When Lipstick Under My Burkha first came out, the title of the film shocked many Indians. But now we’re faced with the question of whether one should wear lipstick under their face mask, or not. Women are now having to conceal their brightly painted lips under their masks, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since the first nationwide lockdown was announced in March this year, our social lives have nosedived, along with our make-up wearing and buying habits. Thanks to the lockdown and Covid-induced recession, people are purchasing less in general. McKinsey’s Global Consumer Sentiment Survey revealed that Amazon sales in the US, in the four weeks up to 11 April, showed the steepest decline in retail sales of any segment. In India, too, people cut down on non-essential shopping during the lockdown. Naturally, this led to a drastic dip in lipstick sales. According to Tokyo-based market research company Intage Holdings, year-over-year (YOY) sales of lipstick fell by 69.7 per cent in the second week of May in Japan. Indian beauty retailer Nykaa noted that lipstick had moved down from their ‘top five’ category during the lockdown period.
But why should anyone apart from cosmetic professionals and fashion influencers care about lipstick sales? Turns out a seemingly insignificant, yet beloved, item like lipstick can tell you a lot about the state of our economy. The ‘Lipstick Index’, a term coined during the 2001 recession by Leonard Lauder, the chairman of cosmetic giant Estée Lauder, is a concept that has helped brands navigate and survive several crises. Lauder observed that following the United State’s 9/11 attacks in 2001, his company sold more lipstick than usual. Lipstick came to signify an economic barometer that indicates how consumers might behave amid a “bruised economy”.
But the function of these bright-coloured waxy sticks is not just related to economics; they have a profound social and cultural significance too. Red lipstick, for instance, is not just a shade of a cosmetic product, it can stand from anything from sexuality to power to rebellion. Women choose what they wish to say with the red on their lips, just as they fight for the right to choose what they want in life. In India, lipstick has been a game-changer in the self-fashioning of women.
The Lipstick Revolution
In 2017, director Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha locked horns with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). After a prolonged battle, the powerful film about female desire and its myriad forms was re-edited and cleared for theatrical release. The film made a mark for lipstick and the many shades that the four female protagonists wear, bringing to life the metaphor of how lipstick can impact those who wear it.
Actor Ratna Pathak Shah’s character Buaaji, an elderly matriarch from a conservative family, is shown surreptitiously reading an erotic novel called ‘Lipstick Waale Sapne’. For the four women characters, who toe the line between their ‘secret’ and ‘real’ lives, lipstick makes a special appearance even in their wildest dreams and fantasies. The idea of wearing lipstick, for them, is akin to being their own stars in their own stories.
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The film probably did for Indian women what Elizabeth Arden, founder of the eponymous American cosmetic company, did for suffragettes in 1912. After supplying lipstick to them, ‘Red Door Lipstick’ soon became an important part of the rally uniform in the fight for female emancipation.
While Lipstick Under My Burkha did not sell actual lipsticks with its cinema tickets, it definitely sold the idea of freedom.
Alia Bhatt’s character Safeena in Gully Boy (2019) espouses a similar idea of freedom. When we see her at a railway station after she runs away from home, she is shown slowly applying bright lipstick on her lips — a sign of her setting off on a path to do what she really wants to.
Sense of self
What is it about lipsticks and women? Even if allowed to wear some occasionally, colours that ‘caught attention’ were a big no-no when I was growing up. Red, of course, was taboo. It was in the ’90s that brick red lipsticks became popular. Bollywood star Raveena Tandon, who ruled the roost with her hit songs ‘Tu cheez badi hai mast mast’ and ‘Tip tip barsa paani’ in film Mohra was particularly iconic with her dark tousled hair and bright lips. The fact that India had its own established cosmetic brand, Lakme, made the entry of lipsticks into middle-class homes easier. Interestingly enough, the brand was named after the french opera Lakmé, the french rendition of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi — and a symbol of wealth, power and beauty.
So, in my third year of college, armed with the confidence of being on my own in a new city, I decided that red was going to be my colour. And there has been no looking back ever since.
There is something about being able to buy and wear lipstick that gives a feeling of ‘growing up’, of being an adult on our own terms. With all this hard-won freedom, a virus cannot stop us from painting our lips and feeling fabulous.
My cook, Lakshmi, still wears lipstick, especially when she takes her children out for a walk or an ice lolly, making the personal ritual into a treat for herself. It’s a habit, she says, mask or no mask. Sumedha Gupta, a dental professional, echoes Lakshmi and says that wearing lipstick under her mask is like her own personal, secret confidence-booster.
“Be it in an OPD or in the gym, I don’t feel [like] myself without lipstick,” says Gupta. She remembers the exact moment she tried on lipstick for the first time — for a date. The guy, however, said it looked bad on her and advised her to wipe it off. Thankfully, she did not. And the rest is her personal lipstick history.
From Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe, countless women have chosen to sport the audacity and instant confidence that red lipstick carries with it. But like Gupta’s experience, it is not uncommon for men, whether it’s the boyfriend, husband or father, to tell women that they ‘don’t like it’.
Over the years, women have also learned to reconcile the urge for defiance that lipstick holds with the cosmetic industry’s commercial agenda in pushing a standardised idea of women’s beauty. This is just one of the many contradictions that modern women straddle.
When American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in as the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress in January 2019, her red lipstick and big hoops drew a fair amount of attention. But in true AOC style, she took to Twitter to explain that she was inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in US history, who was once advised to wear “neutral” coloured nail polish to avoid scrutiny. Sotomayor chose to stick to her favourite red.
AOC’s tweet was met with the Twitter equivalent of a standing ovation by supporters, as well as those who are sick of sexist beauty biases.
In 2008, BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was roundly criticised by women parliamentarians for his comment about how women “wearing lipstick and powder” were protesting on the streets of Mumbai in the aftermath of the terror attacks, “leading marches against the political class”. Then there was the instance of Congress leader Abhijit Mukherjee, son of former President Pranab Mukherjee, saying that protests carried out in national capital after the 2012 Delhi rape case were led by ‘dented and painted’ women.
Instead of actually focusing on issues being raised, these politicians were more focused on the make-up that women were wearing.
Bollywood has not had a better track record when it comes to this kind of regressive thinking. For the longest time, Hindi movies segregated vamps from heroines by creating a demarcation between ‘provocative’ red lipstick and tamer nude/pink shades. This tied into our own upbringing, wherein we were told that red is ‘too much’. In reality, red lipstick has always been about rebellion.
The pandemic, however, has been quite the dampener on the power of the mighty lipstick. According to analysts, lipstick is out, and ‘kajal’ or ‘mascara index’ is the new indicator of market trends.
Eye-make up, it seems, has survived the pandemic, and the onslaught of face masks. In direct contrast to falling lipstick sales, China’s Alibaba recorded a 150 per cent increase in sales of eye-cosmetics during the week of 18 February 2020.
But I still wear my lipstick under my mask, sometimes staining the protective gear. We might not be going out as much, but office Zoom meetings, livestream concerts, and virtual dates still warrant dress-up time.
Lipstick is here to say, and so are our events, because we are simply biding time till we can go out again unapologetically, masks or no masks. Because our lipsticks don’t lie.
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