Indulge me in a quick flashback: When I was about four or five years old, I was browsing the costume shack at Sonny Acres Pumpkin Farm in West Chicago. The year was approximately 1995, many years before the current acceptance of a person’s free will in defining their gender. I bounded excitedly towards an exquisite bagged costume of The Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White. From the age of three onward, and to this day, I am a fanatic fan of the Disney Villainesses. My first movie I was graced to see in a movie theater was, appropriately enough, Snow White. My parents divulged the fact that when Snow White or the dwarfs were on screen, I was either bored or fitful, crying with fevered angst. Yet, when the Queen or her subsequent witch form were on screen, I would smile and clap. A few years later, at preschool, I would pretend I was Cruella de Vil in the sandbox and shout “crazy woman driver!” at my grandfather.
I approached the costume with every bit of intent of buying it, know that this was the costume for me this year, despite it being an adult size. My father quashed my dreams before they began, sadly. His argument was not that it was too big for me, as that was never brought up. His excuse was that “this was a girl’s costume and boys don’t wear things like that.” There was, sadly, nothing else I could do. I was resigned to being Dracula for the fourth year in a row, all because society deemed that a boy dressed as a queen was an embarrassment.
On Tuesday, June 28th, I sat in a box at The Goodman Theatre, watching fictional manifestations of two of the biggest make-up moguls engage in a scintillating battle royale. As I watched Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden and Patti LuPone has Madame Helena Rubinstein in War Paint, I was not only inspired by the performances, but by the products these women created.
The next week, my sister and I were at Oakbrook Mall, a gorgeous outdoor shopping center filled with ritzy stores and impeccable landscaping. On a whim, as we were walking through Macy’s eating our weight in cookies, I decided to take a detour through the cosmetics department, despite the fact that men walking through there are often seen as odd, pallid creatures who must be up to no good, with devious minds. All of a sudden, I was standing in front of fruits of the labor of the creator of The Red Door, Elizabeth Arden. The woman at the counter was slightly shocked by the fact that I was approaching her and asking her about the products, but she silenced her internal panic by reminding me that several of their products were in fact “unisex.” I ignored that blight, and began to try several things, eventually settling on a bottle of Red Door lotion, an exquisite perfumed lotion with real fragrant perfume infused in it. Since I spent over $35, I was happily awarded a free gift bag, including more lotions, cremes, sunblock, and one very special item.
When I returned home, I locked the bathroom door and spread out my stash on the counter. I sampled all of the more apparent things, smiling as each one was better than the last. Yet, I was fascinated by a brilliant jet-black tube in the corner. I knew what it was, as I live in a house with three women. It was a tube of dark red lipstick, the color reminiscent of crimson blood.
I opened it up, twirling the base as the lipstick itself glided up, affording me a glance at a decadent world I had never stepped foot in. Lipstick, in my humble opinion, is an incredible invention, transforming the fact into an objects d’art, a living canvas. If you can find the right shade for your skin type, it can transform an ugly duckling into a swan and enhance the natural beauty we all have within us.
In my mind, one deviant phrase flashed into my consciousness: “Do I dare?” I lifted the sacred object up to my lips and, after several fraught coatings, I evened out the mess I had created.
And I loved what I saw.
Here was a face, the face of a man, still a man in every aspect. But the lips, once a dull, slightly purple affair were now coated in rich crimson red. I felt, in that moment, a surge of power and a renewal of self-worth. As I had listened the previous week to Arden and Rubinstein extol the virtues of what the proper application of this invention, I was now seeing the evidence with my own eyes.
All of a sudden, I was plagued with the guilt of our cultural consciousness. “I shouldn’t be wearing this,” I thought to myself. Every red-blooded American boy was born to play sports, breed like rabbits, and never step out of the prescribed limits. But, I asked myself, who set these limits? Who one day decreed that there were things that only men can do and all else would be punished by ridicule and condemnation?
In that moment I affirmed my philosophy that gender roles are meant to be broken. These guidelines have limited our thinking for long enough and, as social constructs, are now obsolete. There are no rule-books for life, telling us what to do and how to do it. It is up to us to figure out what works for us and how we can become comfortable enough with ourselves to embrace what we love.
So now, whenever I can, I apply a very light coat of lipstick to my lips before leaving the house. I never overdo it, and sometimes its hardly noticeable. But, no matter how pronounced it is, I know its there. My own happiness is more important than some misguided guidelines that were shackled on me at birth. I can feel the power it gives me as I lift it to my lips, powering my love of life and my love of my own values.
We’ll never know what we like if we don’t try it and we most certainly will never discover these things if we wait for society to give us the go ahead. We need to take risks and not fear the tutting from those around us, who have no evolved beyond the Puritan sensibilities that have plagued our culture for far too long.
I’ll never leave the house without my war paint, because it truly is a war now. It is a war against the shackles of the past and a brilliant affirmation of the power of the individual.
I can finally say, with utter conviction, that I’m Steven, I’m a human being, and I love wearing lipstick.
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Tags: christine ebersole, confidence, cosmetics, counterculture, cruella de vil, disney villains, elizabeth arden, evil queen, gender, gender issues, gender roles, goodman theatre, helena rubinstein, lipstick, make-up, memoir, patti lupone, personal, philosophy, snow white, society, war paint