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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Because I’m known for my love of red lipstick, many gorgeous friends emailed me in a congratulatory fashion after scientists at Manchester University announced that men (or at least the 50 men in their study) like to stare at women’s lipsticked mouths, with red lipstick holding their attention the longest.

But staring isn’t the same as loving. In an October post, I wrote about conflicting interpretations of red lipstick.

“… many men have told me that they prefer me without the red lipstick because I look more ‘approachable’ and ‘softer.’ At the same time, I’ve had women telling me that I’m wearing the red lipstick just to please men. Clearly, no one is pleased except me, so I’m going to continue to live by my Wear What You Want™ policy when it comes to makeup choices.

The same men who prefer me without the red lipstick have told me that red lips are “intimidating.” Maybe the men in the Manchester study were just staring at their greatest fear. Maybe the study took place in George Orwell’s Room 101!

A double dose of scary red lips. Click for original hat post.

I’d be amused if women started wearing red lipstick in a misguided effort to appeal to frightened men, but I’d enjoy seeing more red lips regardless of the motivation. Based on my experience, it’s the supposedly innocent neutral lip that carries the man-pleasing symbolism. If my red lipstick is intimidating, warning, “Don’t touch me. You’ll mess up my lips,” a nude lipstick is accommodating, announcing, “I’m ready, willing and able.” Add gloss and the message is, “I’m ready, willing and able and delightfully slippery!” Women have also told me that red lipstick is too “loud” for them. Hmmm. Here’s what lipstick designer Poppy King has to say about that in an essay for the Huffington Post:

“The muted mouth. A fashion trend, yes, but an ideological worry. A silent-mouthed generation, despite the tweeting and Facebooking and constant technological chatter. A generation of women unsure about highlighting their mouths for fear it makes them less attractive.”

I interviewed Poppy for a 1995 Wall Street Journal story. Click to enlarge.

I’ve already told you that women can’t win when it comes to symbolism and fashion so don’t act all surprised. But, in reality, I don’t care who wears what. Red lipstick, nude gloss, no lipstick — it’s all good to me as long as you’re happy. My point is that symbolism isn’t necessarily universal. The red lipstick that screams “anti-feminist man-pleaser” to some people declares “outspoken feminist bad-ass” to others.

Gigi the dog gets intimidating with a Lulu Guinness red-lip purse.

I was already thinking of how different people interpret things differently due to an email exchange I had with an alumna of a university organization with which I’m involved. I contacted her, identifying myself as the chairman of the board of alumni trustees. I was delighted when she answered, “It is pretty amazing to receive a … message from a woman writing as chairman of the board of trustees. I was the second woman [in a senior position at the organization], and it was a major struggle in those days just to be accepted…” But she went on to ask, “Are you sure you really want to be referred to as ‘chairman?’ A lot of us fought very hard to get the ‘man’ out of these positions.”

Here’s my reply in its entirety:

“Funny you ask about ‘chairman.’ For most of my life, I felt like words had a lot of power over me and I was very particular about using ‘chairwoman’ and other feminized versions of traditional titles. In the past few years — as long as I’ve had my own jewelry design company, probably — I feel like I have the power over the words. Many of my jewelry designs are inspired by and named for female royalty and I am particularly fond of those women who proclaimed themselves ‘emperor‘ or ‘king’ rather than ‘empress‘ or ‘queen.’ I feel like nothing quite says ‘take that, fellas!’ like co-opting the man’s title. That said, when I wrote new bylaws … last year, I used the word “chairperson” to allow my successors to choose for themselves.”

She loved it. And I loved seeing this quote from actress Tilda Swinton from More magazine via gorgeous blogger Jill:

“Dame? I’d so much rather be a Knight … It would, of course, be a great honor to be asked whether one would. I don’t know. But I think Sir Tilda sounds so much better.”

Take that, fellas!

And in case you wondered, MrB adores my red lipstick because he’s not easily intimidated.

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45 Responses to “The Multiple Meanings of Lipstick and Language”

  1. stacy says:

    Article in the Journal! Go girl! And can’t a dame just wear red lipstick because it looks good on her? You were born to wear it. And the Lulu purse… loving it! Did Gigi steal it? She is looking extra fluffy in that photo. Like a nice souffle!

