Why it's time to stop using the word 'nude' as a colour

Chinazo Ufodiama
·5-min read
Chinazo Ufodiama grew up believing that 'normal' skin was the same peach-colour as her nursery school crayons - Nicole Haines
Chinazo Ufodiama grew up believing that 'normal' skin was the same peach-colour as her nursery school crayons - Nicole Haines

Earlier this year, Crayola announced the launch of their new box of crayons titled ‘Colours of The World’. It aimed “to cultivate a more inclusive world for children of all ages, races, cultures and ethnicities.” The news came weeks after videos flooded our social media feeds of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man murdered in a racist attack while out jogging in Georgia.

This event kickstarted the mass outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Weeks later, after the brutal killing of George Floyd, news of Breonna Taylor's killing in March  and Black Out Tuesday, Band-Aid announced it would be launching a range of plasters, catering to a wider range of skin tones.

Crayola's colouring crayons and Band-Aid's plasters are both products that we use from early childhood and while their skin inclusive announcements were clear signs of progress, it took the untimely deaths of black people to be aired on the world stage and the public pain of the black community for this to be prioritised, despite years of customer feedback. 

Thankfully, lots of fashion and beauty brands had been quicker to respond to demand – Christian Louboutin launched his first nude line of shoes in 2013, with five colours, catering to a wide range of skin tones. At the time of launch Louboutin told the Telegraph that, “this collection offers a spectrum of nude, re-imagining the perception of the colour as a pale blush, and introducing it as the colour of flesh, which ranges well beyond this traditional reference.”

Christian Louboutin's nude collection
Christian Louboutin's nude collection

This traditional reference to the colour widely understood as ‘nude’ that Louboutin speaks of goes beyond a shade of lipstick or shoe; it is an idea that is introduced to us in the earliest stages of development. I think back to my nursery school days with my twin brother and our white and South Asian friends when we would refer to the peach-coloured crayon as “skin colour.”

While I can’t pinpoint where that understanding came from – I had seen skin represented on myself, family members and friends in many different hues – I suspect it was a teacher recommending a particular crayon to a group of majority white four-year olds to use to draw a family portrait.

The early introduction of the “one-nude-fits-all” narrative – in my case from nursery – potentially has lasting effects on one’s perception of personal beauty. Dr. Emma Radway-Bright, a lead therapist at In Need Therapy explains that, “constantly presenting ‘skin colour’ (peach) as something other than their own, [people of colour] learn to question or ignore their own skin as ‘normal’. The peach is normal... so therefore there’s something ‘not normal’ about me.”

Chinazo Ufodiama has struggled to find a 'nude' lipstick to suit her - Nicole Haines
Chinazo Ufodiama has struggled to find a 'nude' lipstick to suit her - Nicole Haines

Even the idea of a single nude for me, as a dark-skinned black person, varies dependent on the area of my body I am looking to colour match. The skin on my body is in fact comprised of an assortment of colours: the palms of my hands, soles of my feet, my nail beds, my inner lip, the small patches of vitiligo on my neck. Those colours sit in contrast to the overall hue that occupies the largest and most visible surface area of flesh.

Of course, it’s something that I have always been aware of (although quite passively) but a recent search for my ‘perfect nude lipstick’ made it more apparent to me. In fact I found myself looking at both deep browns – like ‘Matte Storm’ by IL MAKIAGE and 'Area’ by NARS – that closely matched and complimented my facial complexion, while also being drawn to more mauve and even blush tones, similar to the colour of my inner lip. Unsurprisingly, it was the black-owned brands Pat McGrath Labs (Flesh 3) and Emolyne (Morocco) that offered the best shades that suited my second brief. 

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Anok at Home in Espresso Bike Shoes 🖤

A post shared by BROTHER VELLIES (@brothervellies) on Jul 28, 2020 at 10:13am PDT

Black owned businesses continue to lead the way in terms skin-tone diversity – Brother Vellies with shoes, Nubian Skin with lingerie and tights, Fenty with make-up – and while in the mainstream we can see progressive steps being taken to expand on shade offerings, why do we still see the word 'nude' used – largely – to describe one homogeneous colour falling somewhere on the spectrum of pink, peach and beige?

Beauty brands continue to refer to that colour as “the perfect nude” and fashion labels still use that same colour to line sheer garments, labelling them as having a “nude lining”; largely excluding anyone whose skin-colour falls elsewhere on the “nude” spectrum. 

“These small messages build up over time and can have a huge impact on an individual’s sense of belonging and self-esteem," says Kimberly-Anne Evans, a psychotherapist who facilitates workshops on race and inclusion. "As a consequence, black and brown people often feel a sense of alienation in a place that is supposed to be home.”

Language is powerful and when the word ‘nude’ has such specific shade connotations, perhaps we need to stop using it in such general contexts, opting for alternatives like ‘skin tone’ or ‘flesh’ when speaking in collective sense or more simply the actual colour – beige, peach, brown. Nude is personal. It’s subjective and can only accurately be used in a possessive form – my nude, your nude, their nude.

Chinazo Ufodiama is the co-host of the Unpretty Podcast, listen via Apple or Spotify

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