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The Power of Women: The Red Lips Project

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On Friday, Feb. 23, I walked from Parrish to one of my favorite places on campus: the Women’s Resource Center. As I got closer, I could see the strings of light hanging in the windows of the second floor contrasting with the darkness of the evening.  When I entered, I was greeted by the comfortable vibe radiating from the WRC.

I walked up the stairs to see people strategically placing lamps on the floor and spreading lipsticks out on the table to the sounds of Beyoncé. A photographer walked around the room, testing the lighting to ensure the area was ready for all the photos that were about to be taken. I had entered the Red Lips Project.

The Red Lips Project was founded by Swarthmore alumna Aditi Kulkarni  ̇̕17 after her sophomore year. The project came from simple beginnings, later developing into the powerful movement that it is today.

“I felt like in my life, there wasn’t necessarily a space for me and my friends to kind of be open about how powerful they were, and I didn’t like that, and I wanted to see that change. I’ve always been really interested in photography and I’ve loved taking pictures of my friends,” Kulkarni said, discussing the conception of her project. “So it sort of just started with me wanting to take pictures of my friends and I thought that red lipstick was a really powerful way to show off the intrinsic strength present in all women.”

On Friday, however, there wasn’t just red lipstick; there was a multitude of shades so those who came could choose the color that best suited them. After applying their chosen color, often with the help of a friend, Kulkarni would then take the attendee’s photo. Once the photo was taken, they would then move on to one of the most moving aspects of Kulkarni’s project.

The next portion of one’s participation in the project is perhaps the most difficult. After having their photo taken, attendees would be recorded answering a single question: “What makes you feel powerful?” This seemingly simple, succinct question is incredibly thought-provoking and can bring about incredible answers.

“I loved the photos. But I didn’t want it to just be about the photos,” Kulkarni explained. “I wanted it to kind of show their stories, so I thought that a quote about what makes them feel powerful accompanying the photo would be the best way to kind of showcase that.”

During her time at Swarthmore, Kulkarni’s project had to slow down due to the hectic nature of college life. After graduating, she was able to bring the Red Lips Project back to life. Though having more time to pursue the project was important, Kulkarni was also strongly motivated to create a space for women to feel powerful as a result of the election and the topics of discussion that are so often on the news. Kulkarni also spoke of the Me Too movement and the inspiration it provided to her, especially since their goals are similar.

Citlali Pizarro ̕ 20, the diversity peer advisor for the WRC, played a key role in bringing the Red Lips Project to Swarthmore for the relaunch. Pizarro has been working with Kulkarni on the project, giving her feedback and ideas.

“It reminds me of all the strong women in my life,” Pizarro said, discussing the project’s meaning. “It reminds me of [Kulkarni’s] strength, it reminds me of the strength of all the women who raised me, and it keeps me grounded.”

Pizarro shared one of the powerful women she sees in her life, her mother.

“She’s an incredible woman who is incredibly powerful. She is a curator of art … and [is] into art as resistance. She taught me that art can be super powerful,” Pizarro explained.

Her mother’s passion for the arts has trickled into Pizarro’s life as well, as seen in her love of theater, poetry, and spoken word.

The importance of the space was lost on no one. For some, the experience was deeply personal and reflective. For others, it was empowering and joyful in its nature. Regardless, having the space was a powerful moment for everyone involved.

“A big part of my identity is that I’m a feminist,” shared Alliyah Lusuegro ̕ 20, who attended the event. “So I think being empowered and showing others through this social media project different, diverse faces of women who feel beautiful is a really great thing.”

Kulkarni’s goal of creating a space where women could feel empowered was undeniably reached on Friday. Even if you didn’t have a photo taken, the joy of everyone in the room was palpable. Seeing people’s eyes light up when they saw their photo was an incredible thing to witness. What made this event even more amazing was seeing that female-identifying people of all races came to the event, further showing that representation in the arts and in life matters.

Kulkarni hopes to see the movement grow and gain back the momentum it had during her time at Swarthmore.


