In 2015, London Royal soloist Eric Underwood shared a video demonstrating the challenges he faces when it comes to finding ballet shoes that match his skin tone. Underwood, who is black, can be seen applying dark brown powder to his pointe shoes to blend them in with the color of his legs.
Nude... for whom?
Underwood may be speaking about ballet shoes, but his plea for more diverse hues under the umbrella of nude is one people, and particular women of color have been shouting from the rooftops for decades.
Black women, like myself, are no strangers to spending ample time and money hunting down the perfect shade of foundation, nude lipstick, cami, bras, dresses, tights, band-aids... You get the idea. I would peruse "nude" labeled makeup or clothes only to come away with the same question every time: "Nude for whom?" And the usual answer, "Not for me."
In fashion, nude is one color trend that never seems to go out of style and is often a reminder of how undesirable any tone darker than peach, blush, pink or beige is in that world.
It’s the lack of diversity and racial insensitivity in the fashion and beauty world that allows for such exclusive language to be common place. It makes white skin, the right kind of skin.
Nude, as we've known it, doesn’t reflect as a neutral or second-skin shade when set against black skin. The longstanding debate over what constitutes as a nude hue hit the world stage when Michelle Obama wore a Naeem Khan gown to a White House state dinner, which was described by the designer as a "nude strapless gown" and the Associated Press called it "flesh."
These off-the-mark descriptors of Obama’s gown caused critics to point out how loaded and racially bias the word nude is.
The gown on Obama was far from nude or invisible to the eye, as flesh-colored implies. It was, as anyone with at least one good eye can see, cream, beige or champagne against Obama’s complexion.
The furor over Obama’s dress color was back in 2010 and since then there has been an effort from some designers and brands to offer a broader range of colors under the nude label.
In 2013, shoe designer Christian Louboutin launched the "Les Nudes" collection; which featured shoes designed to complement a range of skin tones. They came in five different shades from pale to deep. Over the years the line has expanded their color spectrum to include more shades of nudes. For Spring 2017, they featured seven nudes.
Just recently, Target broadened their lingerie line by adding four new flesh-toned shades to their collection. They plan to release nude hosiery and shoes in the fall.
Naja creates nude for all lingerie. Nudest lets you upload a photo of your hand and they find the perfect color match and customize nude pieces from shoes to shapewear for you to browse. Mahogany Blues provides dancers of color with flesh-colored dance apparel. The company’s website states: "We are here to remind dancers of color of their value in an industry that has been color blind for too long."
The current redefining of nude is long overdue and social media has played a significant role keeping this debate alive. Women of color have been complaining about this forever but now social media serves as a platform that allows their concern to be heard.
A flood of beauty bloggers of color use Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to lament about the lack of nude shades for darker complexions and offer tips on finding the perfect nude, or mixing colors to create your own.
Catering to customer demands for a more inclusive color palette is a shrewd business move in a world becoming increasingly more diverse. Cosmetic brands like Nars, Bobby Brown, Cover Girl and L’Oreal Paris have all expanded their skin tone offerings.
But the fashion and beauty industries aren't the only ones guilty of choosing nude, flesh-tone, pink, blush, peach to mean white skin.
Crayola used to create a pink-ish crayon color named "flesh" until they changed it to "peach" in 1962 during the civil rights movement. In 2011, they released a multicultural marker set reflecting varied skin tones. Fox News devoted a whole segment to it and their hosts and guests were all in a tizzy calling the move ridiculous and proclaiming the end of the rainbow.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Merriam-Webster stopped defining nude as "having the color of a white person’s skin." The racist and inaccurate definition was removed thanks to Luis Torres, a then-sophomore at Ithaca College, who successfully campaigned the dictionary for the change. The definition now reads:
"(1): having a color (as pale beige or tan) that matches the wearer's skin tones" ; "(2): giving the appearance of nudity."
Torres explained to Mic why this battle was worth fighting: "Looking up the definition of 'nude' and seeing that even academic sources perpetuate the idea that white skin is more relevant [...] is detrimental to the psyche of people of color. Language is how we all communicate, and when words are designed and defined to be exclusive, it can be hurtful and harmful."