  2. Tara says:

    Great post! My very first shade of lipstick was Max Factor “Russian Red”,after that I fell in love with Urban Decay’s “Redlight”.It’s a classic,it’s an obsession! I think I am eternally searching for the perfect red lipstick.Fear the red-lipped woman!

  3. Lynn says:

    Great articles, and very catching title of the WSJ article (is it published in WSJ?).

    Well, to each his own. For me personally red means empowerment. I started wearing red lips ever since I was 18, Avon, MAC, Revlon, L’oreal, Chanel, Estee Lauder you name it I’ve worn it. I admit it’s a shade that not everyone can pull off, but for those who can and rock it, flaunt it! Studies in this lip color business and its affects on humankind serve as guideline only. I’m never intimidated by the studies. Besides, what’s not to love about red???

  4. I never really thought too much about why I love red lipstick so much. Perhaps it goes back to my childhood when glamourous Hollywood stars wore red and looked stunning? In any case I own 147,892 different shades. (um, slight exaggeration!) I’m always in search of the perfect red lip!

  5. Mary says:

    I used to wear Poppy King’s red lippy Sin from her original 90s collection. I still have a dried up one that must be >15 years old! I don’t use it in case you are wondering! I was so excited when the PK lipsticks came out because there were no other matte lippies to be had in Australia at the time. BTW are not red lips meant to mirror the other female lips down south?

  6. Your email response reminds me of why I love reading your blog. You are kick ass, lady.

    Also, I had no idea you worked for WSJ awhile ago — I interned there during my college days a couple summers ago (for the editorial page) in NYC. Learned so much about writing. I love your lipstick article — what a fun topic to tackle!

  7. sharon rose says:

    Hi my dear-a fabulous post and I do love you in your red lippy, very chic and sexy looking! xx

  8. I remember when Poppy King lipsticks came out in Oz, it was hugely exciting (though I was still a bit young to be wearing lipstick then). I love red lips for a night out, or even for every day when I can be bothered. But I also like plainer lips, because it means I can do more with my eyes. And on lazy days I like lips with nothing but chapstick. I don’t think any of it is symbolic, it is the same as trying on different colour scarves – I am very much in the Wear What You Want camp.

    Love your email response, I had always used chairperson but I might have to rethink that!

  9. Marian says:

    ha my anti spam word is London! brilliant.

    Red lipstick is a classic and you always look drop dead gorge in it!

    The hat is the cutest and I want a Lulu G lips bag badly!

  10. Alice Olive says:

    Sir Tilda does sound good. Maaaan, Tilda is amazing. Whatever she wants is fine with me.

    Wearing what you want is it. I’m a bit tired of people inflicting their own little paranoias about what my lipstick or hair or shoes are saying to men and to women… whatever. It really is all about me, baby!

    PS – my anti-spam word is magenta. That’s in the red family!

  11. erindyan says:

    “The muted mouth. A fashion trend, yes, but an ideological worry. A silent-mouthed generation, despite the tweeting and Facebooking and constant technological chatter. A generation of women unsure about highlighting their mouths for fear it makes them less attractive.”

    I don’t even. I mean, come on, it’s lipstick. Not an ideological worry. My nude lipstick means one thing… I prefer the way I look in nude lips. I am not “unsure about highlighting my mouth” I am simply highlighting it the way I choose to. Absolutely ridiculous.

  12. liz says:

    Love this post- I always saw red lips as something feminine and feminist- both my mother and sister always sported the most insane red lips, perfectly applied in front of giant mirrors. Red lipstick always screamed sophistication, confidence and strength to me. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at someone and thought “shes doing that for a man” how silly.

  13. I’ve always wanted to wear lipstick, especially red lips, but I’m pretty damned lazy. My bottom lip line is soft around the edges, and the idea of brushes, liners, blotting and all that seems like so much work!

    This is such a great post– I read EVERY DAMNED WORD.

    • WendyB says:

      I hope you’ll alert me to any typos!

    • lisa says:

      Contrary to Ashe, red lips (or any other bright dramatic lip colour) have become my go-to look when I need to look put-together in a hurry. It’s easy to stash a tube of lipstick in a purse and lipstick takes so much less time to apply than a carefully blended smokey eye. Plus if the lipstick is really pigmented and has good staying power it requires fewer touch-ups than gloss!

