Meghan Markle, Kate Middleton and …Lip Gloss?

I’ve been thinking, lately, about lip gloss.

About the sickeningly sweet smell of Vanilla Birthday Cake that defined my late teenage years, slathered on so thick you had to be prepared to a) cover your mouth when you walked outdoors, lest the wind blow debris onto your sticky lips and b) constantly pick your own hair out of it.

About how we would pass this stuff around among girlfriends, each of us applying our germy lips to it, not a Covid care in the world: in the bathroom, in the back of the school bus, during first period, in the cafeteria, at school dances, driving to the mall or just standing by our lockers paging through YM.

About how, unlike lipstick, lip gloss didn’t require a mirror to put on, which made it a practical instrument for this communal act. You could smear it on while swapping chem notes or dishing about last night’s episode of “Dawson’s Creek” — in other words, while bonding. Even if your aim was slightly off and you ended up with a glossy cheek or chin, you could rely on your friend to let you know.

I’ve been thinking about lip gloss, and its subtle role in the complicated relationships of teenage girls, in light of the recent revelation of the Great Royal Lip Gloss Snub: Meghan Markle asking Kate Middleton to borrow some, and Kate recoiling.

Apparently, some time in 2018, Meg and Kate were at an event together, and Meg forgot her gloss. Thinking — as a girl raised in 1990s California might — that her soon-to-be sister-in-law would be happy to loan her some, Meghan asked if she could borrow a tube, to which Kate reluctantly agreed. As Prince Harry describes it, in a passage from his tell-all memoir, “Spare,” “Meg squeezed some onto her finger and applied it to her lips. Kate grimaced.”

This, according to the Duke of Sussex, was an “American thing.” According to my quick and unscientific survey of American women (and one Canadian) around Meghan’s age, it seems he’s right.

Katie, from Colorado, had a communal pot of gloss she shared with her two best friends — it was nicknamed “Ten Times Hotter” because it made them look … well, you get it. Sarah, from Ontario, remembers carefully selecting a Lip Smacker flavor (watermelon) from a variety pack a friend got for her birthday; only the best friends got one, and it would forevermore be known as her “signature scent.” Nell, from New York, didn’t wear the stuff herself, but can still name the “cool hot girls” — specifically, Hannah and Camelia — who came to school with sandwich baggies full of glosses, sharing and swapping among their inner circle.

“I used vanilla lip gloss that was in a big tub and I genuinely think it raised my social status,” one 40-something friend told me. “It was a more important feature of my burgeoning womanhood than when I got my first period.”

Lip gloss was more than makeup — it was a tool for discerning your place in the social hierarchy. Girls you’d share your lip gloss with: those were your ride-or-dies. (Although there were crucial subtleties: tube directly to mouth — reserved for close friends; tube squeezed onto finger onto mouth — for OK-ish friends or for when you had a cold.) Girls you wished you shared lip gloss with: These were popular girls and/or girls you had crushes on. (“Getting to try a popular girl’s Lip Venom was the ultimate form of flirting,” one colleague​ said — a social high that could be ridden for at least a week.)

Not everyone shared lip gloss, of course — and these were probably the lucky few who avoided the schoolwide outbreak of oral herpes during my sophomore year. But for the cohort of women who did, the sticky goop was as much about intimacy as anything else.

Real friends knew one another’s favorite kind and whether it came from the drugstore (Lip Smackers, Wet n Wild) or a department store (Juicy Tubes) or later, Sephora (Lip Venom, which had cinnamon to supposedly make your lips plump). And each group had its own manner of gloss-related quirks: The friend whose tube was always covered in grime; the one who stayed loyal to Carmex (shudder); the friend too eager to share — probably because she felt left out.

Lip gloss came into our lives at a delicate age: We were too young for heavy makeup (Clinique Black Honey didn’t count!) but old enough to have some sense that the coming years were going to test our social skills and relationships in new ways. Amid this tumult, lip gloss was a language we spoke to one another.

“Total symbol of your friendship tier,” said my high school friend Anna, now a therapist, and with whom I shared lip gloss as recently as last Friday. “I just remember feeling kind of sad for girls who didn’t share it.”

The linguist Deborah Tannen, who has studied girls’ communication patterns (but who herself has never shared gloss with her gal pals), notes that it is common for adolescent girls to communicate and bond using these unspoken rituals of closeness. She likened the sharing of lip gloss to the way girls share secrets — as a way to signify mutual vulnerability and trust.

Which brings me back to Kate and Meghan.

We’re all adults now and perhaps have more respect for hygiene than we once did; maybe British girls had more sanitary bonding rituals. Still, for those of us who grew up swapping Lip Smackers or Juicy Tubes, there was something extra-poignant about that moment. Maybe Meghan really needed some lip moisture, sure. Or maybe she was just one girl reaching out to another, gently testing the boundaries of their relationship with a simple question: Can I borrow your lip gloss?

Or maybe I’m projecting.

I did recover a tube of grubby Vanilla Birthday Cake gloss a few years back, shoved in the back of a drawer at my parents’ house, next to a Softlips, which had managed to survive two decades and a move. That syrupy-sweet smell, like day-old frosting — if you know, you know — catapulted me back to high school and the girls who colored that experience. It was slightly nauseating. But it also smelled like friendship.

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