The Red Lips Project: Swarthmore Student Blog Offers Women a ‘Space to Express Their Power’

Aditi Kulkarni is working to make women feel more powerful — one picture at a time.

The Swarthmore College sophomore founded and maintains The Red Lips Project, a Tumblr blog featuring original photos of women sporting red lipstick and answering a single question: “What makes you feel powerful?”

As Kulkarni explains on the blog’s About page, “Women are intrinsically powerful. But I realized that many of the women in my life don’t always have a space to express their power. I wanted to create a project to change this and give them that space.”

Participants’ responses to the “powerful” question touch on a range of emotional, social and physical triggers. For example, one young woman confirms, “What makes me feel powerful is voicing my own opinion.” By comparison, another woman tells Kulkarni, “What makes me feel powerful is a pen and paper, chai tea latte and a smile.”

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Or as a separate participant shares, “I think what makes me feel powerful is my laugh. I have a really loud, forceful laugh and you know how people talk about standing in power poses? I think laughter can be like that, where your laughter fills your space and you feel bigger and stronger.”

According to The Phoenix student newspaper, the visual strength and overall originality of The Red Lips Project has spurred its “rapid rise to prominence within Swarthmore’s arts scene.” Kulkarni, a psychology and chemistry double major, currently has plans to expand the project to colleges and universities in the Philadelphia area and New York City.

In the Q&A below, Kulkarni, 19, a native of Woodbury, Minn., discusses her motivations for launching the project, the initial responses from the Swarthmore community and why red lipstick is involved.

Aditi Kulkarni, 19, a Swarthmore College sophomore from Woodbury, Minn., started The Red Lips Project.

Aditi Kulkarni, 19, a Swarthmore College sophomore from Woodbury, Minn., started The Red Lips Project.

What compelled you to create The Red Lips Project?

Two things independently combined to create this project. First, I have always been fascinated by imagery of red lips. Some of the most powerful pictures of women I’ve seen in my life and remember to this day involve red lips. I wanted to play around with this image in my personal photography, but also started thinking about how this could be used for more than just my personal portfolio. And then I also started noticing little things, such as how quick women are to apologize for feeling confident because they feel they’re bragging. I wanted to do something to change that as well.

While this was going on, I stumbled upon a project called “Dark Skin, Red Lips” [now defunct due to the death of the founder], which was created in response to a comment [rapper] A$AP Rocky made about women of color not being able to wear red lipstick. What struck me about all of the pictures I saw was how confident the women looked. Seeing this made me really sure that I wanted to do a portrait project of women wearing red lipstick to showcase how powerful they are.

What has struck you most deeply or surprised you about the responses you receive to the project’s main question about feeling powerful?

I love the variety of responses from each person. They are all so personal and you can honestly see it in everyone’s face when they start to talk about it and they get so passionate about it. And so many times they’ve told me how much they needed to hear themselves talk about what makes them feel powerful, and how much of an impact it had on them.

I think my absolute favorite part of the project is taking the picture and then showing it to them. The number of times I’ve heard “I’ve never felt so beautiful before” astounds me, but I’m so happy they can feel that way about themselves.

From your perspective, how has the project resonated with participants and readers so far?

About two months ago, it started as me shyly reaching out to people asking if they wanted to be a part of a new project. … I never expected it to get this big, let alone in two months. Now, I have a ton of women emailing and messaging me, asking how they can be a part of it — and telling me how much it has helped them just to read through the responses of others.

When I was younger and people asked me what I wanted to do in life, I didn’t always have a concrete answer other than the fact that I wanted to do something that would make a difference. It means so much to hear that the creation of this project has at least made some small difference, and I hope to continue that growth.

As a college student, the first participants were naturally my peers, but now I have some of my professors participating, as well. Over fall break, I actually tried going out to public parks and asking random women if they would be interested in participating in the project. I was expecting mostly no’s from people. I definitely had some, but I also had a lot of women who were super-excited to be part of this and actually gave me their phones to write down the link to the project so they could show their friends. The majority of women featured have been from Swarthmore so far, but [in the near future] we have huge shoots planned at Bryn Mawr College, Temple University and even Columbia University and New York University. It’s still hard for me to believe this is all happening at this rate — and I know it can only get bigger from here.

“I think we still live in a world where people are uncomfortable by women being self-assured and confident. A powerful, confident woman is a force to be reckoned with and many people aren’t ready to accept this. We haven’t yet experienced all that women are capable of because we’ve spent so long limiting what they can do.”

Why do you think so many women are hesitant to publicly express confidence or openly boast about themselves?

I think we still live in a world where people are uncomfortable by women being self-assured and confident. A powerful, confident woman is a force to be reckoned with and many people aren’t ready to accept this. We haven’t yet experienced all that women are capable of because we’ve spent so long limiting what they can do. I hope my project can change the attitude many hold toward women.

Finally, in the spirit of what you ask project participants, what makes *you* feel powerful?

My first answer would be this project. Because this project gives me the ability to affect change and make a difference and, to me, that is power. But there are so many little things every day that make me feel powerful — that will always be with me — with or without this project.

I love Beyoncé. She’s an inspiration to me for how she carries herself so confidently and powerfully as a woman, so her music is something I can always listen to and feel powerful afterwards. Or even being in class and asking a good question or making a good point in discussion is enough to make me feel powerful, because I think knowledge leads to power. Overall, it’s been amazing to hear the responses of other women and take those and apply them to my own life.

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