Sephora on a Wednesday night at The Eaton Centre was nearly as crowded as a grocery store before one of the piggy holidays. I was out birthday shopping for A., but had recently become obsessed with red lipstick, so I thought I’d see what the fancy makeup place recommended. I hadn’t realized how brave it was of me to go in until I scanned the clientele and saw how young and pretty and under-dressed for winter they were.
Then there was me, close to middle-age (depending on how you do the math), wearing my long brown down coat that makes me look like a cross between a Tootsie Pop and a puff pastry... but not really in a way that would make anyone say “yum.”
I unzipped my coat and went up to a pomp of staff standing by a glossy mini-makeover station. They were all wearing black smocks stocked with makeup brushes. It made them exude power. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the perfect red lipstick.”
Without asking, a flamboyant young man promptly pushed my hair out of the way and began swiping at my cheek with a cotton pad covered in make-up remover. Then he put a small black machine against my cheek while I wondered if I was being assaulted. “Uh, what are you doing?” I asked, still standing obediently still.
“Getting your code,” he said like it was super-obvious. Said code was then punched it into a computer that brought up shades of red lipstick most suited to my skin tone (three shades darker than corpse colour, with a slight yellow undertone, in case you’re wondering). It was shocking, all that technology. “Wait here and your colour specialist will come and get you,” I was told.
The colour specialist who turned up was a surprise. He reminded me of Jared from Subway after he lost all the weight, but before everybody found out he was a pedo. “I hear you want the perfect red lip,” he said.
Actually, I want two, I wanted to say, but I thought I should be extra-nice to him to make up for comparing him in my head to a sexual offender, so I just smiled and nodded.
Sephora Jared swabbed lipsticks with sanitizer and handed them to me, one at a time. Getting to a mirror was practically a full-contact sport given how many customers were preening around them. I felt so self-conscious putting lipstick on in public that I did a lousy job each time, which Sephora Jared noticed. When I’d critique the lipstick, he’d passive-aggressively critique the application saying things like, “Of course, that’s not really a full coat.” And: “It might be hard to tell when it’s lopsided.”
After trying three or four classic reds and still not feeling like I’d found “my” red, Sephora Jared chose a more brownish red and told me I’d love it. Then he pointed me in the direction of my free mini-makeover because I was signed up for the quarter hour. A makeup artist was going to do my lips for me even though I’ve managed on my own for over twenty-five years.
Seeing the shade that Sephora Jared had chosen for me, the makeup artist immediately said it wasn’t going to give me the look I wanted and went off to get another shade. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted Sephora Jared, but I’d been trying not to have low expectations based on gender and hetronormativity.
“People pay to get full lips like yours,” the makeup artist said, which made me think of Stacey Storfie who used to call me “cow lips” in high school. I hoped she’d paid a lot over the last couple decades to get lips like mine.
The lipstick was matte and went on thick in the way that velvet is thicker than silk. When they were done, my lips looked party-ready, but were pouting slightly, probably because the rest of me wasn’t.
The lip makeover had taken ten minutes. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot of time until you think about the fact that it takes approximately two seconds to apply lip balm—and that's if you do a really neat job. The lipstick the makeup artist used was $35. The lip liner was another $20. This is where a feminist argument could be made that makeup is a time-sucking, costly practice that is oppressive to women.
And yet, I have no problem being a feminist who wears makeup. The anti-feminism of the beauty market isn’t based on makeup products themselves—it’s based on the way the industry caters to a narrow image of what is thought to be beautiful.
Still, I’d already known going into Sephora that I’d never pay those kinds of prices. So, I thanked my makeup artist, went down to the food fair, and immediately destroyed my lipstick on a burger while I looked up drugstore dupes on my phone instead.
Later, on my way out of the mall, I hit up Shoppers Drug Mart and bought a tube of Wet n Wild for three bucks.
Why did I want the perfect red lipstick so badly—even though I’m too cheap to buy the good stuff? In addition to my time spent in Sephora, I’d already spent hours online looking at red lipstick shades. I did the same thing when I chose a paint colour for our bedroom. This seems healthy to me: to spend the same amount of time on self-beautification as on home beautification. As long as one avoids the question of how long one should spend thinking about house paint, that is.
If you are a man reading this, you might think my interest in red lipstick means that I’m trying to be sexy. Anthropologists say that your lizard brains can’t help but subconsciously think of aroused labia when you see red lipstick, which is why, in studies, it’s been proven that you’ll look at it longer than any other lipstick colour. It must be so embarrassing to be a man sometimes. I wonder what would happen if women were wired more like men?
I’ll tell you what would happen: men all over the world would want Owen Wilson’s nose.
But I digress.
I don’t need to attract a mate—mine has already been attracted. To sustain his attraction all I have to do is call him m’lord when I’m dusting.
What then has attracted me to red lipstick? A recovery of a past self? I used to be known for wearing red lipstick. This was well over a decade ago now. I only remember this because a painter asked me to sit for a portrait and requested that I wear it because he thought of it as my signature thing. I remember him saying that more than I remember even owning a tube of red lipstick.
I sat for the portrait in August, in the artist’s cool garage. I was instructed to keep an entirely neutral expression, which, for some reason, meant that I went slack-jawed and, in the finished painting, between my red upper and lower lips you can see a bit of teeth, as though I might be slightly bucktoothed.
The painter also kept remarking on how much white paint he had to keep adding to the flesh tone he’d mixed to paint my face. Even though I’m naturally pale (as confirmed by my Sephora code), it turned out there was more to it than that. The day after I first sat for the painter I woke up with a horrible pain in my chest. After sniffing the air for burnt toast and smelling nothing, I went to the walk-in clinic and was diagnosed with pneumonia.
I telephoned the painter to tell him that I couldn’t sit for him again until I was better. He immediately thought of how Waterhouse was blamed for hastening his Ophelia model's death by having her lie in a bathtub all day. Worried that his garage had been too cold, and not wanting my death on his hands, he came right over with a bag of lemons, ginger, and garlic.
Speaking of death, I should mention that it wasn’t even until my 20s that I wore anything red because I was afraid it’d get me killed. When I was in kindergarten there was a serial killer on the loose in the general vicinity of where we lived. The media called him the Rent-a-Car Killer and schools typed up notices about him. Parents were warned that, in particular, the killer seemed to like blonde children who wore red. My mother, like any sensible mother, took anything red out of my closet (but somehow stopped short of dying my hair brown). Even after they put Clifford Olsen in jail, I didn’t wear red. Not unabashedly anyway—only as a subtle accent.
Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to red lipstick these days—because it’s bold. I might as well admit that I also got bangs this year. And now I have big specs too. I wasn’t sure I’d chosen the right frame until the women who sold them to me—who wears Mac’s Ruby Woo lipstick and would be the character you’d love if she was on Girls—called them “boss bitch glasses.” Overall, the look—the bangs, the glasses, the lips—is a bit hipster. A bit in. And I’m not a very in person, nor do I particularly aspire to be (though I’ve always liked a chubby hipster).
Still, there’s something that pleases me about coming in through the door, having been out on Queen West with all the other red-lipped ladies with their cute bangs and A. saying, “Hey, hipster girl, where’s your feather duster?” To wear a look that’s “of a time” because being “of a time” means that, no matter how fast the clock is ticking, you belong to the now.