Sixteen years of dance classes has left me with quite the trove of costumes. My closet is more circus-fairy-pirate than 21-year-old college senior. Amongst my muggle wardrobe of jeans and sundresses are dramatic black glittered tutus, fluffy cotton candy frocks, and mossy green skirts all held up with light tan elastic straps. Piles and piles of tap shoes sit longing for a solid surface on which to sing their riffs and “paradiddles,” next to strappy lyrical shoes, tight glove-like dance paws that slide over the toes, and jazz shoes with fraying soles. When they were broken in, they were beautiful. They would mold to every bump and curve, fluid with the arch of your foot, sliding like liquid when you pointed your toes—a second skin. But not on me.
Pale leather jazz shoes that were a sleek and unobtrusive camouflage on other girls made me look like someone who had been sunbathing with tennis shoes tightly laced all summer. If a costume had the look of a plunging neckline, the nude triangle of fabric running down the center remained a glowing white slice cutting through my chest.
After hours of carefully preparing for a performance, I could finally admire my handiwork, enraptured in the excitement and the image of elegance that I longed to achieve. I would look down with satisfaction at a glittering bodice and beautiful flowing fringe only to become disenchanted, my delight somewhat diminished by the sight of the jarringly beige tights that stuck out below my full skirt, the discordantly light shoulder straps, and my non uniform pale feet. And I felt less pretty. Because these trimmings were not meant to match my skin color, in my naiveté, I did not at first understand the purpose of all the random oatmeal-hued accessories. Why did a midnight blue tutu with black shoulder-skimming tulle give way to abruptly tan straps? I did not see that I was not the target consumer. These discernibly awkward accents were more gawky than graceful. I did not feel polished. The shoes and the tights and the straps didn’t blend in like they were supposed to. I didn’t blend in like I was supposed to.
I realized that the clothes weren’t made for me or for anyone that looked like me.
“Skin tone” or “nude” garments were all a glaring ashen accent against my brown skin. In the rare occasion that a “medium” or “dark” shoe was offered, it was simply a slightly dustier-looking buff color. Nothing close to my skin tone was available. The cumulatively long chapter of my life that involved trying on dance shoes could easily be summed up as One Shade of Tan.
Outside of the realm of tutus and tiaras, the One Shade Fits All attitude persists, particularly in the form of undergarments.
Sliding on neutral lingerie and hosiery has always been a disheartening affair. While I’m a fan of the frilly, printed, embellished stuff, sometimes a girl wants something subtle and inconspicuous. I have yet to know the versatility of a bra that is truly nude, underwear that doesn’t make a bold statement under that light, airy sundress. The “nude” colors offered at Victoria’s Secret and Aerie do not resemble my skin. I assure you, that is not what I look like nude. Even when bras are offered in a wider range of neutral tones (translated: three options), there is always one that is the standard “nude,” a soft pale with a slight golden glow, or a milky pink, while the rare chocolate color that most resembles my pigment has exotic labels like, “Kona Coffee.” “Nude” has a narrow meaning, an array of skin colors are not acknowledged or represented. The exemplary prototype broadly defined as “nude” always resembles Caucasian skin, while the needs and even existence of women of color are often ignored.
A quick Google search for diverse nude lingerie reveals that it is a groundbreaking rarity. Women like me are expected to settle and to accept the rules of an industry that primarily caters to white women. We are again reminded that this isn’t our world. While some companies are expanding their color wheel, the options still remain limited for women of color looking for neutral garments.