Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lipstick Memories: A History

6. Sep. 2008

Pucker up. Not.

Many, many years ago, men would have never considered kissing temptresses with scarlet-painted lips. Women, meanwhile, would have been extra careful not to smear crisp white polos with their lipstick — for kiss marks, then, did not have the sexy, sublime symbolism that they have now. Back then, lipstick was more than just an aesthetic tool and its mark, left memories of no less than forlorn tragedies of maladies and injustices.

What many are not aware of are the events that accompanied the evolution of women’s best-selling cosmetic. It took centuries of queer ingenuities backed up by numerous controversies to give lipstick its current form and space in the purse.

Beauty that breeds self-esteem and attracts the opposite sex, may have been the gist behind the invention of lipstick some five thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. However, more often than not, beholders in the succeeding eras have not warmly regarded women who paint their lips. What is now a tiny tube of wax and color has a long history of conflicts between women and men; of being wanted, needed and loved versus being loathed, condemned and banned.

So the question is: why?

Did lipstick play an underlying role in fatal attractions that threatened men so much to the point that authorities had to impose bans in ways that range from logical to downright foolish?

Practically speaking, lip paint in ancient Egypt contained ingredients that resulted into serious illnesses – a valid point for lipstick to be completely banned from use. Later on, however, human ingenuity has paved the way for safer and easier to apply versions.

So what remains a puzzle is that, if lipstick then was not safe for use, then how come it was the male-dominated societies and institutions which stereotyped, if not forbade its use and not the women who wore them and faced the risk of mixing lipstick with their food?

History shows that ancient Rome reserved the use of lip paint to prostitutes. Meanwhile, in medieval times, lipstick was given a more despicable position by its association to the devil. More recent periods show attempts to outlaw lipstick as in 1770 when the British Parliament passed a law to make lipstick illegal and in 1924 when the New York Board of Health considered banning lipstick out of fear that it might poison men who kissed women who wore them.

It can be noted that some of the most powerful women in history were behind the craze for sexy red lips. Cleopatra, the Queen of Nile and the mother of cosmetics, crushed carmine beetles and ants to give her lips a deep red pigment (Wikipedia). Elizabeth I, meanwhile, repealed the medieval condemnation of lipstick when she popularized the classic Golden Age look of stark white faces and “piercing red lips” (The World Book Encyclopedia). Pop history later depicts sex symbol Marilyn Monroe puckering up bright red lips to compliment her blonde locks and creamy complexion -- something which men found alluring yet society considered scandalous.

Nowadays, lipstick remains as an indicator of a woman’s position in the society. Dark shades are reserved for women with power while the brighter shades (puta red-type of colors... pardon the French) are associated to those who are “loose” and ostracized in the society. The writer’s experience is reminiscent of men who prefer that their girlfriends look au naturel – meaning, no lipstick as much as possible.

Given this brief, effortless research, it may not be impossible to assume that the lipstick ban transcends physical reasons. The earlier times may have not been too keen on granting women with their much-deserved self-esteem for fear that it may cause infidelities and allow women to covet the roles of men. However, these days, it may just be due to the fact that men just want to be pleased according to what they deem as pleasant.

It is unimaginable that what seems to be a tiny object kept in women’s purses has gone through such bizarre history. So the next time an urge to comment “it’s like putting lipstick on a pig” or “it’s possibly lipstick on the collar” is nagging, just think about all the men who gave women a hard time just because of painting their lips. Women, nowadays, must not wear lipstick for a man but rather out of a sheer desire to please themselves.

1 Why Women Wear Lipstick: Preliminary Findings by Madeleine Ogilvie and Pauline Kristensen-Bach http://smib.vuw.ac.nz:8081/WWW/ANZMAC2001/anzmac/AUTHORS/pdfs/Ogilvie.pdf
2 Wikipedia
3 The World Book Encyclopedia (Whoever thought encyclopedias are passé)
4 Photo from decideforyourself.wordpress.com

Writer’s Note: The original version of this blog was written days earlier than the published version of Lipstick Memories. Now, this serves as a supplemental reading to those who enjoyed LM.