How My Mother’s Lipstick Ritual Is Bringing Me Strength During Coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many in a state of uncertainty. However, I've found solace and strength in my mother's one simple self-care ritual.

This morning, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror and decided one new thing: I would not spend this week the way I’d spent the previous week. I would not (could not) keep drowning in a sort of undulating uncertainty. I wanted to break the cycle of shifting back and forth from panic-inducing news feeds to the relentless pinging of text chains to awkward Zoom meetings to emails to unstructured family time to crying fits to news feeds to texts chains to emails and crying and meetings and more.

I made a choice. Instead of getting knocked around by all the unknowns, I’d decided to stand exactly where I was and just focus on putting my lipstick on.

I know you’re probably thinking, “What?! Lipstick? Really?”

Give me a moment, bear with me. And if you’re sitting on the floor of your bathroom hiding from your kids because it’s the only room in the house with a lock, then what’s a better alternative than to just keep reading? Here’s a quick little story about my mother and her lipstick. OK, I lie. It’s long. But, alternatives? Need extra help? This is what a therapist is doing to stay sane during the quarantine.

For my mother, the official start of everything was exactly the same

She’d head to a mirror. She’d tilt her chin up slightly, a motion of confidence, and hold it there as she’d stretch her lips across her teeth to create a smooth surface to accommodate a smear of coral red. First the top lip, then the bottom. She’d press those lips together in circles to steal the creamy stain and then deliver a forced yet rich and toothy grin.

The click of the plastic cap as she shut it closed was a signal

I was raised by a single mom. She had two kids, a full-time 9-to-5 job, and a bookkeeping side-hustle. Aside from work-work, she had a mortgage, a mile-long list of cleaning, cooking, washing, bill-paying, and no washer, dryer, or dishwasher. Plus, she had an alcoholic ex-husband who kept calling up asking for help, and god knows what other despicable stressors to contend with.

Throughout it all, she kept up what seemed like an absurdly militant sort of vanity. She was never seen with a hair out of place. At the center of it all was her ritual with the coral red lipstick.

I remember watching her put on her lipstick in the bathroom mirror every morning, the final act in a full face of makeup. I remember watching her in the car’s rear-view mirror before she headed into the grocery store and in a window reflection before every walk of the dog. I also recall every time she’d throw out that ridiculous apology about wearing her “knock-around clothes” (aka a matching tracksuit) before walking off to do something dirty and intense, like getting on her hands and knees to scrub a vinegar solution all over our kitchen floor.

Through it all, I was too young and dumb to realize all she had going on. All I remember thinking was, “Why does she still have that lipstick on?”

Coral red lips until the very end

The last time I remember watching my mother do her little thing with the coral red was in front of a frameless mirror that hung above a tiny ceramic sink. She’d asked me to help her get out of bed and walk her to the basin so she could brush her teeth.

I stared at her from behind worried she might fall. Her bony clavicles were just enough to prevent the thin sheath of her hospital gown from slipping off, the sun-stain freckles showing on the exposed skin of her back. In the hospital, the nurses had finally convinced her that keeping her own silk nightgown and velour bathrobe on was no use since the messy truths of her cancer kept spoiling them. It killed me to see her cave. To see her accept this droopy lifeless sheath. Those freckles reminded me of long-lost days on the beach, her in ridiculously oversized Jackie O sunglasses, flouncy, wide-brimmed straw hats and, still, her coral red lips.

I was deep in my own thoughts of grief and uncertainty, tears streaming down my face. Then suddenly, from behind, I suddenly sensed that familiar motion. Chin up. Confidence. A second later I heard the click of the cap. I was a million miles away worrying into the future, yet she was still there. She was ready.

She turned a bit and started shuffling her way back to bed. But first, with one swift push, she swung shut the heavy door. I loved her fiercely in that moment.

Back to today

This morning, when I was locked in my own bathroom hiding my from kids (yes, that’s how I know where you are!) and the uncertainties of the day, I stared at my puffy-eyed, broken self in the mirror and realized something supremely important: The coral red ritual wasn’t something my mother did for her children, friends, acquaintances, or co-workers. It was something she did for herself.

So, yes, I admit it: I don’t know a lot. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I don’t know if my kids are returning to school this year, if someone I love will contract a life-stealing virus, if I’m going to get pulled into the medical center where I work to help on the front lines as some of my colleagues already were, or if I’m going to lose my job.

Yet I do know one true thing: When my world gets toppled I’ve still got incredible power. I have the power to make a choice.

I can choose to thrash around in my anxieties about the unknown. I can give myself over to the waves, get knocked around over and over and over as I try to tidy up all the little ports of craze rising up around me. Or…

I can stand still and lock into my calm by putting my lipstick on

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t wear lipstick. My version of coral red is lacing up my sneakers and going for a run. But I’m digging back into meditation. I’m writing in my journal and shipping my work. I’m solidly shutting the door to anything that’s hurting me. I’m opting out of group texts that stress me out, growing smarter about the news I consume and limiting myself to once-daily check-ins with three trusted resources, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, my state governor’s update, and my local mayor’s email.

I’m not suggesting we ignore what’s around us. I’m suggesting we focus on only what we can control and actively avoid what doesn’t serve us. I’m suggesting we hold tight to our rituals, incorporate it into our new routines, and then work hard to center ourselves with them every day.

I’m suggesting we do our best to avoid getting knocked around by uncertainty. Put on our lipstick, lean into whatever it is that gives us courage, centers our being, and ramps up our calm. Then get up and shut the door on anything that doesn’t. Just be sure to keep putting that lipstick on.

(Oh, and don’t unlock that bathroom door until you’re good and ready!)

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDE
Amelia Sherry is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator in Hasting-on-Hudson, New York. She writes about eating, foods, nutrition, parenting, and women. Her work has been published in Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Self, Redbook, Latina, Woman's World, Today's Dietitian, among other publications. She earned a MPH in Nutrition from CUNY School of Public Health. See more of her work on her blog and her website.