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How Lipstick Works

Lipstick in Culture -- It's About More Than a Pretty Face

Often lipstick is the first cosmetic that an adolescent girl is allowed to wear, usually in the form of a sheer gloss. Eventually it becomes part of many a woman's "uniform," to the point where she feels somehow incomplete or unfinished if she doesn't put it on. In fact, lipstick is most likely to be the only type of makeup worn if there's not the time or the desire to put on anything else. Lipstick does serve a purpose beyond looking pretty -- many of them do condition and protect the fragile skin on the lips. But other than its looks, why do women wear lipstick?

One theory is that it emphasizes a woman's sexuality. By amping up the color of the lips, a woman is subconsciously echoing the color of her vaginal lips, or labia, in an effort attract attention from men. Another theory points out that young girls' lips are generally brighter in color than older women's, so women apply lipstick in an effort to appear younger and more attractive. Some researchers take this idea a step further and believe that using lipstick marks a desire to return to an infantile "rosebud mouth." Perhaps in response to these theories, some women refuse to wear lipstick because they consider it a patriarchal trap.

However, wearing lipstick can also be very empowering for women. When it still wasn't generally considered "nice" for women to wear lipstick, women during the suffrage movement in the late 1890s and early 1900s wore it to defy the norm. The 1980s power-suit-wearing woman sometimes considered her lipstick as part of her armor as she struggled to make her way in the male-dominated corporate world. Today, women in patriarchal societies and those under religious law such as Iran are forbidden to wear lipstick.

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