Lipstick has become an
essential element of my female identity. Not because I feel ugly, or less feminine without it, but I love that it serves as paint to the canvas that is my lips. When I moved away to college I started experimenting with different shades of lipstick, mainly darker pigments like violet, indigo, and deep berry. I utilized lipstick as a vehicle to express myself, expanding the boundaries of my female identity and broaden the way I wanted the world to view me.
With a newfound love for lipstick that grew as I inched away from teenhood and into adulthood, came other notable revelations. I stopped tolerating as much bullshit. I started speaking up when men would say sexist comments. I didn’t let the constructed views of femininity stop me from dressing edgy, experimentally, or even a little masculine. I refused to remain silent and passive in the ways girls have been groomed to do their whole lives. The confidence in my appearance, posture, and social interactions blossomed together powerfully, bringing me to a state where I really came to love my female identity and myself. All the while, my lipstick gave me an extra boost to make a fashion statement and give femininity a new meaning.
With my love for personal expression through lipstick, I wanted to take a look at other incredible, badass women in my life who make a statement through lipstick, then further analyze how their female identity has been crafted since their transition into adulthood.
The apartment vibrates, from the heavy buzz, the electronic bass amplifies through the living room speakers. The bar in town, Libby’s, is hosting a lineup of funky local bands tonight in an attempt to draw in a Friday night crowd, which is typically unheard of on a college campus that has socially designated Thursday and Saturday as the go-to bar nights. Like a ritual before any night of live music, the occupants of the apartment douse themselves with glitter and tie their hair up in funky buns (or leave it down and untamed for moshing purposes). They take whiskey shots chased by a mouthful of Pabst Blue Ribbon to acquire the perfect pre-game buzz, essential in avoiding spending any unnecessary money on extra drinks.
When the girls glitter-up, the saying “less is more” isn’t even an afterthought. Sprinkled on the couch, peppered on the kitchen counter and dusted all over the floor, the glitter almost adds a glistening flare to the otherwise bland, beer-stained carpet. Months from now the shiny dust will still linger between the cushions and fester beneath the furniture like a persistent, twinkling virus. Laughter and yelling ricochet off the walls and echo into the hallways as the bumping beat in the background builds up to its anticipated, immaculate drop. The floor is thumping. Friends, old and new, holding assortments of alcoholic drinks trickle in and out of the bedrooms, shuffle into the living room to dance, and then to the bathroom trying to share the mirror to dab on more glitter before making their way to the bar.
The sparkling bass queen appears at last, emerging from a cloud of vaporized e-cigarette smoke, bopping around to the thrashing, heavy beat with a head of tight chestnut curls accented with, you guessed it: glitter. Her chest and arms are also smeared with what looks like dazzling, magical war paint of girl power, but it’s really just Vaseline topped with glitter. Lots of glitter, that is luminously purple just like her lip color that electrifies and pops like her unbounded energy. For Madi, this is not unusual, as she is notorious on the college campus for her eccentric outfits that infuse elements of trendy style picks and creative quirkiness that craft a tasteful street- wear skater girl aesthetic. Basically, her fashion sense is fucking rad and she is not shy about showcasing it to the world. This confidence not only exists in her wardrobe, but it also extends to places like Scorpion’s Bar, where she is commonly found dancing solo in a leopard print jumpsuit, not interested in waiting for someone else to make the first move. Snapchat stories and social media posts alike will hail, praise, or maybe even mock the “Scorps Girl.”
Maybe others don’t really understand her style, given it takes a certain exposure to particular subcultures and nonconforming fashion gurus, which takes time to be infiltrated and diluted by mainstream commodification. And maybe it requires a better understanding of feminism and what constructs the female identity, because for Madi, she’s made it clear she doesn’t dress for anyone but herself.
“I don’t know I think it’s about owning whatever you’ve got on. I think I’ve always worn things now and then that people didn’t understand, but it really exploded for me in college,” Madi says.
Her female identity is exemplified through her carefree attitude, outlandish style, and her outright rejection of the “male gaze” that has the ability to dominate women’s fashion trends.
“With the shit I wear I’m basically a man repellant at this point,” Madi says.
And with that, Madi continues on with her night, armored in the daring purple lipstick that captivates the spunky essence of her female identity. She moshes front stage in the Libby’s basement, illuminated from head to toe, leaving behind an everlasting trail of glitter.
“I really don’t want to take a picture, I have really thin lips, but let me take a sip of beer first,” jokingly says Emma, who is sporting a soft shade of red, exemplifying her warmth, poise, and newfound assurance in her femininity.
A caricature of Emma would depict a girl wearing simple, funky fashion pieces, a radiant smile that amplifies an earnest, booming laugh, and a 16 oz. can of PBR closely clutched to her body. She too enjoys live music and the occasional bout with body glitter, but not to the same extent oas Madi.
