The other day a friend posted on FB that her daughter’s Barbie doll had successfully come through head reattachment surgery. My friend posted a picture of the brave patient with head indeed reattached to body, but with a swath of green paint covering one side of her face. My friend went on to admit that the face paint removal had not been so successful. They had tried everything including some rather radical approaches to plastic surgery such as paint thinner, acetone, and lye soap, all to no effect except a little hair loss. Poor Barbie! I smiled at the story, remembering my own adventures in motherhood, reattaching the button eye to Raggedy Andy and fixing other mishaps that made me a supermom–at least for a while.
I noted that although half of Barbie’s face retained a decidedly green tint after enduring all manner of chemical treatments, her lipstick on those slightly curved, pouty lips remained perfectly, perfectly red. I know that Barbie has taken some knocks in the years since I was a girl, but I hadn’t kept up with her societal ups and downs after I became a mother. My son flew through the doll aisle on his way to Legos and Transformers. I knew from some of my mom friends that the manufacturer had changed Barbie’s appearance in response to charges that Barbie reinforced unrealistic body image. Her half-hooded eyes with dark blue eye-shadow had been rounded and opened, her breasts had been reduced and her waste and hips expanded to give her more realistic–and girlish–proportions. Yet as I stared at the Barbie in the FB post, I was relieved to see that those red lips had stood the test of time as well as acetone.
I have always been fascinated by lips. As a girl, they symbolized the quintessential element of female beauty. My Barbie’s lips were her best feature. Her lipstick perfectly applied, perfectly intact, no matter what the occasion or activity, whether cheerleader, astronaut, doctor, or Arabian princess. I absorbed at young age an important life lesson: you can do anything, be anything, endure anything with strongly painted lips.
In reflecting upon my Barbie-influenced childhood, I realize that I still believe that I can face just about anything–and at this stage of my life I feel that I have faced that and more–as long as my lipstick is intact.
My mother wore Barbie-red lipstick. Revlon’s Love that Red. This is not a lipstick for the shy, nor the inexperienced. It requires the utmost care in application lest a slip of the hand create a Joker-esque grimace rather than the alluring pout. My mother was a lipstick pro. Not only could she apply her lipstick perfectly every time, but she did it without the aid of a mirror.
My mother learned her talent by necessity. She grew up in a city on Lake Michigan during World War II. There were concerns that a German U-boat could, theoretically, pass undetected through the Saint Lawrence Sea Way and into the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard outpost in my mother’s town was the last line of defense between the Germans and Chicago. The Coast Guard took this risk seriously and took the precaution of outlawing all hand mirrors including lady’s compacts, lest one be used to signal a lurking U-boat. My mother was thirteen when the U.S. entered the war and spent her adolescence under these rules. But young minds adapt to the situation and young women learned to make do with leg make, mended or remade dresses, and applying lipstick without mirrors.
My mother could put on lipstick anywhere. She took out her ever-present tube and freshened up her lipstick in the car, at the restaurant table, and in the kitchen before my father came home from work. Even after my mom had lost her supermom status in my eyes, as I grew older and came to realize that she could not fix everything in my life, she still retained her lipstick mystique.
When I was cleaning out her house after moving her to an assisted living apartment, I counted fifteen tubes of Love that Red, most of them unopened, in every make up kit, in every drawer. Waiting. For her. To find them. Even when her memory betrays her and she can’t find anything else her lipstick will not let her down.
I grew up in an era that did not value red lips. Ironically, for all of us who had received our first makeup lesson from a Barbie doll, we favored Mary Quant and Twiggy: dark mascara, light brows and pearlescent-pink lips. I have experimented with different lip colors over the years: corals, plums, magenta, even purple, until I settled on a color that wasn’t too daring or remarkable, a brownish red , more of a tint really. And I have worn it for a long time. Until now.
I guess there comes a time in everyone’s life, perhaps triggered by a significant loss such as the death of a parent or unexpected death of a friend, when we do the math and realize that unless modern medicine has us all living until we are 120, we are well into the fourth-quarter of our life. When parenting our children is finished and parenting our parents begins…if we are lucky to have them around. The realization hits that there is no use holding back because there is nothing to hold back from, that this is the time, the perfect time, to be daring, to speak out, to be unreasonable in requesting that things change.
So after years of purchasing my unremarkable lipstick at a department store cosmetics counter, I went to my CVS and found the Revlon section. Love that Red. It has taken some practice to get it right. I can’t apply it without a mirror. Yet. But I wear it with pride. Brightly. Boldly. Taking the next step to right the world before I leave it. Ready to do combat with social injustice. Head held high. Lipstick intact.