'I'm dark-skinned, so I was told wearing red lipstick would make me look like a sex worker'
Why’s everyone afraid of red?
I admire the confidence with which the gangs of mischievous macaques rule Delhi with an iron fist (our growing encroachment into their habitat is at fault, not them). But I’ve also been bullied for being peed on by a monkey during a school camping trip; laughed at for almost getting attacked by a hungry simian in Lodhi Gardens; and called a monkey by friends when I was done enjoying a raspberry-mango ice lolly on a hot summer’s day.
While the common thread here is that kids can be terribly mean, my anger got projected onto monkeys. For some reason, the last one stung the most. The raspberry-mango ice lolly was the most coveted ice cream at the time (before the jiggly Kwality Walls Paddle Pops entered the scene). Little did I know that the raspberry half of the ice cream had left a stain around my mouth. I was already struggling to accept the pre-teen burst of acne, changing body shape and hair sprouting on my upper lip. So being told I looked like a baboon’s behind didn’t help my self-esteem.
It’s a weird kind of childhood trauma. For a long time, I shied away from brightly coloured lip colours, namely red lipsticks. The boldness of red lipsticks — provocative, assertive, loud and proud. Considered a power move in the hands of some, while for others, a statement of bad character in the wearer. Such has been the varied experience of women wearing red lipstick. Was I missing out by eschewing it completely?
There’s a lone bright red in my makeup bag. I often reach for a deeper maroon, my go-to Mac Diva for a date night. The one time I wore it on a workday, I was told it was not ‘appropriate’ for a professional space.
Maybe we’re not as evolved and different from the rest of our animal brethren. Evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff says that red, as a colour, is a natural, biological sex signal. According to The Maudern, “When women are feeling turned on so to speak, one physiological response comes in the form of a rush of blood to the lips (giving them a sultry, rouge hue). For potential mates, that warm shade signifies health and fertility––and thus, well, attraction.” Perhaps that’s why red lipsticks became so sexualised, and like anything related to female sexuality, became taboo.
More than a simple item of makeup, red lipsticks are a dynamic and complex character of our lives, marking social and cultural changes around the world. On one hand, they became a symbol of rebellion during the suffragist movement when Elizabeth Arden handed out red lipsticks to supporters who passed her store. In 2019, thousands of women in Chile wore black blindfolds with red scarves and lipstick, and took to the streets to protest sexual violence in the country.
At the other end of the spectrum lies judgement and questioning of women’s character by wearing red lipstick, regardless of the time of day. “I was excited to wear this lovely shade of red for a lunch with girlfriends. Despite being with friends, I was laughed at. They said, “Whose attention are you trying to get?” and called me a ‘vamp’ and ‘wannabe seductress’,” says Ritu, a 34-year-old set designer who lives in Mumbai.
Other Tweak readers wrote in about their experiences as well, echoing Ritu’s sentiment. “You look too bold, it doesn’t suit your character,” one reader was told. Another saw her mother judged by her father for wearing red lipstick after their marriage, the same then done to her and her sisters as well when they got older. Jyoti* was told that since she is dark-skinned, wearing red lipstick would make her look like a sex worker.
There was a time when red lipsticks were relegated to the world of prostitution, exclusively. In ancient Greece, a law was also passed that made it mandatory for sex workers to wear red lipstick as a marker of their profession, lest they somehow forget they aren’t ‘fallen women’. England outlawed red lipstick at one point because legislators believed men were being seduced into marriage by witches with reddened lips. The feckless suitors thought the colour was natural, and felt duped when they discovered it was makeup. The criminal charge laid against these women was, in fact, witchcraft. What they should have been more worried about is that grown adult men believed people are born with bright red lips.
In 2020, Pushpak Sen took a stand when his mother, 54 at the time, was slut-shamed by relatives at a family get-together for wearing red lipstick. He wore the same crimson hue and took to social media to share his frustration in a post that quickly went viral.
It’s no wonder then that women are still afraid to don a red lip considering the judgement and slut-shaming we could potentially face. Out of 575 Tweak readers who responded to our poll, 52% said they have been made to feel uncomfortable for wearing red lipstick.
Kavita Krishnamurty, a Bengaluru-based brand manager, loves her red Maybelline lipstick. She wears it when she has a big meeting or presentation at work. She’s heard people whisper about it many times, and it’s mostly other women with negative comments, she notes. But she put her blinkers on and paints her lips red whenever she needs a boost of confidence. “I’m not sure what it is about red lipstick but it makes me feel powerful. It physically just brightens my face and I don’t have to do much other makeup. And wearing red lipstick, you’re like a walking alarm. People have to notice you. In a male-dominated workplace, it forces people to look at me and really hear the words coming out of my mouth,” she says.
The women at Nidhi’s* workplace were categorically asked to stop wearing red lipstick. The lawyer was shocked when a “a lady judge at the high court called a meeting, asking lawyers to stop wearing red lipstick. She felt they were asking men to notice them and serving themselves on a plate. I was one of those who wore the red lipstick.”
In light of these accounts, I decided to conduct an experiment of my own. How would the janta react to seeing me in red lipstick in my everyday life? I didn’t see the point in wearing red lipstick to my office since my colleagues knew I was writing this story and their response wouldn’t be natural. So, I made my first pit stop in my experiment of ‘who’s afraid of red lipstick’ in a grocery store. Going mask-free made me nervous, but I found opportune moments when groups of people passed by to pull the mask down to gauge their reaction.
