The lubed-up language at the makeup counter has long been a bugbear for dictionary corner queen, Susie Dent. She takes us through some of the increasingly explicit naming conventions, which have depressingly become the norm.
A year or so ago I had the pleasure of asking for some Deep Throat together with a Super Orgasm. The whole idea was to make me blush, but not in the way you’re probably imagining.
This scenario wasn’t where you’re thinking either. I was fully clothed at the time, standing amid the shimmering splendour that is the modern-day beauty aisle.
Deep Throat and Orgasm (Standard or Super, take your pick) are shades of blusher, and they’re on the radar not just of grown women like me, but teenage girls everywhere.
This trend towards X-rated cosmetics isn’t particularly new – Lust and Nude Juice have been titillating our shelves since the beginning of the noughties – but it’s gathered so much momentum in the past few years that if you’re searching today for a new eyeshadow you can forget about Heather or Damson or Dusk.
Instead you may like to choose between F Bomb, Bang, and Stray Dog. “Get Some, Give Some,” urges one manufacturer, whose mascara is “Bigger, Blacker, Badder”, a complement to their Perfect 3-Some eye palette: “indispensable”, because apparently “you never know when you’ll have the urge to get naked.”
Now every manufacturer wants to play the game, and their promises of perfection and of an otherwise unachievable beauty are hard to resist. Charles Revson, creator of Revlon, was bang on the makeup money many decades ago when he said, “In the factory we sell cosmetics, in the store we sell hope.”
According to today’s brands then, all a girl can hope for is the afterglow from a Snog or the bronzed brilliance of Sin. As Yves St Laurent once put it: “The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.”
Makeup and morality have been interlinked since the Ancient Greeks, when the cosmetic palette began to emerge. Centuries ago a rouged mouth or kohled eyes could be positively dangerous (‘kohl’, incidentally has the same root as ‘alcohol’, it too being a distillation achieved by alchemy).
In Biblical times, Jezebel infamously painted her face before meeting her gruesome death; her ritualised makeup became the ultimate symbol for the stigma of evil and ‘whoreishness’.
Right up until the 20th century an unadulterated face was everything that a virtuous woman must aspire to, and an angelic whiteness became such an imperative that bleaching lotions such as Fair-Plex Ointment topped the beauty charts.
White skin meant time spent indoors by those who could afford it, as opposed to outdoor workers who would inevitably brown and roughen up beneath the sun (the whole idea of being blue-blooded was based on the idea of blue veins shining through translucently white skin).
“Manufacturers obviously think it’s men who are the imagined recipients of the makeup we are buying: look no further than Glow Job, Gash and Lube in a Tube.”
Upon the aristocratically blanched face a little rouge might just about work, but anything more than a dusting would suggest either a harlot or (worse still) a member of the acting profession. In short, ornamental artifice was out of the question, considered to be what today’s marketers might gleefully call ‘Totally Wicked’.
With the advent of the 1920s, when women sought to forget the bleakness of war and assert their new sense of feminine power, colour began to feel bold again. At first it was confined to lips, on which newly sumptuous reds offered a daring contrast to the pallor of skin.
The seductiveness of Hollywood’s ‘It-girls’ like Clara Bow meant that even more dramatic shades began to follow, with the Bright, Medium and Dark lip shades of pioneers like Avon giving way to Vivid, Raspberry and Cupid’s Bow. Even American Beauty Red carried a certain panache.
It was these that eventually morphed into the cutesy Tickle, Razzle and Plummy of my own teenage years. Today we’re looking into the faces of Vice, Perversion and Snatch.
That leap can’t just be the result of linguistic inflation, even though we see that everywhere these days. This is the age of government ‘tsars’, an ‘über-world’ where everyone is a ‘hero’ and everything ‘tragic’.
We have become accustomed to souped-up packaging, and to cakes ‘enrobed’ in chocolate – everything including our language is sugar-spun. But our makeup seems to have lost all distinction between slinkiness and sleaze. Thanks to the bombardment we’re in danger of becoming desensitised too.
“‘Get Some, Give Some’, urges one manufacturer, whose mascara is ‘Bigger, Blacker, Badder’, a complement to their Perfect 3-Some eye palette.”
Log on to any makeup blog and you’ll see what I mean: the voices you’ll hear seem to have become so immune to innuendo that they will happily deliver absurd sentences like: “I’ve tried to like Deep Throat, but am now giving Lovejoy a try.”
Who are the copywriters who come up with today’s labels? Are they just sniggering competitors in the race to sex up? Or maybe they think their leering lexicon is somehow empowering women to feel liberated and part of the game.
Of course women and teens love makeup, and yes we want to be able to discuss sex and our desires, but the lens these brands are looking through is insistently, unwaveringly male.
Far from allowing us to believe that we want to look good for ourselves, the manufacturers obviously think it’s men who are the imagined recipients of the makeup we are buying: look no further than Glow Job, Gash and Lube in a Tube.
I’m so far from being a prude that I’ve surprised myself by my level of irritation when faced with a blusher called Slag. But prettification and pornification have become one and the same, and depressingly it seems to sell.
A lipstick shouldn’t have to rely on the shock level its name achieves on the seismic scale – nor the orgasmic one – but that is exactly where we’re at. Women have been seduced for centuries by promises of firming, uplifting, plumping perfection: it’s what fashion is all about. But today’s makeup is promising more than that: soft-faced beauty via hardcore titillation.
Erica Jong saw this coming years ago: “All cosmetics names seemed obscenely obvious to me in their promises of sexual bliss. The juice and joy missing from the lives of women are being supplied by the contents of jars and bottles.”
And we seem content to pay out. Because, in the end, and as Jong herself mused: “What price bliss? What price sexual ecstasy?” At least we now know part of the answer: take a trip to your local chemist and you can probably pick up a pot of each for under £20.7716 Views
Susie Dent is the word expert on C4’s long-running quiz show Countdown. She contributes regularly to TV and radio debates about words, and just as regularly eavesdrops on conversations to pick up any new words floating around.