The Thin Red Line


I’m standing in front of a wall of Make Up For Ever lipsticks at Sephora with not one, but three resident “Color Experts” at my side. It’s a Friday evening and the store is booming like New York’s hottest club (Stefon, back me up on this). I reach for a nearly-black Azealia-Banks-“1991”-esque tube but am practically hand-slapped by the Color Expert with a heart drawn next to her eye. “If you’re a fashionista and like to keep up with the trends,” she says (BTW: how could she read me so easily?!), “then you’ll want to go for lighter, brighter colors for spring and summer.” I’m also instructed to limit my testing to three lipsticks—any more than that, they tell me, will cause the skin around my mouth to become red and blotchy, rendering any color disagreeable. I nab a creamy pink, a classic red, and am handed their seasonal pick: a very J.Crew peach. The pixiest of the three Experts leads me to a chair to try them on.

But let’s back up. A few days earlier at the Gloffice, as a rare tube of RiRi Woo was being passed around, discussion turned to the Bold Red Lip. “I just started wearing red lipstick last year,” I confessed. Emily picked her jaw up from off of the floor. “I have a really small mouth,” I said. Emily and Nick clearly weren’t following. “Why does that matter?” asked the amply-lipped Weiss. Well, doesn’t it?

While I’m currently very comfortable, nay, downright confident, wearing any and all shades of lipstick, I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the Bay Area, but I’m originally from Upstate New York, where a Bold Red Lip looks just as out of place as a Kardashian at a Phish show. And even in California, I ran into trouble: on my first day of high school, our resident Regina George introduced herself to me by cooing, “Aw, you don’t wear makeup—that’s so cute.” Kill me.

Apart from feeling over-dressed­—and uncomfortable—in bright lipstick, it was also around this super-pleasant adolescent time of my life that my then-boyfriend started to tease me about the size of my lips. (In his defense, my mouth is actually so small that I don’t even have a full set of adult teeth; some had to be pulled—my dentist is a fantastic editor.) But, still, leave it to a boy to wreak havoc on your self-image.

I distinctly remember this one line from a Russian novel I read for a class: “All women are lips, nothing but lips.” Did that mean I was destined to be a sub-par woman? And if so, I certainly wasn’t going to elaborately decorate my female flaw. So when I wasn’t sneaking coats of Lip Venom and/or Lip Injection in the bathroom to amplify my “puny, lifeless” pout—Too-Faced’s words, not mine—I did my best to draw the focus to my eyes and cheeks. I thought of that saying about playing up your best features or whatever, and clearly my mouth was not among them.

But by the time college rolled around, I was ready to redefine myself in New York City. In fact, I bought my first tube of lipstick—a baby pink by Maybelline—at Duane Reade on the night of my first Misshapes party. (It was meant to round out this Valley of the Dolls moment I was trying to have, OK?) I was in love. Though nearly sheer and imperceptible, the act of applying it made me feel so… feminine. Later that evening at Don Hill’s, my chunky white headband, teased hair, babydoll dress, painted lips, and I all had a fantastic time trying our best not to smile. And when I (we) felt bored or fidgety, suddenly there was something to do: reapply!

I stuck with my trusty Maybelline for a few years after graduating, until I just felt ready to big up my lips. I wish I could recall the exact catalyst. Maybe it was the change of environment—you know, becoming a Working Girl—or being (and feeling) older, or the fact that my face was finally growing into its features (or vice versa…) or just not caring about what other people thought anymore, but it happened.

Gwyneth Paltrow is widely quoted as having uttered something to the effect of: “Beauty is about being comfortable in your own skin. That, or a kick-ass red lipstick.” I wanted all of that. I went out and bought tubes of Nars red, orange, peach, and pink, and a dark, dark purple from MAC. And I still wear them everywhere, no matter the time of day or year. (I’ve also made a point to avoid boys who make you feel bad about yourself, which gets easier with age.) And while I can’t imbue all diminutively-mouthed women with my late-onset confidence, I can leave you with my Sephora Color Expert’s words of wisdom:

- Everyone hates themselves in lipstick at first: “It’s just shocking.”
- Using a brush will give you more control, not only in the precision of the line but in the amount of product you’re putting on.
- Applying too much lipstick will cause it to bleed faster. If you apply the right amount, you should only need to retouch after eating (or not even then, if you’re Jen Brill).
- Resist the urge to turn up the volume on the rest of your makeup to match your bright lip.

