Lipstick Gave Me The Agency To Heal From Trauma

Though it's often perceived as vain or trivial, beauty can be a powerful force. It has the potential to transform our faces while empowering us to become bolder, more body positive people. It can also alter our moods; sometimes meaning the difference between safely passing as a certain gender, or being physically hurt. For me, makeup and beauty have always been healing, particularly lipstick as a means to empowerment.

My routine is an essential part of the self-care that helps keep my mental stability in check. Taking part in it, especially when involving my beloved lippies, makes me feel incredibly good about myself. Not because I appear flawless or put together, but because becoming more visible through my makeup makes me feel entitled to take up space.

Over the course of my life, I've learned time and time again what it means to be disempowered. Being sexually assaulted and experiencing a years-long chronic illness have often left me feeling helpless: Like I couldn't trust my body or those of others; like I had no control over my life; and (most importantly), like I didn't have a voice. Such emotions have translated into my social life and the ways I interact with strangers. They're likely the reason I so often feel self-conscious when speaking to people. But, in a way, it's lipstick that has helped me get my voice back.

On most days that involve socializing, particularly regarding more stressful situations like interviews or doctor's appointments, I coat my lips with pigment to validate myself and my words. There's something about feeling the products on my lips — seeing the bold colors on my face — as I pass a mirror or window that reminds me not to apologize for my presence. Lipstick prompts me to be more assertive in situations where I would normally become reclusive. I even feel that my voice is less shaky and able to express my ideas more eloquently. For all intents and purposes, lipstick is my superpower.

I never used to wear it when I was younger, though. Before any trauma had befallen me, I thought cosmetics to be a hindrance to who I really was, as if I was covering up the true Meg when utilizing them. But after these traumatic experiences, I hid away into myself. So much so that I ceased using my voice, staying in bed all day to avoid social interactions.

During that hazy morning when I was assaulted — the morning that I can only remember in bits and pieces of audio characterized by soft whimpers and my thumping heart — he placed a red "X" of tape over my mouth.

One day, however, I swiped on some lipstick I had been lent on a whim. It was a red shade by Shiseido, a detail I still haven't managed to forget. For the first time in a while, I saw a strong and endlessly cool person gazing back at me when I looked in the mirror: A person who I had lost touch with for so many years, but who seemed to be able to resurrect through a few swipes of dark color.

It was then that I started wearing lipstick regularly, and I immediately perceived the difference the change in routine had caused. I was getting out of bed, I was making friends, I was speaking up in class and at meetings. I wore black lipstick to the lecture that made me the most nervous, slowly chipping away at my usual pre-class anxiety attack.

I wore shimmery green lippie during a stressful confrontation with a roommate I had previously let walk all over me, as I perfectly articulated the frustration I was entitled to. I watched myself transform back into the boss-ass-bitch I used to be, with a few extra dashes of confidence and assertiveness. My voice was mine as long as I wore lipstick, and I could tap into communicating my needs and thoughts more clearly.

Sometimes I feel guilty about the fact that I can't truly complete with this version of myself without lipstick on. As the years go on and I get further along in my therapy for post traumatic stress, I find myself able to go more days without it, the validating power of the lipstick following me everywhere I go. But on special occasions and regarding certain events that trigger more anxiety, I just can't eschew it.

This small self-care ritual is not superficial, though. It teaches me how to cope with anxiety and believe in the power of my voice once again: My voice that has been repeatedly ignored by the medical community during the years we were still trying to figure out what was wrong with me. My words were irrelevant, laughed at, and vanished into thin air.

It's still hard to free my mouth from the restraints of assault at times. But with a swipe of Colourpop or Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics, the blurred lines of my lips take a concrete shape; a definitive existence that makes them feel entitled to being heard. And I move closer and closer towards truly believing deep within myself that my voice is worth hearing: With or without lipstick.

Images: Meg Zulch