Real Simple

First Person

It doesn’t make sense that a nubbin of wax, emollients, and pigments could improve someone’s outlook in the past year. But for Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, it did the trick.

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Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney on loving lipstick

THE THINGS I GAVE UP when our Los Angeles quarantine began well over a year ago ranged from the sublime—seeing people I love, embracing my adult children, dining out, traveling the world—to the commonplac­e. Jeans were the first to go, quickly followed by anything other than the most comfortabl­e flat shoes (OK, I mean slippers), jewelry, perfume, and makeup. I don’t tend to wear a lot of makeup in normal times. I am, however, someone who always, always wears lipstick. I invariably have a pot or tube close— in a coat pocket, handbag, drawer, glove compartmen­t.

I pin the beginning of my lifelong relationsh­ip with lipstick to a family vacation in the late 1960s. We were driving from my hometown of Rochester, New York, to Toronto. A three-hour journey that felt like days to a kid. As we pulled onto the New York State Thruway, my mother reached into her bag of traveling tricks and handed me a toy makeup kit, the kind they used to sell on a hanging rack at Woolworths, next to car bingo and Silly Putty and baby dolls with plastic bottles half full of fake milk. I vividly remember using my finger to slather on the sky blue “eye shadow” and the rosy pink “rouge” and the ruby red “lipstick” while trying to see my face in the tiny piece of reflective foil that served as the package’s “mirror.” Within minutes of transferri­ng the entire kit onto my face, I was complainin­g about being hot and sweaty.

“Welcome to wearing makeup,” my mother said, with a little laugh. When we arrived at our hotel, I made a beeline for the bathroom, eager to wash off the grease paint. But before I did, I glanced in the mirror and couldn’t believe how, well, how great I looked. It was me, but different. My face, but brighter and heightened. Especially the lips. I pursed them and smiled at myself and dug my finger into the cardboard depression of the toy kit to scrape out whatever ruby red “lipstick” remained. I was hooked. I was 9 years old.

The Christmas I was 13, I reached into my stocking and out came a plastic Oreo cookie, courtesy of Avon, around three inches in diameter. The Oreo opened to reveal two side-by-side shades of lip gloss: frosty light peach and frosty light pink. Lord, did I love that thing. I’d apply the pink, rub it off, try the peach, rub that off, back to the pink. Sometimes

I switched colors middinner, just as I imagined Diana Ross did. For better or worse, the interior of that plastic Oreo cookie set my lipstick color palette for life. A quick survey of my current lipsticks reveals what has been true since that fateful Christmas morning. Every single one is a variation on a theme: frosty peach or frosty pink.

I see the inherent aesthetic logic in these choices. I have a French and Italian background and the kind of face that frequently makes friends and even strangers ask, “What’s wrong?” My features seem to settle into an expression of disapprova­l or worry even when I’m not experienci­ng those emotions. Lipstick brightens my face. It draws attention to my maybe too-wide mouth, but it also seems to give everything a lift, elevating me from background actor in a Fellini movie, trudging down a country road while carrying battered luggage, to carefree all-American girl lounging poolside. Or so I like to think.

When I moved to New York City after college, my love affair with lipstick took full flight. I don’t remember the exact shade I was wearing one night in Manhattan in my mid-20s when I arrived at a party where I didn’t know too many people—though I do remember it was a perfect match for my hot pink blouse with shoulder pads, bought for a song off the rack at Bolton’s. Standing in the kitchen, a bit adrift, I did what I always do in similar situations: I went to find my lipstick. After reapplying, I was slipping the tube back into the pocket of my denim jacket when a tall, darkhaired, handsome stranger entered the room to drop off his coat. He offered me a piece of Bazooka chewing gum. We walked out of the kitchen together and kept talking. Reader, I married him—a man who, somewhat ironically, given that

lipstick brought us together, prefers my naked face. “If you’re doing that for me, you don’t have to,” he said early in our dating life during my morning makeup routine. (Had I just hovered a navy kohl eyeliner over an open flame to apply it more smoothly? Probably.) His suggestion was driven by kindness, but I didn’t take it that way. I bristled, lifted a (lined) brow, and said, “Thanks. But I do this for me.”

And I did! I loved the ritual of lipstick. Uncapping the tube, the gentle revolution, the careful applicatio­n, the blot. I loved applying lip color in a car’s rearview mirror or a restaurant’s glass window. I had one-night stands with the neon pinks of the mid-’80s. I flirted with the dark lip liner and nude gloss of the early ’90s. I had a brief fling with the brick red mattes of the early 2000s.

Parenthood found me neglecting the makeup portion of my morning. Who had time? That is, until the day the Washington Square playground was abuzz over the arrival of a flagship MAC store. It had a magical new policy, one that would become a standard (and, frankly, given the past year, slightly insane) practice: You could use alcohol to clean any lipstick you wanted to try, and then put it on your actual lips. This was novel and exciting. Did I push my two babies in an unwieldy double stroller into that store so I could try on lipstick? You bet I did. And there I found the second great love of my life.

The color seemed made for me, a beige-pink with a light frost finish. Not too pink, not too peach. I put it on and felt like Natalie Wood swanning around Saint-Tropez. I wore the lipstick when I was a bridesmaid in my sister’s wedding, and years later when I was godmother at her first child’s christenin­g. I wore it in December and I wore it in June. I unpacked it in two different bathrooms in our consecutiv­e homes in Brooklyn. I wore it to Italy and France and Ireland and Hawaii.

So why is it that no amount of googling or eBay searching can conjure its name from my memory? I wore it (and bought it) long after it started to look slightly dated, slightly too Natalie Wood at Saint-Tropez (if that’s even possible). I wore it until I went to buy a fresh one and was informed that the color had been discontinu­ed and my heart broke a little. A number of friends offered the names of places where I could have it replicated, but I took it as a sign. The color had reached the end of its natural life, and now I was a lipstick widow.

I cast about for a new favorite and found a few I liked, but only as friends. Then a move to Los Angeles, and older kids who drove themselves, meant my daily interactio­ns with other humans dramatical­ly decreased and, along with them, the number of lipsticks in my medicine cabinet.

You’d think it would have been a relief when masks made lipstick pointless, the perfect opportunit­y to break an unnecessar­y habit. But like everything else during the weird, unsettling time of Covid, it felt like another loss. An insignific­ant loss, to be sure, but still one more thing I loved to do but couldn’t, or shouldn’t, because lipstick stained my masks and made zero sense. Then one day, rummaging through a drawer, I found a lipstick I’d bought right before lockdown. I tossed it into my purse, and when I got into the car, I tilted the rearview mirror (hello, old friend) and applied two layers of Gucci Beauty René Pink. I loved it. I still love it, and I wear it all the time, though I’m the only one who knows.

When I take off my mask (will it surprise you to learn they are mostly peach and pink?), there’s always a lipstick mark on the white linen back. A tiny kiss to me, from me. A reminder of easier days when we didn’t understand the privilege of a full face. It’s a moment of normalcy in the most abnormal time of my entire life. A way to remind myself that eventually (someday soon?) other people will see the lower half of my face. They’ll look at me, probably ask, “What’s wrong?,” and I’ll flash a peach or pink smile and say, “I’ve missed you. I’m so happy to see you.”

I’d apply the pink lip gloss, rub it off, try the peach, rub that off, back to the pink. I’d switch colors middinner, just as I imagined Diana Ross did.

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