Lipstick may be small in size, but it packs major meaning—a significance beyond what a punny shade name and pretty packaging suggest. Just take a look at any one of the many varied roles it’s played over its estimated 5,000-year history. There’s lipstick the protector: In Elizabethan times, women thought wearing it could help ward off death’s crawl. There’s lipstick the rebel: Iconic suffragettes Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton slicked their mouths in red—a look that, at the time, was considered the province of “loose women”—as a form of sartorial protest. But perhaps its most potent, and most overlooked, incarnation is that of lipstick the healer.
In the most literal sense, lipstick provides a reliable tonic in trying times. For cancer patients, it often serves as a symbol (however small) of health and vibrancy. “Lipstick helps restore a normal sense of self that a patient can lose during incredibly difficult cancer treatments and help them feel like themselves,” says Bobbie Rimel, M.D., a gynecologist and oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.