A person puts a second adhesive bandage on someone's elbow.
Image Source: Diana Polekhina / Unsplash

What Color is Nude?

What color do you associate with the color nude? Do you picture shades of light pink? Variations of browns? Or is it dependent on your complexion? The word itself describes a state of nakedness, devoid of the specified color. Yet throughout history, the color “nude” has been attributed to shades of pale pink and beige based on Caucasian skin tones (Color Psychology). From dresses and underwear to bandages and cosmetics, descriptions of “nude-colored” or “flesh-colored” cater to those with fair skin. Even as moves to diversify commercially-used products grow, they fail to address how discriminatory design practices prioritize and center white bodies, making Black and Brown people an afterthought. 

Racial bias permeates all industries and institutions. Racial hierarchy dictates whose problems get solved and when (The Guardian). This means that white bodies and issues often take center stage, even when problems are universal. In the retail and consumer industry, this bias means Black representation and options, specifically for darker skin tones, are nonexistent or unsuitable. This is the case with “nude-colored” products. Despite being universally marketed for all, these “flesh-colored, almost invisible” products are only suitable for white and fair-skinned people. They look ashy on darker skins, fail to disappear or blend on non-white skin, and don’t provide the same discreetness given to fairer skin complexions. And while they might not be perfect color matches for every skin tone, the contrast in color is more prominent on darker skin tones. 

TAKE ACTION

• For schools and nonprofits that work with kids, consider adding multicultural crayons and art supplies that foster representation and inclusivity in the classroom.

• Support brands like Browndages and Tru Colour that offer more inclusive skin-tone bandages for a wider range of complexions.

• Support brands like Nubian Skin, PointePeople, Nude Barre, and Rebecca Allen that provide a range of nude shade products that represent a broader spectrum of skin tones.

• Follow Cocoa Swatches and the BASEics that display makeup swatches and a shade finder directory of commercial brand foundations on underrepresented complexions.

Whiteness becomes the default in the “absence of diverse voices” (ProPublica). Failing to imagine products being used by people who don’t look like you often leads to discriminatory design choices that associate pink and beige shades as “nude” or “flesh-colored.” Beige is the standard color for personal and medical care products, like adhesive bandages or elastic wraps. Even transdermal medications, like nicotine or birth control patches, best complement lighter-skinned users who tend to be some variation of beige. Rarely will brands release alternative options for darker-skinned people, but usually, it isn’t until years later.

The conversation on redefining the color nude is not a new one. People have challenged the prevalence of products with names like “nude” and “flesh-colored” assigned to varying shades of beige and pink. Crayola changed the name of its “flesh” crayon (a pinkish beige color) to “peach” in 1962 after a childhood development researcher wrote to them about how the crayon color helped fuel prejudice in children. She noticed that white children often associated white and pink as “good” shades and Black as “dirty” and made derogatory statements to Black children like, “you have no flesh” (CrayolaBrown Alumni Magazine). In 2019, Bellen Woodard, an eight-year-old Black girl, created the “More Than Peach” project after questioning why the peach color was considered “the skin color” crayon. Crayola would release a more inclusive line of skin-tone art supplies as a result (The Root).

In 2015, the Nude Awakening campaign was created to get Merriam-Webster to change its definition of nude, which defined it as both being naked and “having the color of a white person’s skin.” It was the only dictionary that still assigned a specific skin color to the term at the time. The campaign’s creator, Luis Torres, challenged the definition, arguing that “nude” couldn’t be regulated to a specific color if it’s “a state of being” (Nude Awakening). “Looking up the definition of ‘nude’ and seeing that even academic sources perpetuate the idea that white skin is more relevant… or just simply important, is detrimental to the psyche of people of color,” Torres said (Mic). “Language is how we all communicate, and when words are designed and defined to be exclusive, it can be hurtful and harmful.” So, on National Nude Day, more than 800 supporters inundated the online dictionary with comments to replace the racist definition of the word “nude” with a more inclusive one. Today, the definition reads as “having a color that matches the wearer’s skin tones.” 

While there has been a shift in companies considering Black and Brown consumers when rolling out products in initial releases or retroactively through gimmicky inclusive lines, Black creators and manufacturers have had to fill in the representation gap by introducing their versions of common​​ goods and cosmetics. Companies like Tru Bandage were created out of necessity and to “affirm and celebrate” Blackness (Tru Bandage). With this creation, many Black consumers felt for once they were “seen” and “valued” in an industry and system made to exclude them and their needs (The Root). Other companies, like Fenty Beauty, turned the beauty industry on its head by showing that representation is possible and profitable (Cosmopolitan). In both incidents, Black and Brown representation was integral to the design and creation. In neither case were white people erased. 

The lack of Black and Brown representation in products can stoke racial perceptions of who is important and valued. Psychologists in the 40s conducted “the doll tests” to study the effects of segregation on African-American children. When the children were asked to identify the race of the dolls and which color doll they preferred, a majority of them chose the white doll and assigned it positive characteristics. The study showed how discriminatory practices in everyday life that devalue or show Black people as inferior to white people result in devasting internalized racial bias (History).

The continual usage of the color nude to reflect fair skin tones only serves white bodies. And while it might seem innocuous and unimportant to have a product that matches your skin tone, it not only says that they don’t exist or matter, it speaks to a broader issue of discriminatory design and exclusion that permeates every institution at the expense of Black quality of life. From public health messaging and medical illustrations to band-aids and clothing, Black and Brown people deserve to see themselves reflected.


KEY TAKEAWAYS
• Despite being universally used by all races, the color “nude” is based on the Caucasian skin complexion. 

• “Flesh-colored” and “nude-colored” products are coded to mean white and fair skin tones. 

• Products made as the result of discriminatory design practices exclude Black and Brown people, even though they are commercially marketed as universal. 

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