Lipstick Lust

There’s got to be something seriously wrong with a woman who keeps 36 tubes of lipstick in her bathroom drawer.

That woman would be me. I’m a beauty product junkie on a perpetual quest for the perfect shade of lipstick.

As every lipstick junkie knows, temptation is everywhere – at the local drugstore or in upscale department stores. The names of the colors alone are as irresistible as a box of Godiva chocolates: Double Fudge … Rum Raisin … Molten Caramel … Chocolate Ice. Other shades, with seductive names like Stiletto, Voodoo, French Kiss, or Red Hot Mama, promise a whole new life of high drama.

Who can resist?

“Even women who don’t wear makeup will wear lipstick,” begins Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick, by Meg Cohen Ragas and Karen Kozlowski (Chronicle Books). As the authors note, the majority of women wear lipstick as part of their beauty routines and buy an average of four tubes a year. “Nothing can keep a girl from her lipstick,” they write, “which may explain why it’s one of the most commonly shoplifted items.”

I should add that I’ve paid for every single one of the 36 tubes I own. And while I’ve always enjoyed cosmetics, my lipstick fetish didn’t get out of hand until I hit middle age. After turning 45, I suddenly needed two things to face the second half of my life: contact lenses and the absolute-perfect shade of red lipstick.

Of course, the magicians who conjure beauty products know full well that women of any vintage are suckers for marketing wizardry and gorgeous packaging. We want to believe that the potions inside those shiny little pots and tubes at the Clinique or Chanel counters have the power to turn heads. We want to believe that the mere flick of a lip-gloss wand can transform any desperate housewife into a goddess.

My lipstick lust is linked to childhood memories; to the beloved paternal grandmother who wore crimson lipstick to church and family parties. Her nickname was Ruby, for Robina, and I’m sure her preference for red wasn’t just a cosmetic coincidence. When my parents traveled, I spent many childhood weekends at Grandma Ruby’s home in Detroit. Escaping boredom (and the brutal wrestling matches on my grandpa’s TV), I would often sneak upstairs to Ruby’s dressing table, where a tempting trove of makeup awaited my exploration.

More than anything, I coveted her elegant gold tubes of dark red lipstick. Their texture was dry and crayonlike – as most lipsticks were in the 1960s – making it nearly impossible to draw a perfect pout on my small mouth. But despite my amateur artistry, I was sure I resembled Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

Years later, during college breaks and holidays, I worked in the cosmetics department of a major department store. Waiting on women of all ages and lifestyles, I discovered that lipstick is so much more than a beauty product. A newly divorced customer, for example, once told me that a new tube of lipstick was more therapeutic and much less expensive than a good hour with her psychologist.

I also learned that the right shade of lipstick, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, is downright empowering – and almost as hard to come by. You have to keep experimenting until you fully approve of the woman gazing back at you in the mirror. For some of us, this can take a lifetime.

Still, the question remains: Should I consult a psychiatrist about those 36 tubes of lipstick in my drawer? After all, if Carl Jung was right, the most important work of midlife is to peel away our false layers and masks, to reveal the authentic self.

I’ve always been intrigued by Jung’s theory, and I have no problem parting with a few of the false layers I’ve amassed over the years. I can easily unload my outdated clothing, blue eye shadow and all those anti-wrinkle serums that really don’t work. With a little more willpower, I can give up gossip and carbohydrates, too.

But no, I’m not parting with my tubes of Passion Fire and Chocolate Ice. I hope I never stop reinventing myself – or continuing my quest for the perfect shade of red.

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Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published journalist and author with a focus on women's issues and midlife topics. She blogs weekly at Cindy La Ferle's Home Office and Blog.

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