If you type “lipstick tutorial” into YouTube’s search bar, hundreds of thumbnails of white women saturate the results page, guiding you to the perfect plump pout. Among this group of women, a fixation with larger lips has increased over the years, slowly but surely boosting lip augmentations such as lip filler, lip threading, and Botox. In 2019, a Vice poll about lip filler saw voters liken the procedure to getting a haircut or manicure — but I can’t help finding lip filler’s popularity jarring. Why? It’s all in pursuit of achieving what I spent years feeling insecure about.
I grew up in a predominantly white area of north London. As the only Black kid in my class, I became hyperaware of my physical differences early on. Reading preteen magazines like Mizz and Bliss only emphasized the feeling of otherness, as makeup guides were applied to fair-skinned models and the light pink lipsticks that often came free with issues never matched the deep brown tone of my lips.
Back then, I thought my bigger lips were the reason I couldn’t pull off colors well and I stopped wearing lipstick. Years later, during the ’00s, what once made me feel unconfident about my appearance became a hot trend. Katie Price (then known by her pseudonym, Jordan) was one of the major celebrities in the UK leading the plump lip look, alongside other glamour models and white reality TV stars. As lip augmentations crept into mainstream celebrity culture and beauty trends, full lips evolved into a beauty standard that persists among white women to this day. I don’t recall Black women ever being recognized as influencers of this admired feature.
Though plenty of us are born with larger lips, we aren’t celebrated for them. It wasn’t Kerry Washington or Brandy being publicly admired for their naturally full lips when I was a teen but Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway, who were deemed “striking beauties.” Fast forward to 2021, and white people with full lips (whether enhanced or not) are still being praised over Black women. This is reflected in the considerably larger followings and success of non-Black beauty bloggers compared to Black beauty bloggers. Alarmingly, no Black faces were included in Cosmetify’s 2020 list of the 10 richest beauty influencers on Instagram and YouTube.
The adoration shown towards influencers who emulate Black women’s natural features only serves to highlight society’s separation of Black women from our beauty. “It’s funny how something that I was once teased about is now what people want,” says 28-year-old Cilla from southeast London, who was referred to as “rubber lips” in secondary school. She finds today’s attitude towards full lips peculiar. Sex and relationships blogger Tatyannah also experienced digs about her features when she was younger. “There were negative undertones in the conversations I had with classmates in school,” says Tatyannah. “Multiple people would say, ‘I might have acne, but I’m glad that I don’t have huge lips,’ or, ‘At least my acne will go away at some point, but you can’t avoid big lips.’ I remember thinking, Is that what they think about my lips? Because they’re definitely not small.”
Many Black women have been subject to teasing, jokes, and fetishization centered around their lips. Then, suddenly, everyone wants them. Black beauty is being eradicated as our natural features are emulated and whitewashed, particularly now in relation to full lips. Kylie Jenner exploded in popularity after opting for lip filler, and since then she has created her multimillion-dollar empire Kylie Cosmetics, which started with Lip Kits. Yet even when big lips are what people desire, the double standard still exists for people of darker complexions.
After being called “monkey” for my natural features in primary school, I personally resisted makeup that would highlight my lips. These racial slurs stem from 19th-century portrayals of Black faces with exaggerated red lips, such as the offensive mammy caricature and golliwog dolls. Minstrel shows, in which white actors painted their faces black and used makeup to widen their mouths, were evidence of a sinister readiness to mock Black people. These racist depictions have left haunting marks on Black people through generations, especially when it comes to accepting our features.
In 2021, though, more Black people are opting for lip procedures to enhance their lips. Dr. Ewoma Ukeleghe, founder of SKNDOCTOR, has noticed more and more young women opting for bigger lips. While she says that most of her lip filler patients are Caucasian, she suggests that the beauty landscape may be changing. Rather than concealing, some of Dr. Ewoma’s Black clients are leaning towards adding definition or balancing out their lips. Mel Palmer from Kent had a similar treatment carried out by Dr. Amish Patel, aesthetics practitioner at Intrigue Cosmetic Clinic. “For me personally, it wasn’t about having massive lips,” says Mel. “It was more a case of smoothing out the wrinkle lines and hydrating them. I feel my lips in terms of shape have always been fine. I wasn’t looking to change that.”
That said, it’s clear there are still conflicting attitudes towards big lips, especially within the community. Is it any wonder, considering the awful ways Black features have been viewed and judged in the past? I have been exposed to this myself, but I’ve learned to break out of the confined environment I grew up in. The more diverse setting of university certainly set me on the path to embracing my own natural features, but inclusivity in the beauty industry has helped, too.
Black beauty has become more widely addressed, with diversity being pushed by leading makeup artist Pat McGrath and brands like Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, which empower Black women in all our glorious forms. Seeing Black models show off their bountiful lips in advertising campaigns while wearing fuchsia pink and sparkly gloss fills me with hope that more brands will follow and finally embrace Black beauty.
As for me? Now I take pride in myself and my appearance. When the mood strikes, I no longer hesitate to pick up the brightest red lipstick in my collection.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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