Late February 2020, Covid-19 was still a distant nightmare that a lot of the western countries believed they were too civilised to be caught by, and I was given funny looks at airports because I looked East Asian and was wearing a mask.
I was flying from Dublin to Bristol to take part in the 4th retreat of Syllabus V at Spike Island. On the second day of the retreat, we had a session with Louise Shelley and Barby Asante1. They sent us an invitation in advance –
We ask the group to each bring something, an object, a book, a text, an image, moving image, audio, song, anything! The ‘something’ should be chosen in answer to the following:
However seemingly distant/disconnected this ‘something’ remains in my studio/ laptop/phone/archive folder/bottom drawer/purse….. It is something I think about, make reference to, desire to emulate/replicate/resist. It is something that reminds me of/to…… It is something that inspires/stimulates/reflects…….
Running short of time to prepare, I didn’t bring anything specifically for this invitation. The night before the session, I thought to myself, what did I have with me that could be this thing? The lipstick came up. I didn’t know why. It was just a feeling.
When it was my turn to share, I took the lipstick out and put it there in front of everyone. Looking at the black bullet shaped lipstick, I started talking about the memories and emotions of my relationship with sexuality. I surprised myself.
The First Story
The desire of dressing and styling myself never sat comfortably in my upbringing. Whenever I lingered in front of the mirror, spending time on my look, my mum would say:“Here we go. Our daughter is acting like a yāoguài (a word for demons, implying being seductive here)2 again”. It was a tease mainly, but sounded disapproving.
My mum never wears any makeup. The only image I can associate her with femininity is a photo of her in a soft white tie neck blouse and a flowing peacock blue midi skirt, standing in front of the West Lake in Hangzhou. It was a golden sunny day and she was glowing against the silky, shinning water. It was beautiful. It was before I came to the world.
She grew up in the 1960s and 70s of Shanghai, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. It was a time that individual expression was proscribed, enforced by the Red Guards – young people mobilised by Mao Zedong in the name of preserving the purest communism. Any traces of bourgeoisie lifestyles, traditional Chinese culture, and characteristics of the Soviet Union were violently removed, and those who got caught were humiliated and demonised. The common and right way of dressing was wearing clothes in line with workers’ uniforms or army suits – most people couldn’t afford the proper ones for it was also a time of poverty. Things overturned drastically in the 80s, but the ideology my mum grew up in was probably so ingrained that it was only natural for her to make that comment on me – dressing up is being a yāoguài.
In her repetitive teasing grew my self-shame on paying attention to my emergent sexuality as a young girl. Before I realised, I found I would always nervously hide away from my parents when I spent time in front of the mirror. Whenever my mum came into my room in the middle of me tending to my appearance, I felt caught up in the wrongdoing.
Lipstick is the ultimate demon among all of that. It can instantly make a person sexually charged. It has the most evil power. Using it is an act of moral decay. I should stay away from it. This was the voice in the background when I grew up.
The Second Story
I didn’t own my first lipstick until my late 20s. And I bought it for work reasons, kind of.
Like many art graduates, I had to find a job, any job, to pay my bills. One of the jobs I did was selling men’s suits in Hugo Boss. I was assigned a senior sales assistant as my mentor, a knowledgeable and diligent guy whose family lived in Thailand. Each day began with a meeting where everyone would stand and listen to the shop manager summarising the sales performance of the day before and setting the target for the day, followed by our individual sales target for the day. I tried to resist that nonsense, but it was hard not to care given the environment and expectations.
I can’t remember whether it was my own thinking or a suggestion from my mentor, but I got the idea that wearing lipstick could help me with this job. I turned to a friend to guide me in the perplexing world of lipstick. After a chaotic, nonetheless revealing experience of trying different colours, I got my very first lipstick – a scarlet red with a creamy satin finish in a gold, glossy, round tube. I felt liberated, excited, but also a bit scared – I finally got to try this alluring evil thing.
On the first day going to work with the lipstick, I got changed into my uniform, put on the lipstick, came out of the staff room and stood on the empty shop floor. I looked around. In the shinny glassy space, men’s suits, shoes, and accessories were meticulously arranged and presented. Then I saw my reflection in the mirrors. I looked strange to myself. The mentor came. He looked at me, said:“Wow! You look good!”
In the early days of wearing lipstick, I felt stunned, shy and ashamed of making myself sexually pronounced. I also felt guilty. I was using lipstick to aid me to convert as many guys as possible into figures in my sales target. Not that I was that successful, nonetheless I still felt complicit. But at the same time, I felt good too. I was no longer alone. I was with my weapon, the female power.
Thankfully, I didn’t stay in that job for long. But thanks to it, lipstick was demystified for me and became an ordinary object in my bag. I like bold red shades. I enjoy watching the almost compulsive reactions from some guys. I’m the one in control in that moment. Normally, it is the opposite. But I was hesitant to wear lipstick in work environments. I didn’t want to be perceived as using female sexuality to gain an edge on what I want to achieve. I was quite convinced in that thinking until I came across Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.
We have been taught to suspect this resource (the erotic3), vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.
It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.
I was in shock, trembling. For the first time, reading, a mind activity, came in touch with my body. I’ve never thought the erotic could be so glorious, could be a way towards self-actualisation, a piece of revolutionary hardware that shines outright under the golden sun. Yet of course, why wouldn’t it be? So is lipstick. It could end up being something we use to subordinate ourselves to patriarchy, consciously or not. But it could also be a tool of celebrating the female power, defying what deemed as appropriate under the patriarchal logic, and together with our words and acts it could be a powerful weapon to destroy the superficially erotic.
Back to Bristol
My Syllabus peers4 liked what I said, which was essentially the first story. One of them suggested we all wore the same lipstick for that evening’s social dinner. The group welcomed it. Right before leaving the shared house for the dinner, we helped each other to put on the lipstick. The house was full of lively chat about our favourite brands, our make-up experience or inexperience, and joy. It felt like a real sisterhood.
When we walked into the dinner party, I felt as if we were walking arm in arm. I was overwhelmed, moved, only that I didn’t know at the time. Among us, there are different shapes of femininity informed by different cultures, races, sexualities and personal traits. To wear the same lipstick in that moment is to join force from different female positions to build a collective power, that is queer, that is deeply erotic.
So much has changed since last February, but seeing how my relationship with sexuality has been shaped by the day-to-day throughout my life has had a permanent effect on me. So as realising how it could be radically political. What also stayed was an appreciation of a way of knowing that has long been undervalued – knowing that connects the mind with the body, knowing through experiencing.
Barby Asante and Louise Shelley are Artistic Advisors for Syllabus V programme. A special thanks to Louise Shelley, who planted the seed of this writing in me.
yāoguài is a term for demons in the Chinese mythology and folklore. One of the common types is animal spirits taking the shape of seductive women, which is what my mum is referring to.
Added by me.