  14. Robin says:

    Very interesting post. I think that when a man is intimidated by red lipstick, it is much more of a reflection of the man. As a red lipstick wearer myself, what concerns me is that some men interpret this bold, confident appearance as hard and unapproachable. Looking “soft and approachable” is not my main concern. My main concern is feeling great about myself, and I always feel better when I put on my red lipstick (Smashbox in “Legendary”). If a guy can’t handle it, then that is their problem.

  15. jennine says:

    can i be sir jennine?

  16. I thought this was going to be about lipstick, and I enjoyed reading it even more once I discovered it wasn’t, not really. I love wearing bright lipstick, right now I’m very into pink. My husband does not care for it, but I don’t care. (he doesn’t want it to get on his lips)

  17. K-Line says:

    You are so right about the symbolism – I am a die-hard red lipstick wearer and I don’t care what anyone thinks. I know what it means to me.

  18. Miss Janey says:

    Miss J adores red lipstick. She just never seems to find the right shade for herself.

    The male/female word disparity occurs to Miss J a lot around “actor” vs. “actress”. Miss J will use the word “actress” but does feel its a bit of a diminutive of “actor”.

  19. I can easily answer that for you Wendy B, being at the University of Manchester, the men are all morons. Yes wearing anything remotely eye catching will have them entranced, I remember a fuschia pink dress I wore in the summer being particularly troublesome when trying to get some sense of a porter, its hypnotic shade had him in a trance in seconds, I never did get my door fixed. Same for any bright lippy I am afraid.

    I am just in the middle of writing a post on men’s reactions to hair cuts after having mine cut and then reading a mag article on the subject, I will have to link in this fab post of yours!

  20. Sally says:

    I cannot believe you’ve covered approximately 10 loosely-related topics and made it all seem seamless.

    Also, I’d never considered the nude lip as a muteness metaphor. Fascinating.

    • WendyB says:

      The potential for a muteness and/or availability metaphor for the nude lip would never have crossed my mind (and probably Poppy King’s mind) except for the fact that some people assign a lot of heavy meaning to a red lip. And as a red-lipped lady, it didn’t make sense to me that red lips were symbolic but a nude lip was neutral or “normal.” Of course, you know my real-life policy is “wear what you want and don’t analyze it too much” but once the analysis gets started, it seems only fair to explore all the options. 😉

  21. Really love red lipstick, especially with that 40’s look… shame it doesn’t suit us these days though!

  22. Alicia says:

    I love how you explained this, guru. I feel the same way about words ending in -man.

  23. Sheila says:

    Oh, Wendy, you rule! All hail King Wendy!

    I love your philosophy around this – I have never liked a nude lip (it reminds me of some modern art where the features are erased), and nearly always lean towards bold. Intimidating, sure, but kick ass? Always!

  24. Eric says:

    Aha, I’ve learned something from the other side on this post. One girl I know says she has a lipstick fetish, she’s always putting that stuff on.

    I guess now that I think about it, it’s interesting to watch.

  25. Laurel H says:

    Fell in love with the names Poppy assigned to her lipsticks in the early 90s — Avarice and Indolence were two favorites — and enjoy her newest collection of Saints and Sinners. Glad she’s back. This woman knows lipstick.

  26. Ellie says:

    No wonder you write for the Journal! This was such a fun; but wonderfully written post! I have to say I have never used red lipstick; except for two occasions when I was dressed as Catwoman and a dead/haunted ballerina. And I have to agree that red lips do intimidate people; (As I was definitely going for that!) but at the same time; I felt powerful and confident with red on my lips! My go to shades everyday is definitely nude/ a sheer gloss; and I was startled to read that it has man -pleasing symbolism! Definitely time to explore some other shades now!

    Anyway; you should totally continue wearing red! You’re definitely born for this shade!

  27. Rebekah says:

    If I could get lip color to stay on my lips, I would wear it with pride.