In conclusion: I now think of lipstick the way I think of karaoke, which is to say I’m somewhat cautious of it, but I realize it’s much less about a god-given gift than it is about committing to it and feeling confident. Sometimes we can’t be tied down to what’s “recommended” for us: big or small lips, pear or apple shapes, large or small busts. And I, for one, no longer care to be advised that dark colors will make my lips look smaller. Do you see Lily Cole, KStew, or Jennifer Aniston backing down? No. Rules are meant to be broken.

—Mackenzie Wagoner

Mackenzie Wagoner—the newest member of Team ITG!—photographed by Emily Weiss in New York on May 13, 2013. [2,3] Photos by Mackenzie Wagoner, [4] Jennifer Aniston, [5] Kristen Stewart, [6] Lily Cole

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • bacardi chaser

    :D this is so true. most things that shouldn´t suit me actually do. i love red lips!

  • Frenchgoose

    aaarrgh I am so sh*t scared of bright lipstick yet I want to wear it soooo bad, my lips are so little (i also had teeth taken out because my mouth just couldnt handle the amount ivory)... today I'm going to try it! thx for the boost xx

  • mytai

    "I now think of lipstick the way I think of karaoke, which is to say I’m somewhat cautious of it, but I realize it’s much less about a god-given gift than it is about committing to it and feeling confident." - I feel like that line should be taped above every woman's mirror.

    Re; the small mouth - I'm the opposite - I've always felt like I had giant lips, which are fairly pigmented for how bleakly pale I can be, AND I have chiclet-y teeth. So any lip ornamentation outside of some light chapsticking made me feel garish and overdone. I think I was probably the last person on earth to hear about Ruby Woo, but when I did it was pretty magical. The matte quality of it makes everything all better. My other favorite (thanks to Lisa Eldridge) is Maybelline's 14 Hour Super Stay in Ravishing Rouge (065).

    Now I'm wishing I'd woken up earlier and had something more exciting on my lips than a slick of EA 8 hour cream.

  • murt

    Great post - I have smaller lips too and have struggled in the past with wearing darker lipstick. Lisa Eldridge just did a tutorial on this - - but she advocates for overdrawing the lips, which I'm not sure about.... I kind of think it's a bit old-fashioned, except maybe for getting a different look when going out at night. I'm curious about other peoples' opinions on this.

    • Suzanne

      I think overdrawing the lips usually looks odd.

    • magpie

      There's a difference between overdrawing a little and a lot. In the image you posted above, the bright red mouth on the right looks weird--at least in part because the color's placed too far out and the lines are too straight. The middle (neutral color) shape, which follows the natural lip shape but goes just a little over the line, would be perfect for a bright lip as well, day or night.

    • Jane S

      Except she does it so well. I really thought it looked natural. But then again, I'm such a Lisa acolyte, she could line the lips with a Sharpee and I'd still think it looked great.

  • Chelsea Adilia

    Endearing, relatable, & well- written. Welcome to ITG Mackenzie!

  • Abigail Purcell

    This made me feel so good! I have tiny lips and struggled with doing anything to my lips other than some lip gloss. Always looked a bit off-putting when I have a full face of makeup but lips are bare. In the past two years (I'm 31 now) I've been watching more makeup tutorials online and I just went ahead and got some lipsticks in different shades and formulas (matte, satin, etc.) and have been complimented and noticed for going with bolder lips even if they are small in size!

  • BuddyBuddy

    Ha, "How cute!" :) Love the insight!

  • Pat

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post... REALLY. but am still not encouraged to try... unfortunately.... my lips are so thin and small that anything more than Chanel Rouge Coco Paradis makes me feel ridiculous (seriously, all of the lips in the pictures above look bigger than mine)

    • M.

