August 2, 2003

After the teacups

Lip-painting has always struck me as a curious phenomenon. On clowns and harlequins in search of wide, false smiles, on harlots and whores covering up traces of disease, the custom of applying sticks of waxy grease makes some sense. But why on earth do millions of otherwise attractive women slather their mouths with the stuff?

Some do it to achieve unnatural color- the occasional blue-lipped punk or black-mouthed goth bears some relation to the aforementioned harlots and harlequins. Their choice, while aesthetically odd, is not as unfathomably wretched as that of the hordes of girls who pick from a wide variety of pinks and reds designed to look better without looking like lipstick. There are three very good reasons to eschew lip-grease, in ascending circles of intimacy.

First, the attempt to make the female face look better is usually both unneeded and a failure. Lip color matches skin color and hair color. A pair of unusually reddened or pinked lips doesn't look seductive, it simply looks out of balance. Even a woman who picks her natural color and uses it merely to make her lips appear more full wrongly cheats her natural reactions. Lip movements are a key to facial expression, and lipstick masks that emotion as badly as Botox.

Second, even the most skillfully applied makeup can't bear close scrutiny. While a careful smear of the perfectly chosen color might survive a job interview, closer contact is too much for even that. When ballroom dancing, arm wrestling, playing poker, or simply sharing a few soulful secrets at Jimmy's, somebody is apt to end up staring at your face, and let's face it- facially applied grease compounds don't look at all like human skin.

The third applies only in limited circumstances, but with particular force. Lipstick is greasy and yucky and tastes awful. Kissing a girl who is wearing lipstick is like chewing on a wax candle. To the extent that girls wear lipstick in order to be attractive and seductive, they miscalculate. Tactile attractiveness is even more important than natural coloring. A girl who wants to be kissed (and many don't) should be sure to exude touchability, not grease up and unnaturally redden her lips. This is the same reason to be careful about sequined prom dresses, which give the scaly feel of a reptile without the appeal of a forked tongue.

I am not arguing that we should always spurn the decorated for the adorned. Clothing and jewelry are an attractive part of an ensemble. A judicious tattoo can also appeal. Proper fashion is artwork. But this art is best kept off of the human face, where colored grease should yield to expressiveness and texture.

From afar, lip grease has its limited uses. Actors and dancers, and those with injuries or a taste for the outrageous can get away with occasional uses of lipstick. But painting the lily is dangerous ground where women should tread far more carefully than they do.

Will Baude, a rising 4th year, maintains a blog at http://baude.blogspot.com, and happily accepts hate mail at baude@uchicago.edu.