Community | 29 Jul, 2021

How Red Lipstick Changed the World

by Christina Almeida

There’s a famous phrase, something that Voltaire said. “To hold a pen is to be at war.” Who knew that the same could be said for lipstick?

Pigmented beautification—in the form of eye kohl, lip rouges, and other cosmetics—has been sought out and used by powerful, revolutionary women since the dawn of time. Women have been applying natural resources to their skin, lips, and faces since at least 3500 BCE.

Fashion magazines, Hollywood starlets, and the demoralizing beauty standards thrust upon women have falsely suggested a pre-existing narrative of cosmetics owning us. The truth? The truth is far more complex, especially in regards to the one lipstick hue even the most bro man in your life will recognize: red. It’s true: red lipstick has liberated women as much as it has shackled them to the limitations of their social status during the given time period. It is important to note, however, that society’s impression and belief systems surrounding red lipstick have never altered suddenly or randomly. Rather, the changing opinions surrounding the perceived propriety (and impropriety) of red lipstick have always reflected and coincided with the sociopolitical movements of the time. 

The history of red lipstick is impressive (and impressively long)—that’s not why we’re sharing the timeline of lipstick history with you today.

Today, on National Lipstick Day, we share the history of red lipstick with you in the hopes that doing so will challenge you (as it has challenged us) to celebrate lipstick as a revolutionary tool for change AND a tool for beauty.

Today, we celebrate by raising awareness of the many women that have been empowered by cosmetics. When we look back in time with consciousness and a keen eye, we start to see the patterns. The patterns here are clear: red lipstick, through the good and the bad, the ugly and the enlightening, has always been political.

Yes, even when used against women, red lipstick has led to revolutions and changed the world. We owe a lot of our freedoms today to the women who bravely wore red lipstick, who bravely owned their beauty, who bravely took control of their destiny by taking ownership of their own bodies. In history, this act that we now take for granted—the act of adorning our lips with rouge—was often the most revolutionary, rebellious act available to women. Lest we forget, women have only had the right to vote for 100 years (well, 101 years, to be precise). Before women had the right to vote, they had little ability to speak their minds or make a statement.

If you are a woman who feels limited by existing sexism today… imagine what the reality of a woman 101 years ago must have been like. Yes; it is true. At its worst, red lipstick has been used by those in power against women. Women in red lipstick have been called reincarnations of Satan. Women in red lipstick have been charged with witchcraft and burned at the stake. Yet, even at its worst—even during the horrifying realities mentioned above— (red) lipstick has been a tool and weapon for women without a voice. In a world where those in power have continuously attempted to own and control us by leveraging beauty against us, we have stood up: as women, as sisters, as mothers and daughters. We have taken the worst of what we were given and prospered; we have done this with our lips painted red time and time again.

When we had no voice, the loud red on our lips spoke for us. 

The Ancient History of Red Lipstick

The Medieval History of Red Lipstick

The Modern History of Red Lipstick

The Lipstick Revolution Isn’t Over: Why Inclusiveness in the Beauty Industry is Our Next Big Fight

As recently as 2016, Ugandan model Aamito Lagum received unprecedented, ugly racist hate for wearing lipstick.

Huh? Yes, you read that right. After MAC cosmetics featured Lagum’s lips on their Instagram feed, the Internet went into a racist frenzy over the perceived impropriety of a fierce darker-skinned woman looking glorious in her favorite rouge. Yet… only 3 years later, in 2019, the global lipstick market was valued at $12.3 billion. 

That’s a lot of money being spent by women, on women. It’s about time for us to unite and stand up—we must all speak up, regardless of our skin tone and of course ESPECIALLY so if we are women with the privilege of being white. We must speak up regarding the unjust treatment and irrational, warped beauty standards that are still set upon non-white women DAILY. We must speak up when we see hate.

Speaking up, of course, doesn’t always entail using our voice. Often, speaking up is best practiced by actively listening—listening and educating ourselves, listening and re-sharing the words of other women as much as possible. We must all help each other out.

Today, on National Lipstick Day, we challenge ourselves and we challenge the Pildora family to take their love of beauty just 1 tiny step further.

Today, we challenge ourselves and the Pildora family to celebrate through education and allyship.

We have always been in this together. Too many scores of women have perished for us to slink back into the comfortable shadows of half-freedoms now. And if you aren’t comfortable resharing or broadcasting non-white women’s narratives regarding their ugly beauty industry experiences? If you aren’t comfortable starting a conflict that you perceive to be (out of privilege) no longer yours? Remember two things:

  1. Women will not be free, not truly, until the day that ALL women are free.

The “freedom” afforded to white women today rests upon white supremacy and patriarchy; in time, this freedom will curdle and turn sour. The reality is that no human will ever truly be free until we are ALL freed from the shackles forced upon us by society—shackles of race, biological sex, gender identity, spirituality, and more. 

  1. If you don’t know where to start, start by listening.

Listen and educate yourself. The rest will come, we promise. Our list of educational resources regarding this topic (found below) is far from complete, but it’s as good of a place as any for you to start.

Educational Resources on Racism and the Beauty Industry for Further Reading