetical bile. She is just too timid and perhaps a little dim: “she was accosted by a friendly Clinique saleswoman (Audrey wondered why she was dressed as a doctor).” Rather than an enigmatically donned mask, her lipstick is seen as betraying a lack of imagination: “If this lipstick was a world it would be a shopping mall: quite a nice one, not entirely a monstrosity. Somewhere you’d only visit to go to the cinema.” The conventional girlishness of the colour also seems, to the feminists among the interviewees, unempowered. Whilst none go so far as to accuse its wearer of consciously exploiting traditional feminine associations to get a guy, most see it as betraying a certain man-centricity. Georgina, who’s taken a real dislike to this lipstick wearer, places her emphatically on the “hopeless” side of romantic: “she could think of nothing more lovely than to be taken to Paris by her long term boyfriend to be proposed to. Unfortunately, she’s so desperate for this to happen it probably never will.” A social psychologist once described lipstick as “hope in a bottle” and there is a feeling among the more critical interviewees that this is precisely the type of woman who oversubscribes to the fantasy. (An element of escapism has long been evident in romantically inclined advertising of the “Lipstick of Your Dreams” variety). As an interviewee who has resolutely tagged this lipstick wearer ‘Audrey’ puts it: “It is Audrey’s little piece of escape from the office, from the hour lunch-break, the low carbs, the bar near the office, the men in the bar near the office.” Given ‘Audrey’s’ resolutely mid-level job and life; her hopeless subscription to ‘miracle’ aids, such as Debenhams support pants and ‘no bread’ sandwiches… you rather struggle to blame her.

Photography Ronald Stoops for Beauty Papers Issue Five

Ashley Mauritzen is a writer, speaker and commercial semiotician. The origins and expression of Identity, in its endlessly different shapes and sizes, lie at the heart of her work and life.