Sometimes, while I’m on my lunch break at work or have a few minutes to kill, I like to watch Buzzfeed videos. (I know, I know.) Some of my favorites are (obviously) the fashion-y and makeup-y ones: Women’s Makeup Throughout History, Historically Accurate Disney Princesses, Transforming Women Into Historical Figures, etc. I came across the one above while on one of these mini-binges, and it crystallized some things I’d been thinking about.
First off: “nude fashion” is really a thing, huh? Really? It’s a thing?
Second off: whose nude is nude?
As a white woman, I’m in a super privileged position when it comes to makeup (and, well, lots of other things too). Foundations, concealers, blushes, bronzers, finishing powders, tinted moisturizers and BB Creams and primers, lip colors—the majority of these are made to suit me (and women who look like me). I can walk into Sephora and find a million different BB and CC creams in the general color scheme of my skin, with slight tint variations to fit me perfectly. I can sample a dozen different foundations and concealers before finding “the one.” I have the privilege of choice, of getting to pick exactly what works for me. It can be overwhelming—but it’s still a privilege.
But of course, in the world we live in, this isn’t the case for everyone. Let’s look at the swatches for the foundation by which I swear, Kat Von D’s Lock-It Tattoo Foundation (shade Light #44, please):
Do you notice a pattern here? Like, that there are about twelve shades that fall under the general banner of “white” and six that could count as “non-white”? (Not to mention that the most “Black” version is sold out!) I could theoretically sample a dozen different foundations before arriving at the shade that exactly matches my skin. A woman of color has half as many options.
And that’s a high-end brand. Drugstore makeup options feature even slimmer pickings:
It’s also worth pointing out that, even though some of these brands offer more options than others, the default images are always of bottles of white-person makeup, occasionally in the hands or on the face of a white person. White is the default here. Even in the Maybelline Fit Me! image, which shows two bottles of very slightly different colors, both of the bottles are for white people. I mean, they absolutely couldn’t have shown a white person skin tone next to, say, a Latina or Indian or Black skin tone.
It’s not as if women of color don’t buy makeup. A 2009 WWD article noted that Black women spend approximately $7.5 billion dollars on makeup every year, about 80% more on makeup than the “general market” and twice as much on skin care. And that was six years ago; undoubtedly, the number has only gone up since then. So why aren’t companies trying to market to women of color?
Well, they are. The trouble is, they’re often doing it badly (see: L’Oreal lightening Beyoncé’s skin in advertisements) or insensitively (see: Benefit’s problematic ad featuring comedian Anjelah Johnson as “ghetto” character Bon Qui Qui). And the other problem is, even if companies are marketing to women of color, they’re not actually making cosmetics for those women.
This recent Racked article quotes Iman Cosmetics executive Karen Chambers: “In the beauty industry, brands often divide skin tones into two categories: ‘general’ and ‘ethnic.'” Benefit, whose ad I just mentioned? The colors in their main foundation line stretch all the way from “fair” to “deep beige.”
All of this speaks to an even bigger problem: white people have made ourselves the default for so long that it’s seeped into general consciousness. People of color often speak of being discriminated against, not just on the basis of their skin color, but on the basis of their skin shade. Lighter skin garners more compliments and privileges; darker skin leads to discrimination. Former Destiny’s Child bandmember Kelly Rowland has been open about her childhood struggles with her dark skin (while conspiracy theorists debate whether Beyoncé only made it big because of her lighter complexion). Skin lightening products are sold at Wal-Mart. The message to women of color, from white people, has been made clear since the first Africans were brought to the colonies: the more you look like us, the better we’ll treat you. (After all, skin shade was often how slave owners decided which slaves would work in the house and which would work in the fields.)
But there is hope for makeup artists of color. Brands like Iman Cosmetics, started by supermodel Iman Abdulmajid, BlackUp Cosmetics and Black Opal Beauty have stepped up to fill the void left by conventional cosmetics companies. Nubian Skin has created a line of nude lingerie and hosiery that actually matches the widely varying skin tones of women of color. There are options out there—not enough, and not widely enough available, but options nonetheless. And non-professional beauty artists have also taken up the challenge. Tutorials for makeup to complement dark skin abound on YouTube; the NYX Face Awards (my current obsession) features several artists of color.
It’s not enough, but it’s something. For now, “nude” still means white; but that is changing, day by day.