What colour is nude?

// 3 January 2012

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Elin Weiss has a master’s degree in women’s studies. Hennie Weiss is currently working on her master’s degree in sociology. Their interests include the sexualisation and representation of women in media, gender studies, feminism and equality


In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote the essay ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’, which details some of the privileges that she had accrued from being white.

Some of the items on the list were:

  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

Even though McIntosh focused on many different areas of social life, we are concerned with the use of the word nude in fashion.

In many fashion magazines, a pale and slightly beige or pinkish colour is referred to as ‘nude’. But to whom is this colour actually nude?

Brown shoes and clothing are labeled brown. It is only shoes and clothing which would be considered nude on a white person that is referred to as nude in the fashion world, thereby accenting the fact that nude is based on the white body and white skin. There is also ‘nude’ lipstick and ‘nude’ nail polish. ‘Nude’ lipstick however is only nude on a white person and does not blend in or can be considered nude on a person of colour. ‘Nude’ nail polish is not nude on any other person than a white person.

It might seem innocent to refer to the specific beige-like or pinkish colour as nude, but it does mask an unchallenged and assumed belief that whiteness is considered to be the norm.

In a world where there is so much racial diversity, it is strange that white skin colour is presumed so normative that the word ‘nude’ can be applied to beige-pink colours so casually. This is othering to all women for whom this colour is not nude, and are excluded from membership in the ‘nude’ category. My nude is not necessarily your nude, and the other way around.

The overall notion that whiteness is the norm is also reflected in fashion in that many black women at times have problems finding makeup that properly reflects and blends with the colour of their skin. When walking in to a shop, there is usually a very small selection of hair care and makeup for women who are not white. Visiting the makeup or hair sections in department stores, we find that the great majority of products reflect this normative whiteness, and everyone else must go to a separate shelf or section for ‘other’ hair and make up products, or a specialist shop.

Even though McIntosh wrote more than 20 years ago, we believe that many of these statements are still very true today.

Many white women do not realise the privileges they attain based solely on their skin colour. We do not wish to attack or blame women for any of these privileges, but rather pay attention to the fact that whiteness is still the norm in many areas of life.

Just as heterosexuality is the overall norm (called heteronormativity) so is whiteness considered normative. As women and feminists, we believe that it is important to challenge the notion of whiteness as normative and to celebrate the beauty of diversity. As stated, referring to any particular colour as nude ignores the diversity of women in the UK and all over the world. Nude does not represent the skin colour of all women, and it does not even represent the diversity of whiteness that exists.

Photo by Maria Morri, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

The 2nd Nin // Posted 4 January 2012 at 12:39 am

It is important to consider though that the majority of people are heterosexual (or something approximating it) so heteronormativity isn’t wrong but actions which erase non-heterosexual sexualities and actions are wrong. Similarly a lot of white-privilege and naming conventions such as this are due to a majority ethnic population – this means that these actions aren’t specifically erasure but rather an appeal to the majority population. As a larger person I am technically disprivileged by fashion, it simply doesn’t come in my size, however at the same time it is a sane and sensible decision to do so because there are significantly fewer people my size so stocking a wide range of clothing products for me doesn’t make sense for a mass market retailer. We need to consider privilege in the context of the society it comes in – White American in America privilege is different to White American privilege in Britain or Japan, similarly White Irish Privilege is different in Ireland and America.

rose411 // Posted 4 January 2012 at 11:45 am

I never thought about it like that before, but after reading this article it seems true that the colour ‘nude’ does seem to favour the white skin colour.

Renee // Posted 5 January 2012 at 3:56 am

Many white women do not realise the privileges they attain based solely on their skin colour. We do not wish to attack or blame women for any of these privileges, but rather pay attention to the fact that whiteness is still the norm in many areas of life.

Aww, isn’t that sweet. Let’s just all sing kumbaya and pretend that ignorance isn’t purposeful and a reflection of privilege. Of course we can’t hold them accountable, lest the little dears feel attacked. That sounds like Missy Anne Syndrom to me. White women are just as culpable as White men for the continuation of racism and they refuse to challenge specifically because they continue to benefit from it.

The whole point of nude representing Whiteness is obvious and yet you still felt the need to ensure White women didn’t feel attacked. Were you in fear of being subjected to yet another round of White women’s tears? No matter how upset White women may be, it is nothing compared to what it feels like to be a woman of colour on the receiving end of this shit. Perhaps you should worry a little less about the gentle fees fees of the delicate White women and really concentrate on the ugliness of racism because there is nothing benign about it.

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