Skateboarding and longboarding are generally male dominated activities on campus, except for a small amount of token girls who are consistently riding and shredding down the hills and winding streets of Durham. Emma is one of those girls, who can be spotted zooming down Main Street on a longboard, with her burnt orange hair and oversized flannel shirt riding with the wind behind her. Having an easy-going, low maintenance personality can be a virtue, but it can also be a vice when trying to make yourself heard in a male-dominated sphere.
Common in a girl’s teenage years, there is a desire to be the “cool girl” that hangs out with all the boys. Maybe it’s because the mindset is that “girls are too much drama” or that boys like girls who are “cool” and don’t care about feminism or political correctness. Many of us experienced this cringe worthy phase, including Emma.
“When I was younger, I hung around all dudes and I like, took pride in that, which like fuck that, because I hung out with all these dude stoners and thought I was the shit,” says Emma.
However, once she started college, she began to recognize ways she could better embrace her femininity without the admiration of fellow guy groups.
“When I came to college, I started hanging out with mostly girls, which is when I started to embrace my femininity and learn to not just let offensive, sexist things slide like I did when I hung out with the guys,” Emma says.
Embracing her femininity also came with incorporating stylish pieces into her outfits and wearing more makeup, and even a small tattooed feminist symbol on her ribcage. Her lipstick shade is strong yet subtle. Emma still remains the soft-spoken, cool-tempered woman she has always been, but now she speaks up when she needs to stand strong in her values and femininity.
Shannon walks in the room and sits down on the couch. She’s tapping her fingers on the sides of her thighs and her right foot is jittering, too. “I’m smoking cigs again,” she says. Not like that’s breaking news to me, Shannon has always does whatever she wants without the input from anyone else. Her lipstick is dark blue, deep like the crashing waves at sea that want to draw you in and take you away. She is a woman warrior who carries herself with scars inside and out, a girl who has lost her femininity and then fought vigilantly to get it back. A girl who comes off aggressive but is gentle once you pull back a layer or two.
Her biggest blow to her femininity was when she lost her hair in 5th grade during chemotherapy treatment. Girlhood is tough, but getting through it with post-cancer, “boy-like” hair adds more resistance that uphill, pubescent battle.
“People thought I was a boy,” she says. “It grew in super curly and people used to make fun of me for it, until I hit them with that ‘Oh I have cancer’ line. My femininity was really based around my hair, so that was tough for me.”
Even as her hair grew back, and the curls relaxed to their original smooth straightened state, the absence of femininity remained hollow into her teen years. Through trauma and figuring out her sexuality, Shannon spent her teenhood trying to figure out where she stood and who she could be in a male-dominated world. Similar to Emma, Shannon fell victim to that “cool girl” persona, finding it difficult to call out male friends who said problematic things. This is especially true in the local alternative/punk scene that Shannon spent a lot of time in, where women at shows already feel especially invisible and vulnerable, not wanting to ostracize themselves anymore than they already are.
Before finding her own path in college, she idolized her friend Leigh, who Shannon watched transform themselves from a feminine woman to now a gender-neutral person who chose to exemplify their masculine qualities. Shannon looked up to Leigh, who gave her early insight about feminism and what it means to reclaim your own female identity, even if it means taking it and transforming it into something completely different than anyone expects. She learned how it could be really fucking cool to embrace her feminine side and her masculine side while still standing strong as a beautiful, feminist woman.
College gave her the opportunity to pave her own path and connect with a regained sense of femininity she had lost for so many years. Her eyebrows are beautifully bold, yet furrowed. Her hair is soft, yet fiery with hues of violet red. Her lips beautiful, yet fierce, stand out amongst a crowd. Moving away from home allowed Shannon to find out what feminism meant to her and how she could incorporate that into her femininity. When it comes to makeup and style, she is all for experimenting with anything, and doesn’t care what anybody has to say about it.
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s business what you do with your face or how you look, I still feel beautiful without makeup, but I also feel fucking rad when I’m wearing makeup,” she says. “I feel really confident when I’m wearing bright pink or bright purple, I love that shit, and I feel like I can pull it off.“
Even with makeup she still takes opportunities to dress masculine when she feels like it, no longer feeling afraid that it inhibits her female identity.
“Sometimes I feel masculine, and I like that, it’s not because everyone else has labeled me as masculine like when I had cancer,” says Shannon.
Shannon rolls a cigarette that she’ll smoke in the car on her way home. She places the adequately rolled tobacco between her lips, leaving a blue stain on the white paper. She looks down and admires the mark she has left, almost like a badass stamp of femininity. The mark that many girls alike want to leave on not just their rolled cigarettes, but everything they want to be recognized and remembered for.
Photography by Jackie Rahl.