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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Red Lipstick Is a Symbol of Change

She defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley without obeying the party line — or expectations about what a candidate should look like.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Cynthia Nixon Scott Heins/Getty Images

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The least important thing about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is her lipstick. After all, the 28-year-old just won a historic primary against Rep. Joe Crowley, who has held the New York seat for almost 20 years and is a power player in the Democratic Party.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. In fact, it can be seen as a useful symbol of the change she represents in American politics.

In politics, presentation does matter. Ocasio-Cortez is about to enter an environment where expectations of how women dress and present themselves are still very old-fashioned. For women in general, makeup “is a norm, and nothing ruins a first impression like a norm violation,” as a 2015 Atlantic story put it. This is especially true in politics. Because it has been the arena of men for so long, the women who have run for office generally keep things low-key, neat, and conservative. Presentable, if you will.

Then along comes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her exuberant red lip. She has talked about her makeup publicly a few times. On June 17, after wearing her now-signature lipstick during a debate with Crowley, she tweeted: “I have been getting many inquiries about my debate lip color in the last two days. I GOT YOU. It’s Stila ‘Stay All Day’ Liquid in Beso.”

A week later, she went the opposite direction. On June 23, she tweeted, “Sending out a no-makeup GOTV mailer. Are we living in a feminist utopia yet,” with an attached picture of the mailers.

The responses to both were mostly positive. On the first one, her followers’ responses tended to mention the power inherent in the color: “To be honest, it’s so fierce, I’m surprised the moderator didn’t ask.” Another follower called the lipstick “‘blood of those who dare oppose me’ roja.”

Responses to Ocasio-Cortez’s “no makeup” tweet were also supportive, although the comments from men were illuminating. One man’s comment about her lack of makeup was a bit contradictory and slightly confused: “As a guy... I don’t really like makeup (but when it’s there it should enhance not create)... u look great even w/o makeup, and I wouldn’t have known u weren’t wearing makeup in that image w/o u saying lol.”) Another one seemed genuinely surprised that it’s a thing women need to think about: “I had never before thought about needing make-up (horrible stuff) to run for office. We live in a crazy world. Thanks for injecting a bit of sanity.”

What both of her tweets show, and what Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated out in the world, is that she is completely at ease at both ends of the makeup spectrum, from none to a full-on statement lip. The subtext? Wearing a red lipstick does not mean you’re not a “good” feminist. Wearing no makeup at all doesn’t mean anything either. She embraced the choice to do either, publicly and joyously, and the voters responded to her.

Choosing to wear a lip color she (presumably) loves and feels comfortable in will feel familiar to women of her generation, and likely endeared her to many. Because guess what: You can care about deep, important issues like health care and good schools and ICE and still talk to your friends about your favorite lipstick color. You can still use a bold lip to boost your confidence at work, even if your workplace is the House of Representatives. After all, this is the generation that has embraced the feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as a Boots makeup ambassador.

In case you know nothing about lipstick, Stila’s Stay All Day in Beso (a.k.a. “true red”) is actually a pragmatic choice for a working woman. As the name suggests, it does not budge, thanks to some interesting chemistry involved. (Stay All Day is a classic formula, and one of the first matte liquid lipsticks to hit the market. The company notes that Beso, which means “kiss” in Spanish, was one of the original 10 colors the company launched in 2012. It’s the company’s No. 2 best-selling shade.) It’s a hardworking formula, just like Ocasio-Cortez will have to be.

Particularly because of her age and political inexperience, Ocasio-Cortez will be scrutinized for missteps. She has already been getting a lot of attention of the “Gasp, she’s such a young woman!” variety. She will certainly be attacked and criticized for her appearance at some point by anonymous people on the internet, a standard response that has only become more mainstream since then-candidate Donald Trump attacked political rival Carly Fiorina for her looks: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”

In this case, red lipstick can function as armor. It has a long and storied history and has always been associated with symbolism. Suffragettes wore it as a symbol of “defiance.” Women wore it during World War II patriotically, in colors like “victory red.” It’s the color of power and confidence, which is an appropriate choice for a woman who might be a symbol of the future of politics in our country.