Perhaps Ruby Woo was too much of a shock for people to see at 3 PM on a Saturday, or people are just aren’t used to seeing anyone’s mouth anymore. I got two eyebrow raises and the man at the checkout spent more time looking at my face than the cash register. I was uncomfortable to the point where I couldn’t make eye contact and put my face mask back on. It didn’t budge until I got back home. What ticked me off the most was a hushed whisper from one girl to another, referring to me as ‘these influencer types’ who dress up even to grocery shop. Mind you, I was wearing linen pants and an oversized t-shirt I’d slept in the night before.
I went a few shades deeper for my next outing to the physiotherapist’s clinic. She couldn’t help but let out a little “whoop” when I took off my mask but I pretended not to notice. She ended our session by asking where I was headed to next since I was “so dressed up”. Again, track pants, sports bra, oversized t-shirt and sweat-laced hairline. I told her that her clinic was my outing for the day but that just confused her even more.
My Sundays are reserved for calling back all the people I’ve ignored during the week. I started with a video call to my parents, best friend, and then my second mom (we all have one, don’t we?), all while sporting different red lipsticks. My parents were happy to see me make some kind of effort to look ‘feminine’. My best friend laughed, reminding me he was queer so why was I trying to seduce him? While my second mom nonchalantly commented that I looked like a chudail (they’re people too, OK) who had just drained the blood of a victim.
It had been about a week since I began experimenting with red lipsticks, even when I’m at home alone. And it’s hard to explain exactly why I’ve started to enjoy wearing it. It’s almost like wearing sexy lingerie but without the secrecy around it. After that first day, I started to relish the shock value, challenging the expectations that people had of me in my baggy clothes, flip flops, tied-up hair and face mask. An excited exclamation from a prospective gym trainer and a shared appreciation of a particular shade of red by an interviewee on a Zoom call gave me a boost of confidence.
It’s amazing to see how colour can evoke such different reactions from one person to the next. Red is a colour whose association varies from rage, danger and anger, to love and sexuality, as well as fertility, purity, joy and luck. From cupid’s love to the devil’s hellfire. According to Psychologies magazine, the power of red lipstick lies in its assertion, compared to our other cosmetics which we use to correct or camouflage our undesirables.
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I believe that like nude lipsticks, everyone has their version of the ‘perfect red’. It could be a bright vermillion or a deep maroon. Some have blue undertones which allegedly cancel out the yellow hues of your teeth and can make your teeth appear whiter and brighter. There are also more brownish reds that have a slightly muted appeal. If you’re dipping your toe into the potential power of red lipsticks, then these are the ones you should give try:
Red lipsticks we pledge allegiance to (and you could too)
Picnic Red, The Face Shop Water Fit Lip Tint
For absolute beginners to the red lipstick game, perhaps it is better to start off with a red lip tint. Picnic Red by The Face Shop gives you a natural flush of colour to the lips, and it blends easily on the skin if you want to double it up as a cheek tint for a dewy look.
Love Birds Affair, Wet n Wild Megagloss Lip Gloss
Glosses are the hot ticket at the moment, and if you’re still building up to buying your first opaque red lipstick, then you can start with this lovely lip gloss by Wet n Wild. You get a lovely sheen and colour tint without the product moving all over your face.
Voyager, Maybelline New York Super Stay Matte Ink Liquid Lipstick
When a colleague wore this to the office one day I honestly could not take my eyes off her. If you’re a fan of liquid lipsticks then you’re going to love this range by Maybelline. This shade of red has a hint of pink to it and when they say super stay, they really mean it.
Own Your Empire, Maybelline New York Super Stay Crayon Lipstick
If you like Maybelline but find liquid lipsticks a bit too drying (like I do) then you can try their crayon stick version of the same range.
This is one cool-toned red lipstick that I’ve seen changes in hue from person to person. On me, it’s a red, but on a friend who tried it after she saw it on me tried it one it had a more pink tone to it. Either way, the colour is lovely.
Red Carpet Red, Charlotte Tilbury Matte Revolution Lipstick
This lipstick is a splurge but you truly get what you pay for. These are the most pillowy and comfortable matte lipsticks in the world.
People swear this is a dupe for Mac’s Ruby Woo without the intense matte finish.
No Filter, Mars Cosmetics Matte Lip Crayon | Won’t Budge Won’t Smudge
No Filter is a bright cherry red and a good beginner red lipstick, especially given the pocket-friendly price tag. There’s also something about using crayon lipsticks that makes you feel like putting on makeup is a fun art project.
Black Cherry, Lakme Absolute Precision Lip Paint
By the swatch images you’d think this is more of a purple berry-toned lipstick but having used it myself it definitely lives up to its name as a deep almost charred cherry shade. And applying it from a pot with a brush makes me feel like Cleopatra painting on her own red lippy made of crushed carmine beetles and ants.
Promotion Day, Huda Beauty Power Bullet Matte Lipstick
The Huda Beauty lipsticks glide effortlessly onto your lips and the colour payoff is high without completely drying out your lips. Even if you don’t have a lip liner to match, these won’t bleed over your lips through the course of the day. This one is a warm red shade that will look beautiful on all skin undertones.
Chili, M.A.C Matte Lipstick
A warm red as well, Chili is, however, a very unique shade that I’ve come across. It’s got just the right tinge of orange that gives it its deep warmth and brightness without turning into a full-blown coral or orange lipstick.
I don’t think that wearing red lipstick is going to instantly turn you into my forever crush Rekha. But in a world that often makes us cower and hide, red lipsticks, even if you wear them every once in a while, give a certain jolt to the system. It’s a cheap thrill, sure, but a power move nonetheless.
*Name changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity