On Applying Lipstick in Public

Apparently it is poor manners to touch up one’s makeup in public. And yet, as a woman who favors a bold lip, I find myself reapplying lipstick at least once a day, after eating my lunch. So am I banished to the restroom for such touch-ups? Must I close my office door if I wish to rebrighten my pout? I say no.

And apparently Sali Hughes agrees with me, though apparently not many others. She specifically addresses applying full makeup on the subway train, which is not a skill I’ve mastered. I once saw a woman applying mascara at on a moving train in the seat in front of me and I had to marvel at the steadiness of her hand and the delicacy with which she picked out each lash and enhanced them. Personally, I was proud of myself for managing to develop the skill of putting on lipstick. I find that if I shape my Cupid’s bow at a stop, I can apply the rest of the lip as the train leaves the station.

But what about those who say that applying even lipstick in public is a social faux-pas, akin to picking one’s teeth? To them, I would point out that the first wave of women applying makeup in public came in the 1920s, when women started publicly embracing makeup in general, and when makeup became less taboo for women outside of the less socially-acceptable professions. It is no coincidence that women started becoming more brazen in their public displays of femininity around the same time that campaigns for equal rights for women started paying off.

For there is the idea that women are delicate, and that therefore anything that differentiates them from men is part of what makes them unfit for the public eye. A woman applying makeup in public is making a statement that says “Look at me; I am a woman who feels the need to use cosmetics to enhance my appearance in a way that men don’t.” Saying that she shouldn’t make this statement is similar to those who think that woman should only wear natural-looking makeup, particularly in the workplace. You don’t want to give away that you need makeup. But how is that different than saying you don’t want to give away the ways in which you are different from men (although that’s not to say men never wear makeup!)?

To those who say that applying makeup in public is disgusting, I would ask what is disgusting about it? Unlike clipping one’s nails or picking one’s teeth, there is no removal of body waste that needs to be disposed of. One might perhaps have a small tissue that one uses to blot lipstick, but this is easily folded and pocketed in a way that clippings and pickings would not be. No, applying makeup is no different than putting on a bit of hand cream or uncolored lip balm, something that people do without worrying about running off to a private area. I would argue that those who are disgusted by public application of makeup can ultimately trace the disgust back to the idea that women should not make public that they use makeup.

Personally, I reapply my lipstick wherever I happen to be when I notice it needs reapplying. If that is at the table at a cafe, so be it. If it is in my office, I don’t worry about someone walking by and seeing me. No, I wouldn’t reapply lipstick in an interview, but then, I wouldn’t wear a lipstick that would need reapplication from the rigors of sipping water and talking. I wear a bright lip; everyone knows that those don’t just happen naturally. So it should come as no surprise when they see me pull out a lipstick bullet and swipe on a coat. And I will often check my lipstick in a small compact mirror because I consider it far less gauche to check one’s makeup than to have a smear of lipstick on one’s chin. Even the most matte formulas can be defeated, and it’s not an enjoyable experience to be told you have lipstick where it ought not to be.

And so, I say put on your lipstick in public. It is unobtrusive and unlikely to cause damage to your eyes the way a hasty eye makeup application might. There is a minimum of danger, and you will find yourself keeping alive the spirit of women who made makeup a mainstream thing for a woman to care about in public. I say that’s good company.