There’s a story about red lipstick in a concentration camp that I keep hearing. Beauty writers seem to have latched on to this historical event, and retell it as they choose, with their own interpretations. As my interpretation of the events is different, I thought I’d chime in.

The story supposedly goes that, upon the liberation of a concentration camp, the freed women of the camp were given red lipstick by the Red Cross, and that this was empowering. Variations of the story also repeat the idea that this “gave them back their humanity” or suchlike. The moral of the story seems to be that red lipstick somehow holds great political significance, and a near-mythological power. The story is frequently told to act as an illustration of how powerful red lipstick is for women.

Let’s consider, for a moment, if it’s at all appropriate to use the holocaust to make a liberal feminist point about how lipstick is a politically important item. Perhaps, you’d agree that using the holocaust to make a point about anything but the holocaust is a pretty insensitive thing to do. So there’s my first gripe. The second gripe is that writers are adding their own, somewhat romanticizing, twists to the story, or interpretations of what really happened.

On the Bergen-Belsen UK web site, one may read a first-hand account of the events, by a British Colonel Gonin who mentioned the delivery in a diary entry. Having read this many times, it’s pretty clear to me from his retelling of the event that the delivery was accidental. You may know that servicewomen during the war were given red lipstick as a “morale booster”. In fact, I’d say it wasn’t about boosting her morale as much as her male colleagues’ – and of course, as women were entering the workplace during the war, a feminine appearance was encouraged in order to keep women in their place.

So allow me the assumption that the lipstick delivery to Bergen-Belsen was a misdelivery, and as the Colonel states in his diary entry, they were desperate for actual necessities. Either way, he points out that the lipsticks were “genius”, as the freed women prisoners clung to them, even in their misery. He tells of a woman who, laying dead, clutched a lipstick in her hand. It’s an evocative image, but does it fill one with feminist hope? Hardly. Perhaps if they’d been delivered medical supplies and food, she’d be alive. 

These women had gone through hell. Literal hell. Unspeakable crimes were committed against them in their isolation, so is it no wonder that they would cling so desperately to the first token of normal life, of a world outside? It was only a coincidence that the token, in this case, was lipstick.

Col. Gonin says in his diary entry that “At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

This quote, while vivid, must be understood to be his interpretation of events. We must consider the writer’s point of view – a man’s, in the 1940s. Of course he thinks women taking an interest in their appearance is a sign of humanity. It isn’t. It’s a sign of womanhood, and desperation. So forgive me if this story doesn’t fill me with feminist hope, or a belief in the mystical powers of red lipstick. It only fills me with grief.