Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

What color is "flesh"?

This shouldn’t be a trick question. Your answer, after a few moments’ reflection, should be “no one color can be called ‘flesh.'” However, art stores would beg to differ, as this picture shows. I accompanied my cousin to an art supply store last weekend, and to kill some time I looked at the various colors of supplies. One line had this pale peachy color described not as “peach” but “flesh tint.” Darker shades of yellow and brown were called “ochre” and “sienna.”

Guess what? Those yellows and browns are flesh tones, too. But because they are not the tone of the (current) majority in America, they are labeled “other.”

I follow the actress Sophia Bush on Twitter, not so much because of her acting or TV show but because of her activism. She is dedicated to environmental causes and anti-bullying policies. She created the hashtags #loveislouder and #betterthangossip as ways to promote acceptance and fight hate. But recently she tweeted about going on a talk show and wearing flesh-colored shoes. I sent a perhaps poorly worded reply intended to point out that the color of her flesh is certainly not the color of everyone’s flesh. I geeked out for a few hours because she sent me a direct message saying that by “flesh-colored” she meant the color of her flesh — a peachy/pink, because she is white.

I have to say that in 2011, I’m disappointed we haven’t come up for better words for colors than “flesh” and “nude,” which are all too often, in art and fashion, used to describe the color of white people’s skin. There are people whose sole job is to come up with wild, inventive names for every shade of the rainbow. Why can’t “flesh” become peach, or coral, or seashell, or beige, or pearl, or oyster? (I’m just now noticing the marine theme…)

There are dozens, probably hundreds, of words to describe all of the shades of skin. Maybe yours is pale sunshine, warm cocoa, medium olive, dark chocolate, terra cotta, burnt sienna or inky black, or a combination of colors. All of them are beautiful. All of them are valid. All of them deserve more than to be dismissed by racist and unimaginative industries who can’t come up with another way to say “pale pink.” Because by labeling white people’s skin tone the default, they imply it is better than the rest, the standard by which other tones are judged. And it should go without saying it’s time for that attitude to stop.


Comments on: "What color is "flesh"?" (4)

  1. A very powerful post, Molly. Kudos on an excellent job.

  2. If the art supply labeled “flesh” is a crayon, marker, colored, pencil, or pastel, then you are right: there is no excuse for this. In fact, I believe crayola used to have a flesh colored crayon and changed it many years ago.
    In terms of paint, however, the tube called “flesh” is typically a mixture of other colors (generally a yellow, a red, a white and maybe a bit of blue), and is intended to be used as a base for mixing different flesh tones, not as a color to be used itself. So, take “flesh” and add burnt sienna, get a nice warm brown. It is sort of an artist’s “cheater” mixture – a base of colors found in most skin tone mixtures that when used you only have to add one or two more colors to create any other skin tone. Maybe they should call it “flesh mixture base” or something like that. At any rate, most artists I know just mix their own flesh tones anyway.

    Band-aids have always bugged me. I know they have clear now, and some they call “multi-cultural”, but why is the standard still neon peach?

  3. […] had my second celebrity encounter on Twitter recently. (I mentioned in my What color is ‘flesh’? post that I got a message from Sophia Bush.) My latest reply was from Seamus Dever, who plays […]

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