By Mercy Adhiambo
On Friday, I got a call from my best friend, Rossi, in Kenya. A few minutes into our conversation, she lowered her voice and told me:
“Today is National Lipstick Day, and I am wearing very red lipstick.”
I laughed. Not because it was National Lipstick Day, but the thought of my friend wearing lipstick sounded very outrageous to me.
We were both born and reared in a village where it was inconceivable for women to wear lipstick.
We grew up listening to our parents saying things like: “I hope you do not become one of those directionless women who wear lipstick and swing their hips as if they were not brought up properly.”
Lipstick, at least for them, represented the decadence of morality in the world, and they didn’t want us to become a part of it.
I wore my first lipstick in March 2009. I was 21 years old.
My pen pal, Kim Robinson, from Minnesota – who I had met through a writing website – sent me a gift package with a lot of girl stuff in it. Inside it was a shiny silver tube of lipstick.
I still remember the sweet bubblegum scent when I opened it and placed it near my nostril.
The rich streak it drew on my arm when I tried it, and how my heart beat so loud against my chest as I raised it to color the outlines of my lips.
I was going through a transformation – right in front of the cracked mirror that reflected my image while I clumsily painted my lips a deep crimson red.
I stared at myself for a brief moment, then took the hem of my leso (a rug that women tie around their waist for decency) and wiped it all off.
But the feeling, even though brief, was divine.
It was a feeling of liberation.
I caressed the tube between my fingers for a while, and immediately knew I was in love.
The biggest burden remained where I would wear the lipstick without breaking my mama’s heart.
I buried it inside my metallic clothes box. Wrapped it up in a heap of clothes then locked the box. Every evening, when my mama was away in the market selling fish, I would give myself a makeover and rejoice in the feeling of knowing that I could wear lipstick. It didn’t matter that nobody saw me.
That tiny silvery bottle was a symbol of my freedom. It reminded me just how much I wanted to break from the shackles of the definitions and restrictions the society had put on the girl child, and how good it felt to play by my own rules.
One Saturday morning, I decided to step things up and wear my lipstick.
My mama was working in the farm. I hurriedly took a bath, and I did something that I had never thought I could:
I wore a white halter top, blue jean trousers that I had gotten from a second-hand shop, and then I applied lipstick.
Not one layer, but two!
And I walked into the brightness of day.
When my mama saw me, she broke down and cried. Yes! The first time my mama saw me wearing lipstick, she put down the cowpeas seeds she was cultivating into the soil she had dug the previous night, and she walked slowly toward where I was standing in my faded blue jeans and pouting lips.
I was scared, but determined to let the whole world know that I had lipstick.
My mama gave me a tongue lashing. She said if other women saw me walking around in jeans and lipstick, they would conclude that I am a prostitute who does not care about my purity.
“What will people think of me?” she asked in a defeated voice.
I stood still and glammed my lips together.
She probably thought she had lost me forever.
Looking back, on this National Lipstick Day, perhaps what I should have told my mama was that the color of my lips was a mere representation of how boxed-in I felt by all the rules under which we had to live.
For me, it was not about lipstick. It was just the need to taste a little freedom. It was not an influence of the “Western world” or the media. It was just a girl who wanted to try out girly stuff and continue life without walking through the definitions that had been placed to make women feel controlled from birth to the day they die.
“Mama, I am just going to the library. Lipstick is not bad. I know a lot of people who don’t wear lipstick but do very bad things ma,” I said, as I attempted to justify my screaming red pout.
She told me no decent girl wears jeans. And that I should forget about heaven and eternal life if I continue wearing lipstick.
“I don’t know what to do with you,” she told me that day, and the days after when I continued wearing my lipstick.
I was ready for condemnation.
Since I had to walk past the local market every day to go to the cyber café where I worked, I got used to awkward stares and whispers as I walked past people who thought I had not only lost respect for myself, but that I had completely lost my mind.
And then, they got used to seeing me wearing jeans and lipstick. The stares gradually became less, or maybe I am the one who stopped noticing them.
I got a sense of freedom and independence by an act as simple as smearing color all over my lips. I became confident, knowing that I had done something that everyone else told me I couldn’t do – and in the process, I found myself.
Years later, on a day when I was wearing a deep orange lipstick, my mama looked at me and smiled. She was intrigued by the color on my lips.
“I didn’t know they made orange lipstick. I have always thought all lipsticks are red,” mama said while staring at me as if I was a piece of specimen.
“They make all colors mama,” I said.
And there and then, I realized that my mama had embraced the idea that I cannot be contained by rules made by men.
My friend, Rossi, never got the courage. I continued wearing lipstick, and whenever she visited me, she would watch me applying it and say:
“Wow, you are so brave,”
She finally tried lipstick Friday. She sent me her photo via WhatsApp, but her eyes were closed and her smile was frozen with uncertainty.
But at least she wore it.
Even if she did it in the secrecy of the bathroom, she had made some progress.
And she captured it in a photo, so that if she never gets the courage to do it again, she can look back and say she tried.
As the nation celebrated ‘Lipstick day” with duck faces and selfies all over social media – I know a woman who hid with hers in a bathroom and didn’t dare to open her eyes.
I know a girl who celebrated an attempt at doing something she was told she cannot do – simply because people decided that a woman should not do it.
I hope she keeps trying.