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I Don’t Wear Lipstick: But Not for the Reasons You Think

Novelist Edra Ziesk explains her new midlife mindset and why refusing to wear lipstick is about much more than color.

The before-and-afters of beauty makeovers are, in name and nature, hopeful. They contain the implicit promise that a magic formula exists that will transform us into whoever it is we wish to be. Who can resist the idea of the gold at the end of the rainbow? 

I’ve had many makeovers—some for professional reasons, some motivated only by vanity—and I’ve never come out looking like I’ve found a pot of gold. I’ve sometimes emerged looking garish and sometimes pretty good, but it’s never been transformative. Still, hope springs eternal.

At the end of the most recent try, the cosmetologist, Monique, asked what color lipstick I usually wore. Lipstick always comes last.

 When I told Monique I didn’t wear lipstick, she sounded scandalized, as if I’d confessed that I didn’t wash my hair.

I’ve never worn lipstick. From time to time I decide I’m going to—when a sample arrives in the mail or a big event approaches—but I never do.

When I told Monique I didn’t wear lipstick, she sounded scandalized, as if I’d confessed that I didn’t believe in washing my hair or changing my sheets.

“You have to wear lipstick,” she said.

“My life is too casual for lipstick,” I said.

Which is true, in a way. I work at home. I dress mostly in jeans and vintage blouses and sweaters—it’s how I’ve dressed for years. Though I know other women who work at home and wear lipstick every day, I never have.

“My lips have a lot of pigment,” I said. “Lipstick doesn’t look good on me.”

Too High Maintenance?

This is also true, in a way. But it’s because most of the lipstick colors I’ve tried don’t suit me. Reds with too much blue in them or too much yellow. Once, at another makeover, that cosmetologist used a dark berry lip stain she said went well with my coloring. I bought it, thinking now I’ll start wearing lipstick. But my husband said it made me look like a prostitute, which wasn’t the look I was going for.

“Lipstick,” I told Monique. “Is for people who dress up. It’s too high maintenance. I’m just not a high-maintenance person.”

  My feelings about lipstick aren’t part of a personal style statement.

This is less true than it used to be. I’ve become somewhat higher maintenance as time goes on and, anyway, as reasons go, it’s a stretch. It takes 10 seconds to apply lipstick, maybe less.

Despite the “high maintenance” comment, my feelings about lipstick aren’t part of a personal style statement. I’m not proclaiming myself to be above it or to be “all natural,” which I don’t view as a higher way of being. I like perfume and pedicures and don’t have a problem with other cosmetics—concealer, foundation, eyeliner, blush. I’ve worn those things since I was 16, and I view them as enhancements: natural, but a little better. Concealer, eyeliner, blush all whisper, they don’t shout. But you can’t miss lipstick.

Read More: The Great Disappearing Act: Why Are My Lips Getting Thinner?

Loaded Lips

Still, my reasons (or excuses) notwithstanding, I think the real reason I don’t wear lipstick is something else. Lipstick is loaded for me. What other people see as a “finishing touch,” I see as “finished.” As Monique said, lipstick comes last.

When I was in high school, I babysat for a family who lived across the street. The parents went out on Saturday nights and like all parents then, when they went out, they dressed up.

Mitzi, the mom, wore pale chiffon dresses and White Shoulders perfume. Her bedroom was a swirl of pastels. The perfume lingered. The tissues in the wastebasket were blotted with lipstick kisses.

 Lipstick seemed to me the ultimate sign of arrival at female adulthood.

Women of my mother’s generation came of age in a time of dresses and hats, of matching pumps and purses. My mother never left the house without a handkerchief or a compact of pressed powder in her pocketbook, and she always wore lipstick—some shade of red that came in a gold case she could swivel up and down with one hand. Last but not least, the finishing touch.      

Lipstick seemed to me the ultimate sign of arrival at female adulthood. And I just didn’t want to see myself as having arrived.

It’s not like I’m shirking adulthood. I have reached and passed many of the markers of maturity: Marriage. Motherhood. Career. I have seen one set of parents and one set of in laws through the declines and deteriorations of old age, making decisions I never thought I’d have to make.

I Don’t Wear Lipstick Because Of What It Really Means

I’ve taken care of myself for a long time. I left home very young, lived on my own, and earned my own keep starting in my teens. Sometimes that meant not having car fare and sometimes it meant peanut butter for dinner, but those things didn’t bother me. I believed I’d get jobs that paid better, that I’d figure things out as I went along. The journey wasn’t over. It wasn’t finished. There was more.

When someone says lipstick is a “finishing touch,” I hear something else.

Maybe it’s semantics, something I misunderstood in childhood, the way the little girl in a short story I once read misunderstands when her parents buy a new home to make room for a new baby. Packing, they tell their little girl that soon she will be living in “her new house.” And the little girl thinks they mean that she will live alone in one house, while the parents and new baby live someplace else.

Maybe, when someone says lipstick is a “finishing touch,” I hear only “finished.” Journey over. End of the road. And that’s not what I want to feel, of course. Who does?

But Monique, the cosmetologist, was relentless. “You just haven’t found the right color,” she said, her voice soothing, as if my not wearing lipstick was a flaw she could fix. And the pink color she finally chose was pretty. Flattering. An argument on its behalf could be made.

“Wear it today,” she said. “See what you think.”

But I took it off as soon as I’d gone a few blocks from the store—pink lipstick kisses on a tissue I left in a trash can on the corner of First Avenue. The finishing touch.


Edra Ziesk has published three novels – The Trespasser, A Cold Spring and Acceptable Losses – as well as a YA biography of anthropologist Margaret Mead and many short stories, personal essays, reviews and non-fiction pieces. She is a recipient of fellowships in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Further Reading

Why I Wore Lipstick: To My Mastectomy

Face Paint: The Story of Makeup 

17 Lipsticks for People Who Hate Lipstick

A version of this story was originally published in June 2018. 

By Edra Ziesk


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