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. Over the years, a fixation on larger lips has increased, slowly but surely boosting lip augmentations such as lip filler, lip threading, and Botox. In 2019, a Vice poll about lip filler even 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 the freebie pink lipsticks that came with each issue didn’t accommodate my bigger, brown lips. Being called "monkey" by a bully in school certainly didn’t help — a term loaded with racial mockery of Black people with smacking lips. It made me avoid lipstick altogether out of fear it would highlight my larger lips.
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) led the plump lip look alongside other glamour models, soon followed by reality stars. It wasn’t Kerry Washington or Brandy who were publicly admired for their naturally full lips when I was a teen, but Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts. Fast forward to 2021, and it’s fair to say that lip fillers have infiltrated mainstream society, with big lips evolving into an admirable feature. But Black women, who tend to have them naturally, are not considered inspiration.
Larger lips only seem to be appealing when non-Black women champion the look, a phenomenon that left me feeling ousted as a teenager despite having what my white friends looked to achieve with their over-glossed pouts. It wasn’t until I went to a diverse university, where I was surrounded by more Black and brown women with features similar to mine, that I began to embrace my features. At the time, MAC Cosmetics was the single major beauty brand that provided products that accommodated dark skin tones. Going out, I experimented with shades like Ruby Woo and Rebel, but I still didn’t feel truly confident in my appearance, as makeup brands outside of Black-owned companies still failed to properly acknowledge diverse beauty.
Erasing Black people from beauty ideals links back to a long history of racism. In the 19th century, our appearances were cruelly mocked through horrific portrayals of blackface, exaggerated red lips also seen on the offensive Mammy caricature and golliwog dolls. What has transpired in the hundred years since is a stripping of our physical identity: Our features are being emulated by non-Black people while Black people are dispelled. Tatyannah agrees: “We go through the teasing, jokes, and fetishization,” she says. “You can’t help but sit back and scratch your head at the irony. Even when big lips are what people desire, the double standard still exists for people of darker complexions.”
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. In 2020, influencers such as Huda Kattan and James Charles (both of whom have had lip filler in the past) were among the top ten highest earners in beauty. They have considerably larger success compared to many Black beauty influencers. Kylie Jenner enhanced her lips, and has since made billions as a leading beauty influencer thanks to her Lip Kits. “It’s funny how something that I was once teased about is now what people want,” says Cilla, who was called “rubber lips” in secondary school.
But inclusivity is managing to break through in the beauty industry. Although Black beauty brands have always existed, they were on a smaller, less accessible scale for me as a young adult. It wasn’t until renowned makeup artist Pat McGrath launched her namesake beauty brand Pat McGrath Labs in 2015, followed by Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty a few years later, that global acceptance of Black beauty turned a corner. The influence of these two women undeniably urged the beauty industry to improve. I remember seeing the first campaign shots of model Leomie Anderson in Pat’s bold red Mattetrance lipstick and models Ajak Deng and Slick Woods rocking bright Fenty lip colours across their full lips. I felt proud of that beauty display and could see myself in those images. It filled me with a confidence I hadn’t been in touch with so directly before.
Interestingly, it seems more Black people are actually opting for enhancing lip procedures in 2021. While Dr. Ewoma Ukeleghe, founder of SKNDOCTOR, says that while most of her lip filler patients are Caucasian, 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 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."
Even with the cultural improvements, it's clear there are still conflicting attitudes towards lips as we grapple with accepting ourselves and our own beauty standards. Personally, I’m thankful that inclusivity has found its way in the beauty industry, and I hope it will encourage Black women to be more accepting of ourselves. We've been excluded from the consideration of beauty for so long, and now is our time to embrace what is naturally ours. Our features are beautifully diverse. 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.