The pandemic has changed so many things about how we all live, perhaps most immediately what we wear: on our feet, around our waists, on our faces and especially on our lips, which after a brief hiatus this summer are once again often covered by masks.
I am a longtime lipstick lover. In my medicine cabinet there are no fewer than 25 lipsticks of various shades of red. Some people find their color and stick to it. I think of lipsticks the way others think of shoes: There are different colors for different occasions and different times of day.
My lipsticks are all lined up neatly according to brand (Pat McGrath, Nars, Chanel, Mac) and subdivided into colors. True Red. Blue Red. Coral. I can tell you the difference between Mac Ruby Woo and Russian Red. I invest.
During the early months of the pandemic, which I spent mostly in my sweats, I would sometimes open the cabinet and look at those glossy tubes and whisper, “One day you will ride again.” (I was the only person in my apartment.) In other words, I would ride again. As the months wore on, though, I began to wonder if this were the case. Life seemed very far away. You could either have a mask or you could have a lip. Because I am a responsible citizen, I chose the former.
Many others did too, it seems. During the economic downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks, Leonard Lauder coined the term “lipstick index.” His belief was that the worse the economy is, the more lipstick women are purchasing; we buy the small things when the big things are out of reach. The pandemic upended this. As the economy struggled in 2020, lipstick sales also plummeted.
And then, a vaccine! Followed by the updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April that masks were no longer mandatory outdoors. Hello again lips?
Lips aside, there was another question a lot of us were asking ourselves this past spring as we emerged: Who am I now? We were boldly pulling our masks down, ready to once again exist in the world — or at least try and figure out how to exist.
What parts of our old style had remained and, of those, which had we only been putting on out of a sense of obligation, which perhaps the pandemic had now freed us from. Were we people who let all the gray come in? Had a year of staring at our faces up close resulted in a reassessing of the advantages of fillers? Was anyone actually contemplating shoving their feet back into heels?
And finally: Lip or no lip?
On that first day, when I was able to leave with a mask on my upper arm instead of my face, I automatically reached for my tried-and-true Nars Jungle Red almost without thinking. For the first time in over a year I felt like myself again. I felt happy. The pandemic had stripped me of many things (touch, first and foremost) but not, it turned out, my devotion to lipstick. Again I was part of a trend. According to numbers released in May, the second the masks came off, lipstick sales shot right back up, to the tune of 80 percent from the year before, according to CNN Business.
“Our beauty regimens are one of the easiest ways to access self-care,” said the makeup artist Molly Stern, “and lipstick in particular is a hole in one. It takes just a few minutes to apply, and it has instant power to remind us we matter.”
This happy reunion was to be temporary. Even before the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus revived stricter mask mandates, I was still required to wear one for here and there; subway rides, for instance.
And while my Chanel Gabrielle has stood loyally by me for endless activities, it was not made for mask life. I would apply, put on my mask and a short time later look like I’d been in a teenage makeout session, lipstick everywhere but my lips. Some rethinking was going to be necessary. I was going to have to commit.
Enter the long-lasting lipstick, many of which, after numerous trips down makeup aisles, I learned the hard way are not mask-lasting.
There are, however, a few lipsticks that live up to, or rather, stand up to, our times.
If you are a red lipstick person the first will not come as a shock. Stila Cosmetics Stay All Day in Beso ($22) has been around for more than a decade and has a devoted following that includes Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It is a very intense red. When you put this on, you really have to mean it.
The second is Fenty’s Stunna Lip Pain Longwear Fluid Lip Color ($25). I have it in Uncensored. The key with this one is to blot it immediately after applying: The thinner the layer, the longer it will last (fortunately, a little goes a long way).
The third is Maybelline’s Super Stay Matte Ink. I have it in Dancer. If there is a lipstick for our masked times, this is it. (It also sells for about $10.)
Here’s what Super Stay means in this context: Once you put it on, it might never come off, certainly not with soap and water, let alone on a mask. (Pro tip: You will need to use an oil-based makeup remover; coconut oil will do.)
After applying it for the first time in 2019, I was still wearing it the next morning. It promptly went into the corner of the medicine cabinet and stayed there. There was such a thing as too much lipstick. But it came back out this summer and has since been the only one that’s stayed out.
We now know there is no swift, seamless returning to our old lives. At best, all we get to do now is make small decisions about what we can take with us and how to make it fit into this messy uncertain new world. The lipstick remains (literally in this case). These days mask removal feels like a scene from some sort of secret identity superhero film. Here is me, the 2021 version, dutifully complying with mandates. And now here is me, and my lips. Thriving as best we can.