The mirror was smudgy, there were traces of adhesive left from the red bindis that my mother put on her forehead. Our chestnut coloured dresser was home to a variety of things — hair ties, trinkets, combs. An entire shelf from the storage on the right side of the mirror was home to stray bottles of shampoos collected from various hotels. Another was dedicated to oils, a greasy blue plastic bottle with coconut oil occupied a spot near the more refined glass jar with almond oil. Higher up in the storage were perfumes — a silver bottle covered with floral prints, a red translucent cube-shaped bottle — my mother purchased after much consideration during her post-doctoral stint in Germany. My sister and I were never allowed to touch them. Perched on the top shelf was a lone pearl-pink shade lipstick from Revlon.
The lipstick was encased in a beautiful golden box with a silver separator in the middle. Even looking at the lipstick would cost us our play time. And growing up, that lone lipstick was the object of my fascination — it was out of reach, therefore tempting. I had never really seen my mother use it except for that cold Diwali evening in Dehradun when she wore her new mulberry purple kanchipuram and dared to dab on just a few finger smudges of the pearl pink lipstick. We moved many houses, and the pearl-pink lipstick travelled along with us.
I had always loved lipsticks. I had seen different shades, packs of lipsticks on glossy magazines. My repeated requests of wanting to put on the lipstick fell on deaf ears. “Why is Amma like this?” I thought, often feeling enraged, frustrated.
It was no different in school. In class six, on a ‘colour-dress day’, when Rupam came to school in a blue and white frock and a light pink lipstick, Berry ma'am sent her back. “No lipstick, young lady,” she said and rapped her palm with a wooden ruler. Rupam waited outside the principal’s office for her parents to pick her up. But, Rupam’s friends didn’t really want to be friends with her anymore. During lunch, Mansi said, “How can she wear lipstick?”
Lipstick, the two-centimetre-long plastic box with coloured wax already began to feel heavy.
I would wear lipstick after school, when my mother was at work, I walked around in the one pair of kitten heels my mother possessed, with my tiny feet slipping out of the front straps and onto the floor. My hair — essentially a long duppata clipped on near my temples to give the look of long straight flowing hair — would graze the floor as I played pretend — teacher, steward, principal, lawyer and so on. I was careful to not be caught by my mother, who mightily disapproved. During summer vacations, I managed to satiate my fancies by rummaging through my Atta’s (aunt) dresser or my NRI cousin’s collection — pleading with them to let me colour my lips a little.
In college, I was the only one who never put on lipstick — I had the maternal seal of approval now — but I didn’t feel comfortable. The slow internalisation of the message that the oily coloured stick had ugly meanings, manifested into that discomfort. Simone De Beauvoir’s seminal words: “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman” are perhaps fitting to the politics of lipsticks, interlinked to the politics of being a woman.
At 25, I finally began to indulge my whims, I bought one lipstick, then two and then a countless more. But this has also come with a distinct awareness of how political it can be (isn’t always) to wear or not wear lipstick. I’ve had countless conversations with my friends about lipstick. One recalls the place of lipstick in her childhood — “When I put lipstick I realised I was being unnecessarily sexualised.” Another says how “lipstick signifies you are comfortable with being perceived as a sexual being, and people just do not know how to react to that.” I understand that denying me lipstick as a child, came from these very fears that socialised seamlessly into people’s way of living life. In a way though, I am glad I took to lipsticks — but not because magazines told me that that was the only way I could be beautiful. The decision to buy a lipstick was made as an aware, critical thinking feminist.
And feminism, — lipstick occupies an important role there too. To wear, or not to wear — that was the question. There have been women in my life who have denounced make-up altogether, calling it the toolkit of patriarchy. There have been others who strongly advocate the use of lipstick and makeup as ways to reclaim the eroticism — not meant for an external gaze, but for pleasing one’s own desires.