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Photography Zach Apo-Tsang, Styling Vitamin B12. Summer 2022 issue of Dazed

A love letter to 99p hair shop lip gloss, a British Black girl staple

Lip gloss has long been a universal staple of girlhood – and for Black teenagers in the UK, the NK Lip Gel is the ultimate cultural heirloom. Here, Sola Adeaga pens an ode to her holy grail

Introducing Horror Nation?, a new season from Dazed about the current state of the UK from the perspective of the young people who live here. 

“This is the Beyoncé of all clear glosses,” influencer Nella Rose says as she holds up her NK Lip Gel in a TikTok video sharing her make-up kit staples. “I can’t live without the £1 hair shop lip gloss”. 

When I think back to my childhood days, what stands out most of all – aside from the high ponytailed braids, the rolled-up school skirts and the scuffed-up Kickers – are the lips so copiously slathered with thick layers of gloss. Now, this wasn’t just any old gloss. This was the NK Lip Gel, aka the Black girl staple. Coming courtesy of local hair shop Pak’s, it was its own cultural currency – a mere glance at the tube alone was enough to cause social disruption in the school playground.

Beyond the tinted chapsticks and Vaseline, lip gloss has always been a universal staple of girlhood. From the late 90s and early 00s, the industry, with all its fruity flavourings and brightly coloured packaging, made its target market clear. Lip glosses could be found everywhere, and – like many – the first I ever bought was this 99p holy grail.

“Growing up, we wasn’t allowed to wear make-up in school... this was the make-up baby, you just put on your little lip gloss and you was the Beyoncé,” Rose says in the video. Imaan Brown, 22, agrees. “I think it would be very difficult to find a Black British girl whose first lip gloss wasn’t one of the cheap ones from the hair shop,” she says.

Lip gloss’s inextricable bond to teenage girlhood has been reaffirmed again and again in pop culture and media, with songs like Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss” and the lacquered-up lips of 90s Disney channel icons, such as London Tipton and Raven Baxter. Yet, while white girls bought Girl Talk magazine and headed to Claire’s in droves, Black and Brown girls often didn’t see themselves represented in these spaces.

“As a young Black girl, nothing was created with me in mind,” Natalie A Carter writes in her book Grown: The Black Girls’ Guide to Glowing Up. “I couldn’t read a book at school that dealt with my experience or culture, or pick up a magazine with a free lipstick that would suit my complexion.” This is obviously a problem because, as feminist writer Andrea Dworkin said in her 1974 book Women Hating, the “standards of beauty describe in precise terms the relationship that an individual will have to her own body”. 

For so long, make-up brands didn’t offer lipsticks or glosses in shades that suited darker skin tones, so women in the Black and Latinx community could only use clear gloss. With Western beauty standards denying us access to universal markers of femininity and girlhood, we had no choice but to make our own, with many resorting to using eyeliners and eyebrow pencils instead of lip liners, topped with a slick of gloss to create a nude lip colour. 

But the 99p gloss isn’t just an entry-level product within Britain’s Black and Brown community. It’s a cultural heirloom. “I remember seeing other girls wearing the lip gloss and wanting to be a part of this community of young women embracing their gentle introductions to Black beauty,” Valerie Kporye, 21, tells Dazed. “It symbolised young Black girl culture, [and was a] statement of agency [for] young woman, without the pressure of growing up too quickly.” 

So, while the industry churned out a slew of white-casting glosses and poorly pigmented lipsticks in tepid rosy pinks, we found belonging at the checkout of our local hair shops, for less than a pound. “I think it’s the same kind of universal experience of girlhood that dress-up tiaras and Princess jewellery falls into,” says Brown. For many, that 99p lip gloss was our saving grace, and an entry point in multiple ways: it granted financial access to make-up, but also social access to the narratives of girlhood (at least amongst ourselves).

We’ve come a long way from the 99p NK Lip Gel. Now we exist in a new age of gloss, with products such as Fenty Glass Bomb and Kiko 3D Hydra Lip Gloss taking the industry by storm, and granting us something a lot of British Black women have been denied when it comes to cosmetics: choice. There are now finally shades we can wear, which actually suit our skin tones.

Despite all the new options, however, there is still something special about the OG. “Even to this day I still buy [the NK Lip Gel] whenever I go to the hair shop,” adds Brown. “Maybe it’s because of nostalgia, but I keep reaching for them whenever I need a gloss – and they have yet to let me down.”

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