Armed with Red Lipstick

Photo by Efenita Taqueban.

This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology.

It’s 10 a.m., the sun is glaring, and the air is hot and humid. The mall has just opened and we rush into its shade like vampires taking shelter. We are there to get some beers and late snacks (or are they early snacks?). The beers will help me sleep, Lissa explains: “You think since you’ve been up all night that by now, you’d be sleepy. But because you’re not used to this, your mind will keep going. You need a little help to sleep.” Lissa is twenty-three years old and a veteran of this sleep cycle. These days, she doesn’t need the beers to fall asleep, but she’ll have a few to hang out with friends and talk about work. It’s just like what everyone else does to hang out after work, she explains, except that the sun is up and everything is bright and blaring.

The city is a magnet for young people, especially from rural areas, who come to study, work, and move up in the world. Its concrete buildings, bustle, and emerging middle class fuel aspirations for a better, modern life. The city is also the place where one can most easily observe the trends transforming labor in the Philippines: the growing participation of women and youth in the paid labor force and the emergence of the service sector. More and more young people in the city share Lissa’s nocturnal work schedule. What is characteristic of the urban landscape of the capital, Manila, is beginning to punctuate the rhythm of localities across the country. Lissa first came to the city as a student, aspiring to be an accountant. When her family’s finances contracted, she had to leave school. As she looked for work, her avid consumption of American pop culture paid off, insofar as her accent could be trained to mimic a Midwestern twang.

Lissa is among the growing number of young women working in the call centers of Cagayan de Oro, a port city in the southern Philippines. Better known for its white water rafting, multinational pineapple cannery, and proximity to Muslim separatist insurgency, it is also the site of a growing business-process outsourcing industry. The country’s second largest source of income, it is a highly feminized industry largely consisting of affective labor. Lissa retouches her lipstick as she finishes her beer: “I don’t want to look like I didn’t get a good night’s sleep,” she tells me.

Leni likewise insists on “looking fresh” when she steps out of the office at the end of her shift. Having worked since midnight, she uses cosmetics to look less frazzled. “You go out in the morning and see everyone going to work or school. They all look so fresh. And here I am, so haggard-looking. Lipstick!” The appearance of health is important; it projects normality as if one’s abnormal hours have no effect on one’s health. For Grace, appearing healthy assures her family that the work is not running her down: “It eases the worry on my parents, especially when they notice how pale I look. Lack of sleep results in anemia and that’s supposed to make you pale.” The blush hides her already pale skin, while concealer hides the bags under her eyes. The young women step out into the morning light looking prepared for the day. Cosmetics allow them to look normal in the brief hours when their movements intersect with the regular hours of the city.

In call center work, where one’s voice is valued above all, the physicality of one’s face and skin lets young women retain a degree of personhood. When the self is at risk of being lost, we turn to the tangible to get a grip, to feel, to look at our embodied selves to affirm that we still are. The mukha (face) is a site of self and dignity—we lose face, suffer a slap in the face, assert to others to look at me or face me. Unknown and unseen by irate customers, workers’ faces cannot be judged or rejected. “Hell, they can scream and shout at me and call me stupid, but when I look at the mirror I see a gorgeous girl,” Lexi tells me. “Feeling beautiful!” When Lexi puts on makeup, she changes, becomes less affected by the stress of her work—almost invincible. For her, putting on makeup is a magical and healing ritual.

The term cosmetics—derived from the Greek word kosmos—expresses the idea of the universe, one of ordered beauty and morality as opposed to chaos. Beauty and cosmetics, in this sense, are about conjuring orderliness in turmoil, healing in ailment, strength in fatigue. At first glance, the use of cosmetics by Lissa and her friends may seem indicative of their cosmopolitan aspirations: living city lives and participating in widespread imaginaries of beauty, modernity, success, and emancipation. But beneath the veneer of cosmetics, they remain enmeshed in cosmopolitical struggle; their success remains one of subservience, as cogs in a factory of affective production. Their use of cosmetics to conjure a cosmos reminds us of Isabelle Stengers’s (2005, 1002) witches, “daring to name magic the art of triggering events where a ‘becoming able to’ is at stake.”

Practices around cosmetics are regarded as both serious and frivolous endeavors. In the contemporary Philippines, they conjure glossy advertisements from the beauty industry, or whole sections of department stores and malls devoted to enhancing the feminine face. But the prehistoric record of today’s Philippines shows that beauty has long been pursued, and not for altogether different reasons: body adornment was used to enhance beauty by promoting magical qualities and even healing physical defects (Salcedo 1998).

On the one hand, cosmetics facilitate women’s participation in the labor market and their financial independence; on the other, they reinforce gender roles that demand niceties. For the young call-center agents of Cagayan de Oro, cosmetics form part of their repertoire of action, tools to survive and thrive in the trade. As Mary Bucholtz (2002, 530) has argued, what might otherwise seem like “manifestations of psychological distress” may actually be “practices through which young people display agency.” Nevertheless, the use of cosmetics is no strategy to change the system; they are tactics to survive in a system of domination. By putting on makeup, the young women mask their precarious situations. Like performers in the theater of life—their main stage being the telephone and their clients the audience—call-center agents use cosmetics to enhance their acting which is, at the same time, their being.


Bucholtz, Mary. 2002. “Youth and Cultural Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 525–52.

Salcedo, Cecilio G. 1998. “Prehistoric Vanities.” In Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People, Volume 2, edited by Gabriel Casal, Eusebio Dizon, Wilfredo Ronquillo, and Cecilio Salcedo, 231–41. Hong Kong: Asia Publishing Company.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2005. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 994–1003. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.