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Following Aladdin’s Genie

A photograph of a white bedsheet with blots of maroon-burgundy lipstick stains smudged across it.

The nature of sexuality is such that it slips. One cannot expect sexuality at one place. Neither can it be expected to stay the same. We never know when aspects embroiled in the ordinariness of life walk into the sexual; or if the sexual is just ordinary in nature. Perhaps, the sexual then has the characteristic of being mobile. We move as sexuality moves. We slip as does sexuality.

In my movement through time, I have always had a sexual relationship with lipsticks and their colours. My first interaction with lipsticks came from my mother in the form of stains. Every afternoon, after returning from school I would run to her and she would kiss me on my cheeks. Since she wore dark lipsticks, it left behind a stain in the shape of her lips. While I wanted to wear that stain with pride, people would always laugh at it. It was in response to this laughter that I began to spread out that stain in a manner that it worked as a blush for my cheeks. However, as I grew older, this practice eventually stopped. My next interaction with lipsticks came in college. As I grew comfortable with wearing them, I began to get fascinated by how they left behind stains on everything that came in contact with my lips. Sometimes, these stains would mix with the colour of the food and turn into a completely different colour. These stains were on spoons, cups, and the edges of my full-sleeved clothes. For some strange reason, it always made the people around me uncomfortable. While they did not say it out loud, they would look at a stained cup, and would choose not to drink from it. Or sometimes, they would specially drink from that side of the cup.

However as much as this observation interested me, my mother began to get irritated with it. She wasn’t worried that I was dirtying my clothes. She was worried that I was beginning to get too comfortable with lipstick. I was advised against wearing it every day. And it was at this point that I began using tissue paper. I started carrying it to “manage” my lipstick colours. Gradually, I grew tired of wasting so much paper and began to keep only one handy. Overtime, this tissue paper began carrying anecdotes of where and how I had adjusted my lipstick. Sometimes I had toned it down, and sometimes I had wiped it off because I was concerned I was “overdoing” it. It is here that I would like to bring the practice of “wiping off” lipstick into question and complicate the notion of leaving behind stains. Stains are always incomplete, fading somewhere but more prominent elsewhere. They emphasise some things, and underplay some. And precisely because of this, they’re unreliable. They escape articulation. For wives in Hindi TV serials lipstick stains have an established reputation of hinting towards an affair. TV advertisements show a woman leaving behind an imprint of her lips on a tissue paper to send her number across to someone.

It is then right to say that stains have an inherent sexualness to them. It is this camaraderie with sexualness that made my mother uncomfortable about my comfort with lipsticks. Stains become metonyms for the woman herself, and her sexuality. It is possible that this stain might stay on someone’s mind as they encounter a stained cup. It is possible that even if they never have seen the person, they would now be compelled to imagine them. They would like to grant them a personality according to the colour of the lipstick, but as I discuss later, it will always be an exercise in slipping and hence moving. Perhaps, this is the reason why I now sometimes intentionally leave behind stains. I use them as footsteps for wherever the other person wants to follow. When I think of how some people specifically wanted to drink from the same side where the stain was, these stains then become my own personal version of the Kamasutra. Vatsayayana in the Kamasutraargues that the ‘sexual’ is dispersed all around us. He calls this dispersion “The Sixty Four Arts”.These sixty four arts include “…colouring the teeth, the body and the garments” which automatically make the act of applying lipstick sexual in nature. The lipstick-ed lips lose their perfected shape when transferred as a stain. They become formless, shapeless. This reminds me of a quotation I often read as a teenager, “Find yourself a man who ruins your lipstick, not your mascara”. It is fascinating to realise that the tissue is not then adjusting the lipstick, it is in fact ruining it into formlessness, much like a lover would.

When I show a photograph of this stained and messy tissue paper to my friends, they often read it as a sanitary napkin. However, the first instinctive reaction I get is often that of confusion. People examine it carefully and slowly say “Sanitary napkin”, because what else could rust-and-red tinted stains on white signify? There is a three-fold argument that I would like to draw on here. Firstly, this misreading of the tissue paper hints towards how easy it is to misread sexuality. And it is because of this misreading that our sexuality always remains in motion. Each day, when I take out a lipstick, there is a different colour I choose to wear. However, I also make it a point to keep all these colours distinct from each other. While on one day it is a lip shade called “Romantic Dreamer”(dark red wine), on others it is “Classic Beauty” (coral nude). This is perhaps because I like to think of wearing different colours of lipsticks to feel like different kinds of people. With each shade, I get to change my identity. And on each day, it remains ambiguous. I can trace back this ambiguity of identity to how at my college farewell one of my friends said, “I don’t get you Muskan Your lipstick shades really confuse me about who you are. Are you straight or are you bi?” While I was immensely baffled by this cause and effect between my lipstick and my sexual orientation, I later came across a Facebook Quiz that asked, “What does your lipstick shade say about you?” Yes, it was true that I was attempting to articulate my identity by simply wearing lipstick. But it was also true that I was constantly trying to slip away from it. On some days I was Goth and on others I was a Girl Next Door. And it is with the urge to both bring and escape from identity articulation that I seek to live in this ambiguity and continue to buy lipsticks that differ from each other. Perhaps learning identity is a lot like entering a make-up shop.

Secondly, as much as we would like to put on make-up for ourselves, it also appears most prominently on our face (which is another marker of our identity). While I would like to believe the contrary, it is difficult to deny that my face exists more for others than it does for me. And putting on make-up can be read as an act of superimposing on the photograph that is my face. My face then renders itself open to being read, and so does my identity. Similarly, as much as I would like to control what the object in the photograph means to the viewer, the truth of the matter is, I can’t. Who I would like to identify as doesn’t matter. What becomes important is who people would like to identify me as. And I would like to believe that for as long as I can keep my friend confused about who I am, sexuality would succeed in its attempt to slip, move and sustain unreliability.

Lastly, naming lipsticks “Romantic Dreamer” and “Classic Beauty” is also an attempt to categorise colours into certain kinds of personalities. It is intriguing how a coral nude shade that is meant to be colourless then leaves behind a tinge of rusty orange when it is transferred onto tissue paper. If the personality of the lip colour does not live up to the name, how is that the personality of the person wearing the lip colour can be expected to do so? The lip colour then enters into a rather queer state of existence as it refuses to stand by the label it is expected to conform to. It moves and escapes categorisation. In its queerness, it renders itself as a paradox. At the heart of paradoxes is the understanding that something is what it is also not. Similarly, the colour of this lipstick is nude, but it is also not. It is possible that it is because of this slippery nature of the paradox that my sexuality as my identity too remains slippery, in motion and fluid. Perhaps, I am bisexual but I am also not. Who knows? What’s in a name anyway?

Perhaps lipsticks with their stains are then like Aladdin’s genie. A genie that is capable of fulfilling all our confusing wishes, desires and aspirations. This genie is metaphorical for the havoc that the fulfilment of desires can wreak because these desires, like stains, are unreliable. They do not promise to stay at one place, they do not promise to have an origin, and they do not promise to stay the same.

I would like to thank Rahul Sen and Madhavi Menon for their classes at Ashoka University.

Photo By: Muskan Nagpal

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