When she passed away from lymphoma, I was still very much in a phase of moccasins and oversized Nirvana T-shirts—trying, in vain, to impress my 17-year-old brother Kevin, who sang in a band and carried with him a collection of cute friends. It took many years, sisterly confidantes, and shopping trips with Kevin’s girlfriends to find my way to femininity—a path I spearheaded for myself with one Mom-approved tool in particular: lipstick.
It started as innocently as Lip Smacker balm—Dr Pepper-flavored, no less. But once in college, then my mid-20s, the bold fashion, hair, and makeup choices of other women—from the past and present alike—started to encourage me. Victoria Beckham’s bob. Solange’s fiery pantsuits. And, of course, Gwen Stefani’s crimson lips. Soon enough, I was in pursuit of my own signature look, sifting my way through department store shades like Clinique Black Honey, NARS Trans Siberian, Sephora Lip Stain No.1, and MAC Lady Danger.
It was the latter that I wore one night while working as a host at a tiny, hip restaurant in Brooklyn. I was living in New York hoping to jumpstart my career as a writer. I was testing out the new hue, a bright rouge-orange that felt like a daring departure from my routine red. But just as I was second guessing my choice, a well-heeled 30-something woman whom I had just welcomed spoke words that would forever spur me on. “That is your shade,” she said, shaking a finger in my direction. “I hope you never go a day without it.”
I heeded her counsel—in moderation, of course. The thing I was discovering about lipstick was that, though some chose to wear it daily, I preferred to pick it up as the magic wand that signaled something special. Just as it had prefaced my childhood ice skating recitals or my mom’s big nights out, it was the prelude to my most highly anticipated moments: butterfly-inducing dates, red carpet media events, leisurely brunches with friends. It marked the weekend and all of the celebration those days brought with them, along with the constant re-introduction to myself, the social and confident woman I had spent a lifetime cultivating. Before any of these outings, I would uncap my color, lean in close to the mirror, and transform—just as I had observed my mom doing many years ago, before she blotted her lips and smiled back at me.
It was then, post-application and before exiting my apartment, that it was official. Something was happening, and I was ready for it.
But when COVID-19 hit, something unanticipated occurred. In the absence of real-life gatherings, lipstick, my pivotal weekend accompaniment, sat untouched in my makeup drawer, just as my favorite skinny jeans, suede magenta pumps, and crisp collared shirts had in my closet. I relied upon athleisure day in and day out and tried to remember to blow dry my hair for my umpteenth Zoom call or single grocery run of the week. Between good health, a job, and the company of family, I knew I was lucky and counted my blessings. But I also knew something was missing—something that was once a big part of me.
Three months into shutdown, my friends and I decided we would gather for a picnic to celebrate a birthday in the group. I tossed my yoga attire aside to dress the part: a floral kimono, fitted white tank, and long, gold chain. I had gone big on bronzer and mascara but I hadn’t considered lipstick—I would be wearing a mask, after all, as was our world’s newfound reality. But upon wrapping my friend’s present—Ann Shen’s book Bad Girls Throughout History—I reconsidered when I added my own inscription. “Learn the rules, then break them.”
I would wear the mask. And underneath, I would wear my lipstick.
The night flowed with laughter and connection and lipstick-stained straws, and I felt, for the first time in a very long while, like myself again. But when Monday rolled around, a new week came that brought with it an old routine—one centered on Zoom calls and hefty grocery trips. One thing was true: In-person, social distanced picnics and walks could now, indeed, happen. Another thing was also true: I couldn’t rely on them as my sole means of social interaction and self-expression. A second wave of COVID-19 cases came and urged every friend to stay close to their own home, suggesting the “weekend” to this pandemic—the respite and permission for us to all finally let our hair down again—was still a long way off.
On a Friday afternoon, I scheduled a Zoom call with friends to do some writing together. When the site asked me if I wanted my video on, I nearly clicked “yes,” as I had already been doing for weeks on autopilot. But this time, I paused.
I stood up. I entered my bathroom, and I reached for my Lady Danger. I leaned in close to the mirror, parted my lips, and, just like my mom, applied two coats, understanding for now, exactly what my special occasion would be. Me.
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