That girl with the red lipstick

How fashion and makeup helped me develop self-confidence

For me, fashion and makeup are more than just a superficial means of expression.

They are the tools of my survival.

When I was in high school, I never wore makeup, and did not give much thought to fashion. I dismissed makeup and fashion as a superficial waste of time, as something “other girls” wasted their energy on.

It wasn’t until I entered an eating disorder treatment program that my attitude about fashion and makeup completely changed.

I was in a partial hospitalization program, which meant for several months, I was in treatment from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday through Friday.

I was not completely invested in treatment at first. I would show up 10 to 15 minutes late every day, eager to put off getting weighed and forcing down yet another high-calorie meal. Each day was jam-packed with therapy and group sessions and involved a lot of emotionally exhausting self-reflection.

Can you blame me for being reluctant to go?

My treatment progress was very slow at first and my symptoms actually started to get worse — I was still making myself throw up most days when I got home from treatment, and when I started vomiting blood, my therapist told me I needed to stop purging cold-turkey or I would be placed in inpatient hospitalization.

As much of a drag as partial hospitalization was, it certainly beat being in the hospital full-time. I had to find some way to force myself to stop purging and get serious about treatment.

When faced with overwhelming challenges like this, I turn to my Taylor Swift CDs. No one understands me quite like she does and her music has gotten me through the most difficult times in my life.

As I clutched her Red album in my hands, I found myself admiring her bright red lipstick. While I did own a red lipstick somewhere in my very limited makeup collection, it was not something I ever wore. It was far too much of a statement for my taste at the time; any makeup I wore was simply to conceal imperfections, and I specifically chose understated outfits that disguised the body I hated so much. I specifically made these choices with the goal of fading into the background and not calling attention to myself. Painting my lips bright red would have the opposite effect.

But Taylor looked so beautiful and confident with her ruby lips. And I reasoned that if I looked like a fool in such a bright hue, what better place to experiment with a bold lip color than eating disorder treatment? It’s not like anyone there would really care what I looked like.

So the next morning, I actually set my alarm and got up on time. I dug through my wardrobe, tossing aside drab turtlenecks and khaki pants, looking for something out of my comfort zone.

I ended up finding floral leggings and a striped top. I put a polka dot scarf in my hair. And to finish off the look, I put on my bright crimson lipstick.

In retrospect, I am sure I looked pretty ridiculous in that ensemble, but it was a huge, symbolic step for me. For the first time, I put on clothes because they were pretty and made a statement – not as some sort of strategic way to cover up my flaws. When I tossed aside the bland clothes of my teen years, in a way, I was also tossing aside the restrictions of my eating disorder.

The other patients, doctors and therapists all complimented my lipstick and my outfit. One person even told me I looked like Taylor Swift.

When I got home from treatment that day, I did not make myself throw up because I didn’t want to mess up my red lipstick.

And I haven’t made myself throw up since then.

Pretty soon, I became known as “that fashionable girl” or “that girl with the red lipstick.” I slowly stopped obsessing about my body, food and calories and found myself shifting my thoughts to skirt and crop top combinations, fabric textures and colors that compliment my skin tone. Depression and self-loathing used to make it hard for me to get out of bed. Now, I can’t wait to wake up and choose that day’s outfit and put on my favorite red lipstick.

I wore red lipstick every single day for at least a year after that. What started out as a way to stop myself from purging became a signature part of my look. For the first time, I had an identity outside of “the sad girl with the eating disorder.” Slowly, I began to come into my own and really discover who I am.

And it all started with a swipe of red lipstick.

Maddy Fowler is the assistant news editor and can be contacted at