      I have rather big lips, Pat, and I thought these girls on the photos did not have small lips ! I have friends that have way thinner lips ~and they look gorgeous by the way

  • magpie

    Adorable story! Fantastic post... But what if your pout is too thick? And before ya'll boo me down, yes, there is such a thing. People like Rihanna can get away with evoking sexy all the time, but what if you just want to wear red to a conservative office like all the other girls do--and feel authoritative, rather than like a hooker?

    These days I've been trying to encroach the edges with semitranslucent powder but it is a royal pain. Thin lips, wear lipstick, = sexy and courage. Thick lips, wear lipstick, = hooker clown. Someone help me out here...

    • Bird

      I'm Paraguayan (olive skin, dark hair, and a bust) and feel your pain here! I am really uncomfortable in red lipstick because people automatically assume I'm either:
      A. again, a hooker
      B. Sofia Vergara
      C. a sexy Spanish dancer or
      D. "trying to look more mature".

      It's horrible to be stereotyped, and generally that's a societal issue that people have to get the fuck over- women should be able to wear LIPSTICK and not have any sexual connotations attached to it. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I even let it affect me (and leave that beautiful YSL red untouched in return), but how do you overcome a gender issue without letting yourself be the culprit of constant criticism?

  • dana

    I'm new to this site but I'm absolutely loving what I see so far. I thought your piece was very well written and I totally identified with your red lip issues. By the way, if that is you in the top pic, you are gorgeous and should always wear bright lipstick! (which takes me to what I've recognized about lipstick- I neurotically think all people will see are my bright/dark lips, yet when I see other women with bright lips I just think they look great and think nothing more of it)

  • ana

    i love this post!

  • Karebear

    Mackenzie is GORGEOUS! I don't have small lips, so much as thin ones (did someone say Liz Lemon?) and red lipstick taunts me as much as it tempts me. Perhaps in time!

  • Nina

    Ha ha, I also have such a small mouth that teeth had to pulled! Thanks for sharing. I'm definitely a lip girl, small mouth or not - I LOVE lipstick, tinted balm, gloss... Recently I bought my first really red lipstick (read: not in the sheer/balmy category) - YSL Rouge Pur Couture - and it's amazing! My party look for tonight is red lips and that's it.

  • Brooke Searcy

    I was the same way about lipstick! And now it is my favorite thing to get!

  • Paty


    I'm posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:

  • Baolu Lan

    I really enjoyed this debut piece: you have a great narrative voice!

  • Luciana Micaela

    I adore a girl with tiny lips.

  • EGB

    Ok, you alluded to this a bit, but can we talk about make up and setting? I feel like if you are in a place like NYC you can wear w/e, but that's not true of everywhere. How do you go about picking a look that works best for where you live and what you are up to?

  • Lola Al Cahola

    Your lips are not that thing!! You look rad with the red on. I've always felt insecure about my lips too. Just googled celebs with thin lips and realised quite a few do too, people you wouldn't expect like heidi klum! Easily hidden flaw ;)

  • Hildegerd Haugen

    Red lipstick suits everybody, you just need to find the right shade.

  • emma strachman

    <3 you kenz!! you look beautiful!! great work on ITG...go girl.

  • cat & tonic

    Love this - I have always felt self-conscious about wearing lipstick and not having majorly juicy lips. Self-confidence raised!

  • jocye

    Red and darker lips really do make lips even smaller, I think people are fooling themselves if they think it looks good~ its just this small red line around the lips and now that's all can focus on. Not too many people can carry off wearing red~

  • MGF

    great post! Thanks you for sharing my thoughts!
    Yet, i m still too shy I guess to bridge the gap... I wear it at home, when there s no one around me and I try to accustom myself to it, when i meet my face on a mirror. Tough training, right ;)
    It s very agreeable to read your style btw!

  • sooph

    thank you so much for posting this! I too have had a boyfriend that made fun of my thin lips (something that had never even bothered me before he started it) and thought i could wear red lipstick, or any lipstick for that matter. My current boyfriend heard me talking about it and googled "red lipstick, thin lips" and found this blogpost. Thank you for your story! It made me feel inspired to finally try and go for it.


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