Lipstick on a pig. Lipstick on his collar. Lipstick to brighten things up around here, why not?
Lipstick, when I was small, seemed the destiny that awaited me, and the only question was, what kind? Would I follow in my mother’s footsteps, and choose vaguely scientific, slightly beige Clinique lipstick in green plastic tubes (for the highly motivating free samples) or in heavy, ribbed silver tubes (for the expensive stuff)? Or would my Omi’s influence win out – heavy YSL tubes, enameled in alternating indigo and lapis stripes across their octagonal bodies? My Omi’s lipstick smelled of musk and flowers, and it was fuchsia. It did not give a fuck about science, only seduction, opulence, and the deep sheen of red rose-petals.
Only once did I buy a lipstick of that caliber. I was with my friend Inga, or at least I was with her spirit. It was some French brand, not YSL, not Chanel, but fancy-fancy, in a sheer honey-garnet color lightly flecked with mica. The tip was faceted at a deep slant, and it went on with just the right amount of friction. This was me in my Asian Nomad incarnation: crew cut hair, skinny, tanned, wearing the silks and velvets I found in beautiful street markets, stuffed into my backpack, and carried home. The lipstick was a counter-measure for all the time I spent clinging to the edges of muddy landslides waiting to happen, or shitting wildly into unspeakable trench-toilets. The lipstick was a portable form of a kind of elegance I remembered from the women in my life. Out where I was wandering, tall as I am, skinny as I was, shorn as I was, sometimes people didn’t recognize me a woman at all. That suited me fine. No lipstick on the road.
I look, now, at the astonishing from-below images of the Kavanaugh hearings, and what I notice most deeply are the well-groomed women in the background. They’re sitting quietly, and they look as though they could sit that way forever, in their lipstick, their hairless stockinged legs, their neatly pretty hair. At some point I had to grow out of lipstick. Being a nun required it. Being located inside my body (as opposed to at some critical distance from it) required it. Now sometimes I’ll use lipstick as a form of self-kindness, and still you won't catch me rubbing on something rabbits have had poked in their eyes, as a necessary passport for appearing in public. But these women – these well-groomed, rapist-supporting women – I can’t really imagine them outside of their presentational, passive ways. They are here to cheer on their man. They are here to keep themselves in the proper orientation to his power.
Once, during a winter retreat, I found myself sitting behind a dear friend in the meditation hall. There was, I felt in my own body, so much work in showing up as her: hair dyes and lipstick, little silver bells, dieting, eating outside the diet, choosing outfits, etc. Since the retreat was a full three months, I found myself wishing for her: Use this time to shed all that. If you cut off all your hair now, it will have time to go back as itself for when Spring rolls around and this whole thing is over. Let it go. Let it go. Let the body rest. Let your charm rest. Die off, so that something new can grow back.
I want to hold dying retreats for those whose diagnoses are no more alarming than simply being human. I want to hold space for the possibility of shedding, releasing, and re-growing. I want every person, every living being on earth to have the opportunity to show up here exactly as they really are, free of the stories of dominance and submission, decoration and judgment, value and non-value that distort our impressions of who and what we are. In the mornings, when I meditate, Chloe and Elliott hop up on my bed to sit with me. They’ve learned to wait until I’ve done making the bed. Anyway, before I begin formal practice, I extend each of my hands to rest on their dark, soft haunches, feeling into the life that joins us all. I reflect on all the ways that creatures just like these – women, dogs, people, animals – are misused, all over the world in this moment. And all the ways that lipstick is applied to that fundamental horror, to make it acceptable.
It’s for science.
It’s for medicine.
It’s for industry.
It’s for economic development.
They deserve it.
They don’t feel it.
They don’t matter.
Once I read an article about a medical team doing research on a new technique for extending the lives of people who’ve been shot and have lost a lot of blood. The basic idea was to throw the body into a vat of icewater, to mitigate the harm, slow down the system, and buy time. In theory, maybe that’s a great plan. But to practice doing this, the doctors “exsanguinated” dozens of dogs, submerged them in ice, and then gave them blood transfusions to bring them back. Even when they weren’t being bled nearly to death, frozen, and reconstituted, I am sure these dogs were living awful lives. The article describes the animals as “a special breed of large hunting dogs.” That could easily be Elliot. That could easily be Chloe. The absolute waste of consciousness that this involves is staggering to me. Living beings are not for playing with life and death. The doctor – the Principal Investigator – in the story reported that he does not like to think about all those months in the lab. I imagine not. It was a poor use of his life, too, especially since the primary targets for this new would-be miracle cure – young Black men shot in Baltimore and elsewhere – have proved suspicious of it. They and their families smell something unnatural and abusive, and they are not misguided in this. Lipstick it as we may wish to, grotesque disregard for what creatures need to thrive is always wrong.
What’s your color? Are you a Winter or a Spring? Perhaps some coral to make up for all your flaws? Have you ever seen a tree that was improved by lipstick? Or a mountain? Have you ever felt any need to move the clouds in the sky around, to better flatter your idea of how things should be?
Wear all the lipstick you want, from a place of play and authenticity. The TSA worker herding travelers into lines, issuing orders from a lush mouth in four quadrants – gold, teal, burgundy, and pale pink – is not making up for anything, nor feeling like she owes anybody her polish. She’s showing up as herself, destroying her stupid uniform from the inside, while continuing to wear it for the sake of livelihood. Wear your lipstick as drag, as challenge, as kindness, but not as compensation for any kind of perceived lack in yourself.
I want all the women at the Kavanaugh hearings to show up tomorrow as Maenads – hair wild, faces tear-stained, mouths wine-stained – and tear apart the idea that their proper place is respectful silence. I want them to throw ol’ Brett down and lipstick him, dress him in jeans and a T-shirt with a one-piece bathing suit underneath, and give him a good groping, while talking only to one another, and not to him. I want this not from a place of harm, but from a place of understanding. A study abroad in lipstick.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.