They were a source of humiliation and an attention magnet, but I wanted to reclaim them.
It only took seconds to slick a coat of M.A.C’s Russian Red across my lips, but it took full minutes to contemplate how it looked. Lord have mercy, I silently critiqued, angling away from the mirror to take in the full perspective. This is a whole lot of color on a whole lot of mouth.
I wanted to love it. The optimist in me who regularly and intentionally affirms the beauty I see in so many other women hoped to see it, for once, in myself. In a moment of experiential boldness, I had picked the brightest shade of the brightest color. The resulting look was a lot to process. I puckered. I un-puckered. I pouted. I de-pouted. I forced a smile, licking away rogue smudges that had transposed onto my front teeth. I closed it back up. I stood millimeters from the glass, so close that my breath formed a foggy opaque circle on the surface as I analyzed how I’d negotiated the curve of my cupid’s bow and the rim of my lower lip.
I PUCKERED. I UN-PUCKERED. I POUTED. I DE-POUTED.
I wanted to love it, but when I got to the car and re-checked my reflection in the honesty of natural light, I did not. It was jarring to see the flaw I’d spent most of my life minimizing and apologizing for emphasized. Suddenly, I was 11 years old again, making an enemy of the mirror because it was telling me a truth I’d prefer not to know. I couldn’t lean over fast enough to snatch a wad of napkins from the glove compartment and scour away my mistake. Out came my trusty tube of Carmex. I smoothed on the colorless balm as I choked back tears, feeling simultaneously homely and hopeless.
And that was the first—hugely overwhelming, quite abbreviated—time I wore red lipstick as an adult.
I don’t remember much about middle school except a white boy named Ashley, with his meticulously gelled Zack Morris bangs and an overbearing presence that hijacked the energy in every room. As far as I could tell, he woke up every day and pieced together a morning monologue, with me as his muse. When things got slow in class, he’d pull his lips apart and flip them backward to mimic the size and volume of mine. Then, to make things worse, on In Living Color, Jamie Foxx introduced Wanda, a sketch character with protruding lips, and black boys picked up the joke-making, even though some had physical attributes similar to mine. Whenever I sat through a Wanda segment at night, I knew the next school day was going to be a marathon of exhaustive reenactments. Jamie Foxx may owe me an apology.
To be fair, I did have more than my share of lips. They’re the first thing you notice in the awkward school pictures and goofy family photos my mama keeps. I’m pretty sure my lips existed first, and that my body just kind of developed around them. Later, their prominence was compounded by a set of chaotic teeth jutting into an overbite—eventually corrected by braces—that, in the meantime, only made matters worse. It took years for my face to accept my mouth into the fraternity of its other features.
MY LIPS WENT FROM BEING THE PUNCHLINE OF MALICIOUS JOKES TO THE SUBJECT OF UNSOLICITED SEXUAL INNUENDO
But in my sophomore year of high school, comments about my lips started to change. One evening, as I was walking out of the movie theater with a group of friends, a boy passing by gushed, “Damn, girl. I know you give amazing head with those lips.” I wilted from embarrassment. My lips went from being the punchline of malicious jokes to the subject of unsolicited sexual innuendo—on the streets, in college, during dates. The shame I carried about them deepened because, as it turned out, they weren’t just a facial flaw, but now also a source of personal humiliation, and a magnet for a kind of attention I wasn’t prepared to navigate.
On occasion, I’m invited to appear on TV and web shows to discuss stories I’ve written, but I’ve never said yes. I get anxious about people looking at me for too long, afraid their gaze exposes my flaws. My therapist, God bless her, pressed me to unpack those hang-ups. “What else has your lack of worth kept you from doing?” she asked. Over the next few days, the answer came in several small epiphanies. I realized that I have never felt beautiful, much less been able to say that I was. I’d never even worn red lipstick because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself—specifically, my controversial mouth. “That’s good,” she said in our next session. “That’s where we’ll start.”
A tube of red lipstick is a tool of self-expression a woman can use to make a statement about who she is and the artistry she can create with her face. She’s silently stating that she’s confident and that she owns her beauty. If only for the moments that her lips are crimson, she’s not playing small or demure—the very place where her words come out exemplify that. I’d always worn glosses in pretty pinks and subdued corals, but when I bought red lipstick, I was buying it to get free. In fact, I picked up three, each a subtly different shade, all lying together inside my makeup drawer while I gathered the courage to actually wear even one.
When I went outside, I was convinced my lips were walking two feet ahead of me like a set of bright red heralds. Passersby were staring, I was sure of it. Men nodded their greetings. Some smiled. Somebody’s creepy uncle sidled up as I waited to cross the street and said, “You got some pretty lips, gorgeous.” But I refused to own his lasciviousness. It wasn’t my shame to carry. I power walked away, grateful for that tiny victory and inspired to keep pushing myself—no matter how uncomfortable I felt—to beat back my self-doubts.
I didn’t feel beautiful that day, but that wasn’t disappointing. I knew I wasn’t going to eviscerate 25 years of internal narrative with one tentative stroll down the street. But in that moment, I allowed myself to feel pretty badass for attempting it, for meeting the challenge and confronting scripts I hadn’t written but still kept on mental loop since I was a kid. I didn’t feel beautiful, but I didn’t feel ugly either. And that was as significant and meaningful a step as the one I took outside the house, with my big, red—and quite possibly gorgeous—lips.
This article originally appeared on elleuk.com