Sit on a city train on a normal working day, say, nine o’clock in the morning. Some people will be reading newspapers, others will be listening to music. A woman will take out a mirror from her handbag and start putting on make-up: eyeliner, mascara, and finally, lipstick. She will purse her lips, try a smile, and then get off the train, ready to face the day.
The act of putting on lipstick is a daily routine for many women all around the world. It is a symbol of femininity which contains an interesting ambiguity. On the one hand, it can be interpreted as an act of subordination to a gender stereotype imposed by society. On the other hand, it can be seen as a statement of self-confidence and self-expression. The contradiction between these two views exemplifies how sometimes a small, simple, everyday object can embody the great antagonisms of our existence – here the struggle between individuality and conformity.
Men don’t listen and women can’t read maps… the differences between the sexes have become an unlimited source of clichés. But the origin of stereotypical gender characteristics is a subject of much discussion, the main disagreement being over the question of nature versus nurture. On one side there’s the argument that the female sexual stereotype has its roots in Darwinian biology. The red lips, clear skin and glossy hair much advertised in beauty magazines all indicate good reproductive capability, thereby increasing the chances of getting an equally healthy partner. Furthermore, the roles of the sexes differs because of biological conditions: women bear the children, men provide the food. Differentialist feminists follow the natural line, to argue that men and women are inherently different, and will therefore occupy different roles in society. But it’s not the difference of these roles which poses an equality problem, rather, the value assigned to the roles by society. If women are better at organising a household, this quality should be considered of equal worth to a man’s work in an office.
Egalitarian feminists, on the other hand, believe that biological differences are minor in comparison with socially-constructed ones. They accuse the differentialists of glorifying a golden cage, and emphasise the prescriptive influences of society from an early age: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The external influence children experience from an early age was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by the BBC programme Child Of Our Time. Adults asked to look after small babies treated those whom they believed to be boys much more firmly, and played with them, while the supposed girls were held still and complimented on their prettiness. To an egalitarian feminist, wearing lipstick in order to be attractive and therefore conform to this socially-constructed female stereotype becomes an act of subordination to society. The focus on appearance turns women into precious but fragile objects to be admired and protected, not people with rights and a will of their own.
Yet if we look at places where women are still tremendously mistreated on a social scale – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and other strong-arm patriarchal societies – the use of lipstick has very different implications. Where too much attention on appearance is condemned as a sin, wearing make-up becomes a statement of rebellion. The lipstick turns into an emblem of female power, for the same beauty that can make a woman appear a fragile object can crystallize man’s dependence on her, and enforce her supremacy. As the actress Jeanne Moreau says in Luc Besson’s film Nikita (1990): “There are two things without limit: femininity and the means of taking advantage of it.” Wearing lipstick is a way of embracing that femininity – a statement of provocation. Our gender is a fundamental part of our identity: expressing it shows an awareness of who we are.
An extract from the diary of the British soldier Lieutenant Colonel Gonin, DSO, illustrates this fact poignantly. He was among the first to liberate the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in 1945. He describes the effect the delivery of a large quantity of lipstick made on the female prisoners, who had suffered under the most horrendous conditions:
“Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post-mortem table , and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”
The inhumane treatment and immense suffering the women of Bergen-Belsen underwent had reduced them to mere existence, to their most basic needs. In that state there’s no distinction between one life and another, and so no individual value. The lipstick gave them back a means of self-expression, of making a point of their difference. It is from such a high degree of self-awareness, from the realisation and expression of our identity, that we derive a great part of our sense of humanity.
We consider ourselves as individuals, different from everyone else. But a contradiction arises from this notion when compared with our affiliation to a greater collective: how can wearing lipstick be a statement of individuality if it’s an expression of a social stereotype? If all women wear lipstick, they don’t differ any more: they wear superficial images, all imitating the projections on the pages of beauty magazines. Thus, the obsessive striving for individuality that pervades our society has created a new form of conformism; people resemble each other in their desire to be different. But being always part of something, and still being unique in the specific co-ordinates we occupy in the social system, is one of the contradictions of the human condition. We are at the same time free, and bound in circumstances; influenced by society, but capable of making choices of who we want to be. Developing a sense of identity is a process that never ends. Here Simone de Beauvoir enters again with her philosophy. Her existentialism says that gender construction is never free from external influences: like all fragments of our identity, it is a process linked to the circumstances we live in. But ultimately, the decision lies with us: individuality consists in the autonomy of our choices, not in our separation from society.
Wearing lipstick is a choice. Whether it is motivated by an impulse to conform to expectations or by the desire to express one’s self-confidence depends on the individual. But it does demonstrate that our feeling of identity is closely connected to how we appear to others. Just as we perceive other people by what we see, we present ourselves in a way we want to be seen (or the closest we can get to this). Wearing lipstick is a choice because it is an intended, self-aware act of changing one’s appearance. So it is an example of how identity is conditioned by society; but at the same time it proves that it is in the power of every individual to decide who they want to be.
© Annina Lehmann 2008
Annina Lehmann grew up in Berlin but spent the last two years in London. She is currently studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University.