I remember the first time I saw my disability. I was checking my makeup in a mirror and telling my parents about my evening plans to go to a movie with friends.
But I couldn’t say the word “movie”—or to be specific, I couldn’t make the “m” sound, a nasal consonant that I had a habit of holding much too long, like the buzz of an unruly insect. That day, the only sound that escaped my lips was a steady, prolonged stream of “mmmmm…mmmm…mmmm.” I stopped myself and took a breath. I tried again, with the same result: “Mmmmmm…mmmm…mmmm.”
This wasn’t the first time. I was born with a neurological speech impediment (also known as a stutter). The only new thing about this happening, in fact, was watching myself in the mirror as I stuttered. As I leaned into my reflection to check my lipstick, still trying to push out the word “movie,” I noticed how my lips were sometimes pinched, my jaw clearly strained. Other times my face looked frozen, like I was waiting to sneeze. When I started repeating syllables, my lips twitched and my eyes darted around in a frenzy.
Is this really how the world sees me?
People who stutter often endure uncomfortable facial expressions and muscular tics while stuttering, according to the Mayo Clinic and my own personal experience. I’d watched my friends who stutter make such expressions, and I’d always encouraged self-acceptance. But face-to-face with my own stutter that day, I stared at my reflection with contempt.
I was reminded of an iconic movie I loved in my adolescent years, the 1995 film Clueless, when Alicia Sliverstone’s Cher is trying to seduce Justin Walker’s Christian. “Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good,” she says in a voice-over. No, I thought to myself, maybe not anything is good. If lipstick makes my stutter more noticeable—my disability literally highlighted in shades of red, pink, and purple—should I stop wearing it altogether?
And for a while, that’s what I did. I gathered up every tube of lipstick or colored gloss. I threw each one in a bag and buried it deep inside my bathroom closet. I stared at my bare lips in the mirror. This helps you blend in, I convinced myself. Your stutter won’t stand out now.
I started leaving my lips bare, only wearing a lightly tinted lip balm on nights when I went out. But I noticed that going out with friends had started to feel less joyful. I mumbled through conversations about my favorite books or TV shows, topics I normally would’ve been energized by. I would say a few words and then turn silent, wondering if my stutter was making my face unsightly again.
This is not to say that wearing lipstick is essential to everyone, of course. I knew it was just lipstick—its absence hadn’t impacted my life that much—but constraining myself had caused my self confidence to diminish. Censoring my love for lipstick just to alleviate outside attention on my stutter eventually began to feel harmful to my overall wellbeing.
I’m not sure when I reached into the bathroom closet again—this time to rescue my lipstick collection, not hide it. Like most epiphanies, this one was rooted in several little moments, like spotting a woman at the mall wearing bold makeup without apology; or seeing old photos of myself, my lipstick bright, my smile revealing a sort of self confidence I hadn’t felt in weeks; or even one barefaced afternoon, rocking my two-year-old niece to sleep, running a hand through her curls and praying she never knows what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
These are the images I contemplated during my weeks of lipstick withdrawal. And afterwards, I asked myself: Are you willing to sacrifice your self-expression just to hide your disability from the world? Here was the indisputable answer: nope.
Attempting to hide my disability by refusing to wear lipstick hadn’t made me stand out less. It had only made me miserable.
I still don’t remember the exact day I ended my weeks-long lipstick fast. Maybe I was on my way to work, or class, or dinner. I wish I had preserved the memory of looking at my reflection in the mirror, of applying that fresh coat once again. Maybe I wore a nude gloss or a deep shade of berry. Perhaps the color was a much bolder violet, coral, or bubblegum pink.
The specific shade isn’t what’s important. What’s important is the transformation it inspired—one I didn’t know I needed until I looked into the mirror.
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