For many people in the Latinx community, red lipstick holds a lot of significance. It is the embodiment of empowered femininity.
By Johanna Ferreira
It took me a while to embrace red lipstick. Almost as long as it took me to finally reclaim gold hoop earrings as an adult. While the white women I went to college or worked with never had to give it a second thought, as a Latina woman — who is not even remotely white passing — my appearance was never something I could casually ignore. “The wrong look” could cost me opportunities — even a job. For years, I straightened my naturally curly hair and avoided wearing red lipstick — especially in combination with gold hoop earrings — in any academic or work setting. This was all done in an effort to assimilate and avoid being confronted with racially charged criticism. And the worse part is, it left me feeling nothing but disempowered.
Iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was just as known for her beauty look as she was for her respected paintings. She confidently cultivated her own self-image and dismissed conventional beauty norms by unapologetically wearing a grown-out unibrow, facial hair on her upper lip, and a bold red lip that further accentuated her natural and unique beauty. A bright bold lip paired with large red hoop earrings became the signature look of the late Mexican singer Selena Quintanilla, whose beauty is still appreciated and emulated today. MAC launched not one — but two — limited edition Selena capsule collections that sold out like hot cakes, with the red lipstick shades becoming best sellers. For Quintanilla, red lipstick exerted confidence in the same way it did for the Cuban singer, Celia Cruz, who was one of the first musical artists of her time to bring visibility to Black Latinas. In a world that deliberately tries to silence and oppress us, red lipstick has been a powerful beauty tool that’s allowed us to feel seen and unstoppable. And yet for years it was incredibly difficult for me to lean into that.
PHOTO: Selena Quintanilla
I remember growing up and hearing Latinas rocking red lipstick being referred to as “spicy,” overtly sexual, or “ghetto.” As a teenager I paid it no mind but once I stepped foot in college, I worried about how being perceived that way could impact my future — my career. I found myself hiding certain aspects of my own culture out of fear of being stereotyped or discriminated against. As beautiful as I felt with my hair worn out, my lips painted red, and a large pair of gold earrings hanging from my ears, that look soon became the brunt of my fear. It was especially frustrating seeing how both red lipstick and gold hoop earrings suddenly became acceptable and even sophisticated when displayed on white female bodies.
“A red lip on a white woman tends to be perceived as elegant, timeless, and classic,” Regina Merson, founder of Latina-driven cosmetics brand Reina Rebelde, tells thirteen lune. “Yet, for some reason a red lip on a Latina is perceived totally different. All of a sudden we are saucy, exotic, loud, sexual, and sometimes even tacky. Society seems to resent Latina women for wearing a red lip, because we already take up all the air in the room, so how dare we call attention to our voices and our appearance so overtly.”
The brand’s best-selling product is their Brava Bold Lipstick, a perfect red that has won numerous beauty awards and looks great on just about every skin tone. “I am so proud of Brava, a great shade that energizes your day and the way you feel about yourself is probably the most powerful tool a person can have in their makeup bag,” Merson adds. “I am honored that many women come to us to get that red shade that can change your whole day.”
Bossy Cosmetics was born out of the idea that a bold lipstick boosts more than your makeup: owning your power is the ultimate form of confidence.
It wasn’t until I entered my 30s that I finally found myself reclaiming all the things society told me weren’t acceptable for me to wear like my natural hair, gold hoop earrings, and red lipstick. My curls were so heat- damaged they looked like lifeless waves and I was hitting a point in my life where I was becoming exhausted by the beauty standards created by my colonizers that were still very much embraced in Western society. I was decolonizing the way I was looking at everything from politics, food, wellness, and beauty. I refused to continue toning myself and my heritage down, in order to keep one type of beauty standard up — the one that originates from the white femininity that intentionally erases women who look like me. While the Eurocentric and “all-American” beauty standards that have been pushed on us for centuries have been hard to shake, we cannot deny that we have made remarkable strides.
On the day of her inauguration, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into Congress wearing a bright lip lip paired with gold hoop earrings. She proudly and very intentionally wore both these things as symbols of empowerment, reclamation and self-expression. In a society where Latinas are silenced and encouraged to make ourselves invisible — AOC made sure she was seen.
“Lip + hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her red. Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman.”
AOC didn’t just make herself seen that day — she made brown and Black women and girls across the country feel seen. She was willing to endure massive scrutiny to confront the stigma and make it easier for the next WOC to cough up the courage to show up to work or to a job interview confidently rocking a red lip.
PHOTO: Win McNamee/Getty Images
“I derive power from my femininity. And any attempt to make my femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with Elle. “So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant, [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that.”
Luna Magic Beauty, a Latina-owned makeup brand owned by Afro-Dominican sisters Mabel and Shaira Frias, is all about giving women -- Latinas in particular -- the freedom to openly and confidently express themselves. One of their bestselling and most popular items is the Luna Magic Beauty Matte Liquid Lipstick in Gostosa.
“Red lipstick has been a consistent beauty look that we noticed in most women in our family. We learned early on to see red lipstick as a symbol of confidence and power,” Mabel tells thirteen lune. “Oftentimes, most beauty 'rules' denoted that red lipstick should only be used for evening looks, something that is not necessarily in line with the beauty standards that Latinas share — which is beauty for us is to be celebrated in living color, particularly for Latinas whose family is from the Caribbean like ours. As of late, red lipstick has emerged to be a symbol of statement as evidenced by how AOC wore red lipstick and hoop earrings to her swearing in ceremony. In any case, we are excited that we live in times in which diversity and inclusivity are being celebrated and that all beauty lovers get to truly embrace their versions of beauty that are the most authentic to them.”
Today, I proudly rock my natural curls with a bold red lip and almost always paired with whatever hoop size of my choice. I’ve rocked this red lip-gold hoop earring combo on job interviews before COVID and on Zoom calls during the pandemic. And I never for a second entertain the thought that I didn’t get a job because of my red lip or because they found me “too Latina looking.” Because if for some reason that was the case, that is the very last place I’d want to be working at anyway. My hair, which stems from my African roots, the red lipstick, and the hoops are all symbols for me now. They represent my efforts to resist white beauty standards, reclaim my pride in my own beauty, and let it be known that I have come to my own, I deserve to take up space, and I will be seen.