The Red Lips Project seeks to empower subject, audience through unified symbolism

in Arts by
Photo Courtesy of Aditi Kulkarni

The Red Lips Project, run by Aditi Kulkarni ’17, has been gaining attention across Swarthmore’s artistic spheres.

The project’s main premise is simple: to take pictures of women wearing red lipstick, and attach a quote of them saying what makes them feel powerful. Kulkarni leaves many of the technical decisions in the making of the portrait to the subject, and adds minimal edits.

“I really want them to be able to decide what their lighting decisions are, if they want a darker picture to represent themselves or if they want a bright, contrasting picture,” Kulkarni said. “I try to edit minimally and the only thing I would edit for at all would be, if it’s too dark to see the picture, [to] turn the exposure up a little bit.”

To Kulkarni, the project is about bringing out the individual strengths of each woman, which is why she values their creative input for the shots.

“I think they know themselves best and what represents them best,” she said.

The project found its roots in a lot of work Kulkarni did through high school, although it’s the first time her work is culminating in a long-term endeavor.

“I’ve done a lot of photography; I did that a lot in high school and then have continued it through college, but this is the first time I’ve done a project-based thing,” she said.

That said, her initial inspiration stemmed from a social media feud she witnessed.

“A$AP Rocky came out and made a statement that dark-skinned women shouldn’t wear red lipstick because it doesn’t look good on them,” she said. “That started a movement where a lot of women of color posted pictures of themselves wearing red lipstick. [It] inspired me because all the women who posted pictures looked so powerful and confident in themselves.”

The project really crystallized this summer, around the image that is so quintessential to its foundation.

Kulkarni said, “I’ve always been really fascinated by the imagery of red lips, and I think it’s a very powerful image. I initially just started playing around with that image in my photography this summer and I realized that I could use this to make a project out of it.”

Issues of race, which were so central to the initial inspiration for the project, are somewhat less essential to Kulkarni’s endeavor; however, this is out of a desire for total inclusivity.

“I think my goal is to address all women, and I don’t want to isolate anyone at all,” she said. “I do think that women of color have a very special space in feminist dialogue and tend to be underrepresented. I want them to have a voice in this project, just like everyone else.”

It is hard to tell, at first glance, whom the project is for: it seems gratuitous for all parties involved. In Kulkarni’s experience, both the subjects and the audience feel driven and empowered by the experience, whether through thinking about what empowers them or reading other people’s thoughts that invigorate them. This ambiguity is something that Kulkarni has picked up on, and which even extends to her own view.

“At the same time, it’s been really nice for me as well; I find it empowering for myself to hear everyone else’s responses, she said. “So I think the project has played a role in everyone’s viewing of it.”

But really, Kulkarni’s aim in her project is detached from herself. Through the freedom she allows subjects in the individual shots, and the imperative of reflecting their voice in every shot, it becomes clear that her goal is almost therapeutic and contagious, to help as many individuals as possible. She echoed this impression.

“My ambition is for women and men both to see the project and recognize that we’re all powerful individuals,” she said. “I don’t know the number of images it will take to get to that place but my goal is to make an impact on people in some way and I hope that I can do that.”

In this way, the growing size of the project is ideal, since outreach is Kulkarni’s aim. As much as she’s had to solicit in the early stages, she hopes this will change in the future. The project is, after all, about empowering those involved, something she’d hope people would seek out.

She said, “Right now it’s still a very new thing, so there’s not enough people that know about it that I don’t have to ask around and people will just automatically come to me, but it’s getting there. We’re building it up slowly.”

The project, at its core, is simple, which gives may explain its rapid rise to prominence within Swarthmore’s arts scene.

“I think mostly the underlying feeling was what makes women feel powerful, so I played around with the variations of that and settled on the very simple question that would elicit that response,” she said. Leaving us with a set of compelling individual portraits, of the driven women of this school.

The project can be found online at http://theredlipsproject.tumblr.com.

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