Growing up, I learned that if you were a black girl with a wide nose, full lips, dark skin, nappy hair—you were doomed.
At 8 years old, I knew how to turn my parents’ bedroom into my music video sanctuary. It was easy: They had all of the necessary equipment to fuel my young imagination. There was a large, rectangular mirror behind their television that sat atop a wooden dresser—this was my camera. Facing it was their bed: a bouncy, spacious stage that rose high above the ground. With the sun shining through the windows creating the perfect lighting, I had everything I needed to recreate a Mariah Carey fantasy or Missy Elliot escapade.
My mom’s lace bras, a magical accessory, hung nonchalantly over her chair. I’d slip one over my T-shirt, letting it swallow my raisin nipples. I’d wear a long-sleeve shirt over my head like a lustrous wig. Then I’d climb on the bed and gyrate my hips as Aaliyah sang to me on MTV, swinging my head and watching my wig sashay wildly like an Airdancer balloon.
I was the true epitome of beauty.
When I forgot to put lipstick on, I’d hop off the bed and dance over to my mom’s vanity, where there was a large assortment of lipsticks waiting for me. Sultry browns, shy caramels, whispery reds. I might land on a shimmery gold one, thinking, This will do.
Honestly, I would’ve preferred to wear pink. The kind of pink that looks like a gum bubble splattered on your lips. The kind of pink that matched the Pepto Bismol your mom gave you when your stomach was upset. The true ‘90s pink that every “girl” toy was dipped in. Pink was the symbol of my childhood, the superheroine of my young feminist fairytales.
Yet I never saw a black girl on TV or in magazines who wore this color and had skin as brown as mine. Pink was reserved for the characters on Clueless and Lizzie McGuire, while the women on Living Single and A Different World wore nude, brown, and burgundy. I wanted to be like the various black women I watched on TV, but I also wanted to wear pinks with carefree ease.
My mom wasn’t supportive of this sickeningly bright hue. “You can wear this on special occasions or when you’re playing at home,” she advised. I owned some kiddy versions of pink lipstick—with cartoon characters traced along the packaging—but it felt like a secret treasure that I couldn’t show the world.
When that special occasion did roll around, in the form a Ghanaian party, she dressed me as her little princess. She painted my short fingernails an opalesque color. She hot-combed my hair with such precision that I could only blame my incessant fidgeting when my edges got burned. Finally, she lightly brushed my lips with the the pink dye. When she was done, I ran to the bathroom mirror, only to find that the lipstick was applied so sparingly that it hardly showed.
What’s the point of having pink lipstick if you can’t show it off?
I trudged out of the bathroom and slipped the lipstick into my Princess Jasmine purse, determined to apply more at the party. I could imagine the look of horror on my mom’s face when she saw me later that night, with a mouth that looked like I made out with a cotton candy unicorn.
The women in my family honor delicate beauty looks. My mother wears an orange-cocoa or spicy cinnamon red lip, which compliments her toasted caramel skin. For African outings, she pulls out a gold or copper hue, adding elegance to the printed cloths she wraps herself in. I love her look: classic and simple, yet afrocentric and immaculate.
My mother’s mother, at 73, has edgier lip choices. She wears dark berry or vibrant crimson lipsticks that accentuate the drama of her slender mouth. I recently gifted her a vampy red liquid matte, and she, excited to try it, let me apply it to her lips even though she had nowhere to go that day. It looked amazing on her deep mahogany complexion, reminding me of cherries embraced by dark chocolate.
“Oh! I love it,” she beamed. For the rest of that afternoon, the words that escaped her lips were tinted with pride.
I appreciate my mother and grandmother’s lipstick choices because they are their choices. Before, I misjudged their lack of trying new colors as uninspired, but now I recognize that they express themselves in the shades they feel most liberated in. As women, this is something we are often criticized about—what we do with our bodies. My mom is no less cool for wearing burnt orange as I was for adoring pink.
As for me, I grew out of pink lipstick in junior high school, and in high school, I traded in my stereotypically feminine possessions for more artsy, tomboyish things. But although my affection for pink toned down, my love for lip products did not. I moved onto Victoria’s Secret glittery glosses and tinted balms from drugstores, which added a subtle, glamorous effect to my adolescent afro-punk style.
Growing up, I learned these rules about black beauty: You’re prettier if you have light skin, and hair that’s long and luscious. If you were a black girl with a wide nose, full lips, dark skin, nappy hair—you were doomed. Your saving grace was a perm or a weave, and makeup that toned down your features.
How does this affect makeup? Well, bright lipstick accentuates a black feature that is condemned—big lips—while darker or softer tones make our lips more subtle, yet sensual. Growing up, the only black women I remembered wearing nonconventional lip colors were Lil Kim and Missy Elliot, who used their looks to express their versions of femininity and individuality. Unsurprisingly, the rhymes that flowed from their lips were audacious and empowering. Bold lipstick and boss lyrics go hand in hand. Yet, they were deemed overly sexualized (Lil Kim) or questioned about their sexuality (Missy Elliot), which further perpetuated the idea that any black woman who stepped out of the box would be shamed for not following the rules.
It’s not only about the size of our lips. In 2013, rapper ASAP Rocky said, “I feel like the red lipstick thing all depends on the pair of complexion. You have to be fair skinned to get away with that.” His words support a battle with colorism that dark-skinned women have fought for centuries. We’ve been told that being dark is not right, and for that, we are less worthy, wanted, and beautiful.
But something remarkable happened when the natural hair movement came along. Not only did we begin to embrace our natural hair textures, we embraced the parts of blackness that have been shut down by society: the array of shades we’re painted in, the unique faces and bodies we exhibit. It became less about hair and more about black beauty and womanhood.
Social media made our movement even stronger, allowing us to see and celebrate black women around the globe. As I stroll through Instagram, I find women wearing lipsticks of my wildest dreams—Ninja Turtle green, Big Bird yellow, Austin Power gold, superhero blue, Batman black. Here were black women of all forms showing the world that they can wear any color of the rainbow. Dark skin is not a limitation; rather, it’s an unconventional canvas that grants us a multitude of lip colors.
In February, the idolized cosmetics brand MAC released a photo on their Instagram of a dark-skinned sista with a dangerously eggplant purple pout. The internet went into a frenzy; several white followers commented on the picture with pure hate and disgust. To them, a dark skinned woman with big lips didn’t deserve to be showcased on MAC’s Instagram. Thankfully, the clapback from positive followers was intense. Soon, it was hard to find a racist comment because they were filtered out by all the loving ones.
When I decide what lip color to wear for the day, I think of the statement I’m sending the world. Most of all, I reminisce on all women who use their unique looks to display new definitions of beauty. I’m not the only one who danced with herself in the mirror as a girl and was eager to use extravagant lip colors. Those girls now use social media as their stage; their camera phones are the spotlight.
It’s a beautiful sight—and the best part is that it’s no longer a private show.
Lead image: Me wearing MAC’s Heroine. Such a dope purple to wear when the sun is bright. Or at the club!
Brooklyn-born writer, tea enthusiast, lipstick babe, and feminist Alisha Acquaye loves creating all-natural potions for her hair. Actually, she loves to put all natural things all over her body. Her writing has been published in xoJane, TIME, Everyday Feminism, and Bustle. She wants you to know that her personal website is under construction, so check back soon.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.