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Finding My Freedom In A Tube Of Lipstick

flickr/Maria Morri

In my village, and according to my family, owning lipstick was unacceptable. But to me, lipstick represented freedom.

It started a few weeks before my 21st birthday. I got an email from my pen pal, Kim, in Minnesota, asking if I could receive an international package in my country Kenya. I lived in a village where doors were unmarked and dirt roads led to bushes. I had no address. But the vanity that defined me at that age needed that package so bad. It was the first time someone showed interest in celebrating my birthday.

I was working in a cyber café where the only payment was being allowed to use computers and send emails. When Kim wanted to send the package, I asked the owner of the cyber café if I could use his post office box address. After much prodding, he gave a begrudging yes, with a threat that if I used his address to receive illegal things, he would throw me to his snakes. (Yes, he kept huge snakes as pets, but that is a story for another day.)

It took exactly 22 days for my package to arrive from America. From the day she posted it, I scribbled my anticipation in a rugged old diary that acted as my dream board.

Nothing under this earth will ever replace the feeling I got when I finally held the yellow package that was delivered to me at the cyber café. I raced to the toilet, the only place that had semblance of privacy, and delicately tried to open my gift. I could feel my hands shaking from excitement that rose from a place deep inside me.

I made a hole in the envelope and peered inside. There were several multicolored bracelets, a photograph, and tiny samples of perfume. I could also see a sleek silver tube. I tore the envelope further and recognized the tube almost immediately. It was lipstick. My very first! I nudged it open, and it revealed a crimson red color that looked even richer when I moved from the toilet’s fluorescent light and held it against the scorching sun.

I made a swatch on my wrist. It glided smoothly to form a screaming red line. The color of my blood. It stood out like an act of defiance. I hastily rubbed it off; but I knew I was in love.

In my village, and according to my family, owning lipstick was unacceptable. The thought of wearing it was unimaginable. Women with scarlet pouts were something I had only seen in magazines. I marveled at the courage of those women, inwardly wondering if they had parents.

It glided smoothly to form a screaming red line. The color of my blood. It stood out like an act of defiance. Click To Tweet

My childhood is made up of memories of my mother whispering to me about “red lipped prostitutes.” Of village girls who left for the city and got introduced to sex, drugs, and lipstick.

“She started coloring her lips and everyone knew she will get AIDS,” I remember my mother saying under muted light from the paraffin lamp that lit up our kitchen. She was retelling a story she had heard at the market, of a girl who was found dead a few months after she left the village to look for a job in Nairobi. They blamed her death on prostitution and lipstick.

As my mother spoke, tears gathered around her eyelashes. I wondered if she was crying from the pain of the story, or if her eyes were getting irritated by the smoke from the wet firewood she was using to cook. Lipstick was a sin. No decent woman wore it, at least in the eyes of my mother and people around her.

The night after receiving my package, I hid the lipstick beneath a heap of clothes in my metallic suitcase. I could not sleep. I wondered if I would ever get a chance to apply it. When everyone was asleep, I groped through the darkness, opened my suitcase and rummaged through it with my fingers. There it was! My lipstick.

I opened it again and lifted it to my nose — it smelled like delicious bubble gum. I applied it in the dark, smacked my lips together and extended my lips to see if it could shine through the pitch darkness around me. It did not. I rubbed it off till my lips were sore. Then I went to bed.

Applying lipstick in the dark became my ritual. Whenever fear that my mother would notice remnants of the representation of immorality lingering in the cracks of my lips crept inside me, I would wash my mouth with soap.

Oh, I longed for the day I would wear my lipstick in the light of day.

I decided to dare, almost six months after she sent it to me. I tried it because I was tired of hiding. I was just fed up with not being able to express myself because of what my culture made me believe. I was young, I wanted to be different, and lipstick provided that. So I created an awkward pout with my mouth and clumsily drew an unsteady red line on the outlines of my lips. While staring into the cracked mirror that I held close to my face, I filled my lips.

I tried it because I was tired of hiding. I was just fed up with not being able to express myself because of what my culture made me believe. Click To Tweet

My heart was beating fast as I slowly pressed my lips together before applying another layer. The redness of my lips was a representation of rebellion and transformation for me. I stared at myself in the mirror, and fell in love with the contrast the red lips formed against my dark skin. The dark spots on my face and my bushy eyebrows seemed less pronounced from the dominance of the lipstick.

Then, I grabbed the hem of the leso (wrapper worn by women over their clothes to show decency) and slowly wiped it off. I had tasted liberation. I had worn lipstick during the day. It was brief, but it showed a defiance of rules that defined women. I was a part of a mini revolution.

My urge to do more was emboldened. Wearing lipstick became my distant and secret obsession.

The tiny silver bottle contained my freedom. Not being able to wear lipstick reminded me of my oppression. I wanted to do things that were forbidden, things women had been enculturated to believe they cannot and should not do. We were taught that women cannot serve and eat before men had their full share. I remember waiting for my father to finish eating, and it felt like forever. I would get so hungry waiting for men to eat. We were told we cannot laugh out loud, so all my life, I grew up stifling laughter because women were supposed to lower their voices. Looking at a man in the eye was considered rude; so I spent time staring on the ground while talking.

Any time I caressed the tube between my fingers, I was confronted with the reality of how much our culture had made women feel like they have no say in what they do with their bodies.

We were enchained. The only way I could break from those shackles was to wear my lipstick out.

One Saturday morning, almost six months after I received the lipstick, I did it. I wore faded blue jeans that I had gotten for 100 shillings (1 dollar) at a flea market, a white halter blouse, and lipstick. I was ready for the world.

My mama was working in the farm when I stepped out into the brightness of day, wearing red lipstick.

The world momentarily held its breath. As she saw me, she put down the seeds she was sowing, and walked towards me. I stood, waiting.

“What are you doing to me? What is that on your lips?” she asked. Tears choked her, and the more she talked, the more it became apparent that she was crying. Yes, the first time my mother saw me wearing lipstick, she cried.

“What will I tell people? Have you decided to be a prostitute?” she asked; her voice low and dejected. I stood motionless. She begged me to wipe it off.

I weakly told her that I will remove it when I come back. She watched me walk away with my lipstick still intact. I did not have courage to look back.

I felt so free. Lipstick to me was not a mere influence of the “Western world” or corrupt media. It was just me, being a young woman who wanted to try out something new without feeling like I owed the whole community an explanation.

She watched me walk away with my lipstick still intact. I did not have courage to look back. Click To Tweet

I was tired of being told what to wear, what parts of chicken women should eat, how loud they should laugh and what should go on their lips.

I wanted to paint my lips, because they were mine.

I wore lipstick that day, and the days after. Even when my mother said she will miss me when I die, because to her, lipstick and death were related, I still wore it.

Amidst stares and whispers when I walked past people in the village, I maintained my red lips. In no time, the stares reduced. People started accepting my red lips. My streak of red on my lips became normal.

I had gotten my freedom, and they had accepted it. My mother no longer clicked when I tried getting lipstick stains off my teeth.

I started asking Kim to send me more lipstick. When she sent me coral lipstick, my mother lingered behind me as I tried it on.

“I used to think all lipsticks are red. What is that color?” she asked.

I said: “They are in all colors you can imagine.”

She shook her head and smiled. I had won the battle.