  28. janettaylor says:

    I am crazy for the clutch from LG! YAY+

  29. I share a love of the red lip. And I LOVE this post. Smart, funny and archetypally YOU. I will admit that I find red lips to be sending a message of complexity, boldness, courage and a unwillingness to be ignored. Any man who is afraid of a red lip is not a man I would want to know. News flash for the scared men: Red lipstick can be washed off. It won’t leave you marked permanently like some kind of lipstick Scarlet Letter. Or will it? Mwah-ha-haaaaaaaaa!;-)

  30. Priscilla says:

    I have to share this, because it goes right to the heart of what you are saying here. I went into Sephora today to get something, and I found myself looking at red lipstick. I found a color I liked and asked a salesperson to help me. She was helping a few people, so she asked another person to take over. The new salesperson suggested a different color, which I tried and liked better. And then she said,”Of course, this is for a party…not an every day look.” So I asked her what she would suggest for an “every day” red lip and explained that I wanted to break away from my usual rosy color or anything pink.

    And she said, “I wouldn’t. Not unless you can really rock it. [Beat] You are too conservative.”

    To begin with, this girl has no idea who I am. Then, of course, is the fact that I told her I WANTED to rock the red lips. And she kept telling me I was too conservative for anything too bold. She suggested another color that I ended up buying because I was so flustered (stupid me)…and when I got to the car and saw it in the daylight I realized that it was almost the exact shade that I wear every day.

    I mean, WTF? Apparently I don’t qualify for either “anti-feminist man-pleaser” OR “outspoken feminist bad-ass.”

    I am taking the lipstick back, obviously, and going to the damn MAC store where I should have gone in the first place. I WILL own red lipstick.

  31. Denise says:

    Oh some men are so silly! I honestly don’t have time for men who are intimidated by a woman wearing red lipstick. Wearing a t-shirt that says ‘I eat testes for breakfast’, sure. But lipstick? Come on.

  32. Kristin says:

    To me it screams confidence…And what’s sexier than that?

  33. Audi says:

    Ah, but on the other hand, “baroness” is so much more elegant a word than “baron.” Even if I were a man, I think I’d prefer to be a baroness! I actually have a minor obsession with it; I found out a few years ago that my actual family name, before some misguided ancestor changed it at Ellis Island, was von Fallsman. And because ‘Baroness Audra von Fallsman’ just sounds so very natural, I imagine that surely if I did enough research, I would discover I’m actually heir to that title.

    Also, as soon as I finish typing this comment I’m going to reapply my red lipstick. Because surely that’s what the Baroness von Fallsman ought to do.

  34. Love this post, WendyB!!! I love wearing red lipstick and just don’t usually because I’ll forget I have it on and smear all over my face during the day (also I’m bad about reapplying- you get one shot, lippie, and that’s it).
    I also think it’s strange how easily people are intimidated/frightened. Geez, if I knew it was that easy, I would have worn red lipstick to every one of my job interviews, and, you know, invading hostile nations.

  35. maya says:

    oh I love this post!!! i have started my blog in order to finally quit suffocating and muting my inner self. I wear red lips now and very comfortable with it. I wear red lipstick:
    1. when I feel like it,
    2. when it looks good with my outfit and so on
    there’s no really deep meaning in it!!!

    I don’t even think twice about symblism and all that…!
    I also am trying new things like spikes and studs… LOL!!! Soccer mom in red lipstick with studded clothes!!! I must be going through my mid-life crisis!!! I got a small package from studsandspikes.com the other day and my husband happened to bring the mail in. He asked me if the package was for kids??!!! I think it was his way of saying WTF??? Now, tell me why little studs and spikes on a clutch (which I’m going to DIY) will cause my family such an uproar???? God forbid i get a tattoo or a piercing (I have no plans to at 39 but never say never!)

  36. Qwendy says:

    I love this post, and I love your audience, I want them to be mine! I’m Wendy too, maybe we could have a Wendy Blogging Circle! I dunno, Sir Tilda may sound better than Sir Wendy, but as I type, I’m onboard, Dame or Lady Wendy is so redundant.

    A pal forwarded this to me knowing I’m a red lipstick afficionado, and I’ve had much the same experience as you have, I’ve been sporting strong lipstick for 30 years, and nothing has changed.

    I do find it a cultural manifestation though, they love it on me in France, because things that have strong feminine connotations aren’t seen as “other” but as simply lovely. The US and GB, with our obvious cultural similarities (read gene pool?), decidedly feminine women or those with strong personalities seem less “desireable” somehow, unless they’re doing the sparkly pink baby thing like Paris Hilton. Luckily I have a French BF who also grew up here, and he actually prefers the strong lip, for the reasons I mentioned.

    I’m off to look into your other offerings, happy new year, Wendy H