When I was about 14, I saved up to buy a tube of DuWop’s Lip Venom, the ubiquitous gloss with ingredients designed to mimic a bee sting. You’d swipe it on, and your lips would swell, creating a pouty, on-trend look. But it turned out my tolerance for bee-sting pain was lower than I’d thought: I wore it three minutes, at most, before the intense burning made me wipe it off.
More than a century prior to my ill-fated foray into lip venom, women had contorted themselves for nearly the opposite look. Perched demurely in photography studios in London, Victorian women said “prunes” instead of “cheese” to bring their lips together into a tiny pinhole, which, they believed, created the thin-lipped pouts that were the style of the day. (In contrast, the public at the time associated painted, full mouths with prostitutes.) One British historian credits Victorians with inventing the concept of the “stiff upper lip,” while Queen Victoria herself made a public declaration of makeup as “vulgar.”
That ideal would change quickly in the 20th century with the arrival of red-lipped flappers and early movie stars painting their lipstick into a perfect Cupid’s bow. Not to mention the debut of Marilyn Monroe and the explosion of pinup girls — not just celebrities but wives, girlfriends, all pouting and blowing kisses in increasingly bright shades of pink and red.
And now in the 21st century, the thin lips of the 1800s are decidedly out, with an even sharper hastening toward ever-larger lips. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons found an increase of 60 percent in lip augmentations between 2000 and 2017. Kylie Jenner’s cosmetic company, known primarily for its $29-dollar lip kits (a lipstick and lipliner duo designed to enhance lips’ shape), sold $630 million worth of makeup in less than three years. And the millions of related posts on social media are a testament to how this trend has permeated beyond the circles of models and actresses into the lives of women and girls. Some 29.7 million posts on Instagram are tagged #lips; 356,000 are labeled #lipinjections, and 535,000 reference #lipfillers.
Theories abound as to why full lips have become one of the most sought-after beauty traits of our day, though sensuality is no doubt a keen aspect of the equation. Lips are used to kiss, to lick, to play. They are the source of expressions of love, sexuality, intimacy, and all types of communication. There is a reproductive drive in chasing after full lips, given their connotations with sexual vitality; some have even suggested that lips are attractive because of their resemblance to the labia. The trend of full lips may have become a billion-dollar industry in the past few decades, but the desire for full lips finds its roots in psychology, history, sociology, and evolutionary biology. Overt sensuality has replaced Victorian coyness, but that might have less to do with our newfound sexual freedom and more to do with the way we consume beauty products, media images, and each other.
Full lips signal both youth and vitality, according to scientists. Younger lips are naturally fuller, lending them a slight pout, and as we grow older our lips start to thin out and lose some of their shape. “Our eyes are keyed to shape and structure as indicators of youth,” said Dr. Brian Wong, a facial plastic surgeon who has conducted various studies on ideal lip size and shape.
A plump pout also indicates health more broadly. Certain illnesses historically caused lips to grow dry or to lose their color. The bubonic plague, for instance, causes a condition called “acral necrosis” on the lips, turning red lips black — just one outward symptom of a creeping, hidden sickness. Many sexually transmitted diseases display signs on the lips, from herpes sores to syphilis lesions. And yet the new ideal of full lips isn’t just about healthy lips, of course; it’s also about artificially enhanced ones.
At various points through history, full lips — or more specifically, a proportional and youthful-looking pout — served as a beauty ideal that existed outside of nature, finding its inspiration in art instead. In Renaissance painting, both men and women had bosomy, red lips, slightly parted as if to whisper some word of love. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has become so well known for her lips that plastic surgeons have named their lip enhancement treatments in her honor, claiming to help their patients achieve the “golden ratio.”
There is a fundamental discord, then, between what is attractive and what is found in nature when it comes to lips. The golden ratio might exist among certain preternaturally blessed women, but the full pout of the Kardashians certainly is not natural for women of their ethnic background. Scholars have suggested that the Kardashian-Jenners in particular are appropriating black beauty traits that they see as edgy or sexy, and in turn popularizing them for the culture at large. “It’s part of a long tradition of appropriation of African aesthetics, whether it’s art, painting, sculptures,” said Akil Houston, a professor of African-American studies at Ohio University. “As long as Africana culture is seen as dangerous, on the edge, there’s this sort of attraction to being risqué.”
What pop culture is doing with a natural black beauty trait is appropriation, not appreciation. Black celebrities from Beyoncé to Lupita Nyong’o might be gracing magazine covers more than ever, but the overwhelming majority of images in fashion feature white women, or women of color with Eurocentric features, small noses, and lighter skin.
As Houston mentioned, the desire to be risqué factors into all of this. Full lips may have always held an allure from an evolutionary biology perspective, but it’s only become acceptable (and often required) for women to be sexual in the past few decades. And that expression of sexuality might be as much nature as nurture — and advertising dollars.
But lips aren’t just sexy; they’re easily marketable. Breasts and butts are attractive too, but they don’t have the same money-making capacity. Even if you buy a new bra at the recommended interval of every six months (although who does this?), you’re still not spending more than a few hundred dollars a year. Makeup is another story. Women may spend as much as $200,000 on cosmetics in their lifetimes, all of those purchases of $2 Walgreens lipsticks and $29 lip kits adding up year over year.
Full lips have become their own type of commodity. In a Tinder-ified world where people make decisions about each other in a split second, being able to offer a quick signifier of sexiness and sexual interest gives some women an edge in a crowded reproductive marketplace, according to anthropologist and brand strategist Jamie Gordon. “In addition to it being a symbol of youth, which is sexy in and of itself, and a symbol of sexual pleasure and all those kinds of things, that pucker — which is what women are plumping their lips to look like — is a bit of an invitation. It’s saying ‘I’m making a gesture of intimacy. I’m making a gesture of sexual interest.” Lips have a capability for gesture that other body parts simply do not, which means the look of our lips is increasingly defining our personal identity.