Rosalyn D'Mello: Red my lips

Published: Mar 17, 2017, 08:01 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello |

Lipstick can be both enticing and intimidating for anyone with confidence issues. The key is to wear it for yourself, and no one else

In Riverdale, we see Betty in front of her mirror, applying ‘Seduce Scarlet’ onto her lips and, in doing so, embodying the energy of a badass. Pic/Netflix
In Riverdale, we see Betty in front of her mirror, applying 'Seduce Scarlet' onto her lips and, in doing so, embodying the energy of a badass. Pic/Netflix

Out of curiousity, I decided to watch Riverdale, the Netflix spin-off based on the much beloved Archie comics that was a childhood staple. My sister warned me that it was much darker than its comic book avatar, but I still wasn't prepared for the dark plot twists, the imaginative characterisations and the feminist undertones, none of which were a feature of the original.

The evolving friendship between Betty and Veronica has been fascinating to watch. Both their relationships with their mothers are deeply disturbing and complex. There's one moment specifically, in the third episode, when Betty is readying to help Veronica avenge her pride after she had been slut-shamed by a star footballer, Chuck. She chooses to dress up like a 'bad girl' to attract Chuck's gaze, so she can lure him into the trap they've laid for him. The definitive marker she adopts is 'Seduce Scarlet', and we see her in front of her mirror in her bedroom applying it onto her lips and, in doing so, embodying the energy of a badass. Her mother walks in and is visibly dismayed. She tries to tell her the colour doesn't suit her, even though she's quite clearly rocking it. "It makes me feel powerful," Betty says. But her mother takes a tissue and rubs off the fiery red. She un-tactfully suggests the safer, 'Pink Perfection'. Though the next scene shows Betty traipsing through the aisle of Pop's Tate's Chok-lit Shoppe wearing her first choice, Seduce Scarlet.

I've always been both attracted to and intimidated by lipstick, mostly because I grew up with very little self-confidence about my beauty, or the lack of it. Because my complexion was so much darker than all the girls in either my colony or my school, and then in college and, later, university, I felt inferior. There were everyday humiliations that never got easier to digest, always made more embarrassing when I had company. There was a time when I had a ready-made list of all the names I was called: kali, blackie, black beauty. When I wasn't wishing for beauty, I was fantasising invisibility. I wanted, most of all, to either disappear or erase my appearance, so it didn't stand out so much, so it didn't always mark me. It was only around 26 that I began to let go of these preconceived notions around my appearance. By 30, I had decided that I would never ever let anyone make me feel like shit about the way I looked. I got increasingly more badass. I even had the audacity to start to buy myself make-up. But the one thing I felt most challenged by was lipstick. I had yet to encounter a shade that complemented my skin.

One day last year, when I was working for a month out of Bombay as project manager for an art supplement being published by a beauty magazine, I was privy to a conversation my lunch gang was having about lipstick. I confessed to these girls that I had a complicated relationship with lipstick. One girl, Rochelle, told me this - that the whole thing about lipstick was that you had to feel confident about it, that you had to wear it for you, and for no one else. It reminded me of a conversation a few years ago in the bathroom of Le Meridien, in Delhi, when my artist friend, Bharti Kher, and I had gone to the ladies' room together to freshen up and I saw her touch up her shade of red. She said her mother always told her that if she were ever feeling like shit, to simply put on some red lipstick and she'd be on top of things once again. She said this advice had never let her down.

Last weekend, two of my best friends and my sister went out for drinks. "Let's dress up," I had told everyone. We met at Social at Nehru Place, each of us looking absolutely dapper. I experimented with a white Bardot blouse and enjoyed exposing my shoulders. I'd worn the same Mac lipstick I'd grown accustomed to, 'Rebel', while my sister wore her shade of plum she bought years ago from H&M in Dubai. But at some point in the evening, after we convinced Bhuvana - who has as complicated a relationship with lipstick as I used to - to try on Mona's shade, a fabulous matte red (the label wasn't there so we didn't know the name). It looked so glamorous, even my sister and I decided to try it on. We sat in our carriage-like booth that kept oscillating like the ones on a giant wheel, and took lots of photographs of ourselves looking smoking hot in the same shade. We had dressed up for ourselves. That was what defined each of us thirty-somethings. And Rochelle was right. It didn't matter whether the lipstick "suited" us. We owned it. That was all there was to it.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to

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