I’m the mother who bought a tube of lipstick for her 6-year-old son. He asked. I was feeling generous. He chose his own color: pink. As far as I can tell, my only shortcoming was in not teaching him how to apply it correctly. Total fail on my part. When it comes to clothes, costumes, makeup, I’m wide open. As far as I’m concerned, if David Bowie could rock lipstick, so can my son.
I want my child to be as self-expressed as possible, not boxed in in the way I see some men: so tightly bound they can barely breathe. So, I let him wear lipstick. Red, pink, it doesn’t matter.
Back in 1918, it did matter. Pink would have been the norm for boys. In fact, an article from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department proclaimed:
The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.
It wasn’t until the 1940’s that manufacturers and retailers decided pink was a color for girls; blue was a color for boys.
The 1940’s was a time when American advertisers and businesses could profit from others by collapsing gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. Certainly, gender identity has often been defined via clothing, but separating out expression, identity, sex, and attraction can be liberating.
The Genderbread Person
In the Genderbread person, Sam Killermann defines all of these attributes:
Gender identity is how you perceive your own gender in your mind. This could include woman, man, two-spirit, genderqueer, and non-binary, amongst others. I know a person, Joe, who feels he is thirty percent woman and seventy percent man. His gender expression, however, is different.
Gender expression is how you express your gender outwardly. This could be clothing, gestures, voice, etc. Killermann gives scales that include masculine, feminine, asexual, and gender neutral. Joe expresses himself in a very masculine way through his voice, clothes, and gestures. This differs from how he feels internally.
Biological sex is the physical sex characteristics you are born with: genitalia, voice, body hair, chromosomes, etc. It could include male, female, intersex, etc. Experts at medical centers say 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births produce a child who is atypical in terms of biological sex. That child doesn’t fit neatly into binary categories easily described by terms such as penis or vulva.
Sexual and romantic attraction are also pieces of the puzzle – from who you’re attracted to, to no one at all: asexual, demisexual (only attracted if there’s a strong emotional connection), pansexual, bisexual, gay, straight.
Now, why break all of this down? Because people have a tendency to simplify and merge all of them together. What you look like should somehow correlate with how you feel inside which should correlate with your genitalia as well as who you are attracted to. It doesn’t always work that way. By not collapsing these, a space is opened for men (really for everyone, but this is geared towards men) to know who they truly are. From there, they can create a gender expression that more authentically expresses identity, sex, attraction, and so on.
Why Red Lipstick? A Brief History
Red lipstick is currently connected to the feminine, but it wasn’t always that way. Both men and women in ancient Sumeria 3500 BC wore red lipstick but the history and transformation of lipstick from that time to ours is dramatic. Imagine bugs, lead, crushed gemstones, flowers, and fish scales amongst the ingredients used to paint that pouter red. Often, upper-class people wore lipstick as a way to differentiate themselves from the lower classes, which is why men and women wore lipstick. Throughout the ages, lipstick eventually became associated with prostitutes (to differentiate themselves from real ladies), death (Elizabeth I – lead lipstick poisoning), and the suffragettes. By the 1930’s, Vogue declared lipstick to be the ultimate fashion accessory but inexorably linked to women.
Nowadays, the tide is turning with the availability of red lipstick. It is no longer linked to prostitution or death though it is almost exclusively associated with the feminine. Perhaps there is space in history for red lipstick to be an outlet for authentic gender expression and identity beyond the binary.
Red Lipstick on Men
I’ve always loved the look of red lipstick on myself and on others. When men rock the red, it’s interesting to note how their style correlates to different aspects of the genderbread person. For this piece, I wanted to find men who have a wide range of outward expression: from masculine to feminine to androgynous. I wanted straight men, gay men, men with fluid sexuality. In short, I wanted to look at men who embody the genderbread spectrum and consider what is possible.
David Bowie immediately came to mind. Bowie wasn’t afraid to push the edge of fashion or music throughout his career, though, at the same time, he was also able to demonstrate class and style that ranged from drag, fully costumed to traditionally masculine, and androgynous. He self-described at times as bi-sexual and “try-sexual.” Photographer Diego Uchitel captured Bowie in red lipstick: classically masculine bowtie, piercing eyes, impenetrable.
Other men who have rocked the red lips are: Robert Smith of The Cure, sporting wild hair and red lipstick. Eddie Izzard, famous for cross-dressing, comedy, and activism, who recently came out as transgender (explaining that he has both girl and boy modes). Fabulously rocking drag are James Franco for Candy Magazine, John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the infamous Ru Paul. Bringing up the androgynous end is Marilyn Manson, who has the ability to swing from the slightly more sedate to the wildly less sedate with his own style. Lastly (but certainly not least), Jacob Tobia identifies as non-binary, goes by the pronoun “they,” and chooses a mix of masculine and feminine in their dress.
There are certainly many more men who rock the red lips. Some bring forth the feminine, others the masculine, others something that seems to defy any sort of gender definition. For some, gender identity is presented on the outside – as in Eddie Izzard. For others, it’s less clear. And still, it all works for them in their own unique ways. The key is having a range of possibility, so men don’t feel so trapped. They show who they want to be as opposed to who society tells them to be.
Beyond Red Lipstick: Redefining Gender Expression to Authentic Expression
I asked my son not only about pink lipstick but about wearing pink. I told him I didn’t care what color he wore. He rolled his eyes.
“Of course you’re supposed to say that. You’re my mom.” He sighed. “I’d wear pink, but there’s none there.”
“None in the boys’ section. They don’t have pink clothes in the boys’ section.” You see, my son doesn’t want to be a girl even though internally he feels half boy and half girl. He wants to express as a boy who wears pink. It wasn’t a matter of whether he’d wear it. It was a matter of where he’d get it.
In 2015, Target addressed some guest complaints by committing to de-genderize departments like Toys and Home. However, this does not extend to clothes, which might have “sizing issues.” It’s a start and certainly, others could follow.
The same goes for lipstick or any other accoutrement or clothing deemed “feminine.” Herein is the problem: how do you express yourself authentically if the tools you wish to use are stereotyped, boxed away, inaccessible, or just expensive? You want a pink shirt? You’ll have to shell out some dough for it. You want unisex clothing? Try a boutique. Not cheap.
For some, gender expression might be totally irrelevant. Showing who you are on the outside, what you think of yourself on the inside, what cards biology has dealt you—all of this might be private or obvious or simply a non-point. For others, the ability to add a subtle or not-too-subtle flourish that expresses who they truly are is a game-changer.
This means men and boys who witnessed artists like David Bowie going beyond the standard man box heaved a collective sigh of relief. Some felt they now had permission to express themselves as fully as possible along the spectrum. They could finally be true to themselves.
In Axe Men’s Grooming Product 2016 commercial called “Find Your Magic,” the opening image shows a man with a six-pack. The voice over explains, “Who needs a six-pack when you got the nose?” The images that follow go beyond the initial chiseled abs showing a wide range of what is possible: a man in a wheelchair, geeks in a record shop, a man sporting black heels and rocking them, etc. The possibility of what a man can be expands, as I see it expand with a generation of young men in their teens and twenties, my own six-year-old son, and a path forged by men who were willing to take a chance and simply be themselves. They smashed the man box. Sometimes with a hammer, and other times with the bright slash of a red lipstick.
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