What My Mother Taught Me About Wearing Lipstick

by Lisa Sadikman
Originally Published: 

She slides the cover off of the gleaming gold tube and swivels the bottom until a slanted, creamy orange cylinder appears. Carefully leaning over the sink, she swipes up and over first one side of her top lip, then the other, then finally the bottom lip, moving smoothly side to side. Standing back, she rubs her lips together and gently blots them on a square of tissue, leaving a glamorous lipsticked “O.”

As a little girl, I watched in wonder as my mom applied Estee Lauder, Lancome, Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent. She was never a slave to a particular name. It was always about the color: a vivid can’t-miss shade of orangey red. This was, and still is, her everyday lipstick, and there has never been a day that I can recall when my mother hasn’t worn it.

She wears it to the gym and to the grocery store. She wears it to book club and bridge club. She wore it when she volunteered for Meals on Wheels, bringing me along as a little girl on her deliveries, and when she brought meals to her cancer-ridden cousin and her family. She wore it to class when she went back to school for a degree in interior design, smiling at the homeless man who always offered to wash her windshield when she exited the highway into the city. Smiling even as she said, “No, thank you.” She wears it to funerals and weddings, while hosting congressmen and when visiting my girls’ school for Grandparents’ Day.

Growing up, I couldn’t wait to wear lipstick just like her, but when I was in middle school, it was sticky lip gloss all the girls slathered on their lips. I finally ventured to the Clinique counter in my late teens. I tried on all the oranges and reds. “I think you’re more a pink,” said the saleswoman. I ignored her and bought a shimmery shade of papaya, but I hardly ever wore it. Lipstick just didn’t look right on me, with my thin upper lip and asymmetrical pout. Who needed it anyway, and why did my mom wear it every day no matter what?

In my 20s and generally opposed to lipstick unless it was a formal, evening occasion, I scoffed at my mom and her constant lipsticking. Who wears makeup to the gym when you’re just going to sweat it off? No one cares what I look like shopping for jarred pasta sauce and frozen vegetables. Why should I “put my face on” to impress my colleagues when my work should speak for itself?

It wasn’t until I needed to show up for my life that I finally understood the power of a good lipstick.

The first few weeks of my oldest daughter’s life were full of stress and worry. Nursing did not come easy for us, and she lost too much weight too quickly. My visions of lullaby-filled days gave way to the reality of sleepless nights brimming with the desperate cries of a hungry infant. Each morning I woke up more tired and rattled than the last. Raccoon eyes stared back at me from the mirror. My lips were pale and dry.

I rummaged through my bathroom drawers, pulling out Ruby Slipper, the dark pink shade I’d worn on my wedding day almost two years earlier. I smoothed it over my top lip, then quickly across the bottom. I blotted my lips on a tissue and surveyed my work. I still looked worn out and a little ridiculous with nothing but lipstick on my face, but there was something about that dash of color that rooted me, and I felt the most infinitesimal shift: I am here.

Gliding through a life where every opportunity hovered within my reach, where my options were never bad, just good and better, I’d never had to consciously choose to show up. My life simply happened around me. As a new mother, I had to show up every day not just for myself, but for my daughter, too.

Staring at my stained lips, my mom’s daily lipstick ritual suddenly made sense. A lot of life is about showing up, and putting on lipstick is my mom’s way of doing just that, whether it’s to fold the laundry, study for night school or comfort a dying loved one.

I’ve been wearing lipstick almost daily for 12 years now. When my mom suggests I might want to put some on before we walk out the door, whether it’s to lunch in the city or to pick up the kids from school, I always fish that tube out of my purse and pucker up.

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