On The Real Me

6 May, 2011

On my 27th birthday, I made one of the most important discoveries to my adult life:
the sheer, uncompromising power of the perfect red lipstick.

It was a revelation. I felt like I had truly entered womanhood (a mere 14 years after my Bat Mitzvah).

I quickly learned what the red lipstick was capable of. At once, it was a spotlight and a mask. I could draw in people’s attention then ensure that they could not get past the shield of pigmented wax on my smackers. It was the best of both worlds. I flaunted a new-found and legitimate confidence, proud of my bravery to embrace the deep scarlet, and did my best to keep other, bare-lipped versions of myself at bay. The security of the lipstick as a veil meant I could be virtually anyone I longed to be. Sirens wore red lipstick. Movie stars wore red lipstick. Femme fatales wore red lipstick. Women wore red lipstick—not girls. Beyond that, women who demanded something wore red lipstick. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to demand, but I felt the need for change, and demanding it seemed like as good a way as any to achieve it. If nothing else, I wanted to demand to be seen as a woman.

Quickly, red lipstick became my signature. Friends delighted in my new trademark, my teeth gleamed like Chiclets, outfits were chosen based on how well they complimented my lip color and the little caterpillar emerged a social and stylish butterfly. But the dizzying dichotomy of who I really was continued to spin. Red-lipsticked me still felt like a projection of who au natural me wanted to truly become, but was not yet. Au natural me was not simply un-made up. She was larvae. She wore sweatpants and PJs and didn’t brush her hair. She looked like a high schooler who’s just woken up at 2pm on a Saturday. She felt perpetually 16 years old, and that was neither a good nor pretty nor confident thing.

You can see why I was so desperate for the red lipstick.

As years passed, the two mes did merge. What’s remained constant is that the red lipstick, it’s blatant veneer, is an easy façade. “No, I don’t always look like this,” it says. “But that hardly concerns you right now.” Knowing that I am putting forth a face I don’t always call my own feels like method acting. It is inherently part of who I am but still a role nonetheless.

All this to point out my surprise when I received an email from a man my father’s age who was (until recently put in his place) relentlessly trying to date me, addressed to: “mandy – as you are – the real you + red lips.”

OK, first of all: creepy. This guy’s about to become a grandfather. He has a son my sister’s age. Second of all: does he really believe that how he last saw me–dolled up at a party with crimson on my lips–is “the real” me? Paint an inch thick, Hamlet scolded Ophelia. Paint is right. It’s a cover-up. And what came full circle for me the moment I read this email, and what I realized from this ill-placed attention, is that it’s not because of you that I hide myself, dear Grandpa-To-Be. It’s because of me. Yessir, I could show you the real me, the woman behind the brightly-hued mouth. But you don’t deserve that, you will never get that close.

Still: Gramps and I know each other through work, and in not wanting to jeopardize a professional contact, I agreed to have dinner with him on a rainy Sunday night. Just before leaving my apartment, I received a text from him, urging me to “be hungry and bring red lips.”

Whoa.

Hold up there, geezer.

Clearly, he does not realize that the one thing a woman with red lips has most is power. I decide when the lipstick goes on, and on whom or what it may wear off (usually, it’s a wine glass, not a whom). But this brought about a bit of a mini-crisis. He did not deserve to get nearer to me than the red-lipped mask would allow, but the last thing I wanted to do now was indulge him in his request. The result of this predicament was that he’d made me feel like a tart. And the distaste that I bore for him multiplied. I resented him before I ever arrived at dinner.

I made a narrow escape after dinner, to avoid his intentions, and the very next morning went out to make a new purchase: a lovely new lipstick called Vintage Pink. I think it looks fabulous.

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