Monday, 25 January 2010

Whose flesh?

This post at Shakesville reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a friend regarding the flesh-coloured crayon in the Crayola box. (Wikipedia tells me that Crayola changed their 'Flesh' to 'Peach' in 1962, but I was born almost 2 decades later, and there was definitely a 'Flesh' in my box. Man, the Caribbean really did get the oldest, broken-down sh!t as imports.) So my friend and I were talking about our confusion as children over the Flesh colour in the box. She never bothered with it, she said, because Flesh was an odd name anyway. It's true. Even leaving the shade of the thing aside, who wants to use a colour called Flesh? It's like colouring with Meat. Or Carcass.

I, on the other hand, thought that by Flesh they meant tissue: the deeper layers of the skin. It was because whenever someone got a really bad gash on the playground, we'd all ooh and aah over the fact that you could see beyond the top layer of skin and blood, down to the flesh! That was what we called it, and that was an indication that this was a Very Severe Wound, and the sufferer might die, or at least miss an afternoon of school while he got 10 stitches. Thing is, that 'flesh', the bit of ickiness that was exposed with a bad laceration (which was probably fat, or something equally tame), was very nearly the colour of Crayola's Flesh crayon. So I, as a 5-yr-old, thought the crayon manufacturers oddly precise and a bit morbid (what 5-yr-old was hanging out drawing pictures of gaping wounds?), but didn't really think much else of it.

That was until teachers and camp counsellors started insisting that we use the Flesh crayon to colour in the skin of the people we drew, at which time I had to point out that the people I was drawing were not that colour; they were brown, like me; and, actually, like the teacher.

"No. That's the one you use to colour people. See? It says 'flesh', meaning skin."

In the interest of getting on with my masterpiece, I was willing to make a concession:

"Ok, well Maria (the light-skinned Black girl) can use it then. For her people."
"No. It's for all people. That brown is too dark. The people you see in pictures aren't that colour."

Indeed. This was part of the problem. I eventually got out my Ken and Judy book, and showed this woman that actually, a couple of the people you saw in pictures were that colour. I could have shown her a mirror. That would have worked just as well. Or perhaps not, since I'm assuming she had one at home but still hadn't managed to figure out what shade her skin was.

But the Flesh Dilemma was of course not limited to Crayola. As most people of colour know, Flesh means White flesh, and this notion was reflected in many of the products around us. No one I knew could wear Flesh panty-hose. My mother's shade was Cedar Brown, and if you were any darker than that, you had to settle for this kind of off-black thing that made you look as if you had just been rescued from a house fire. Going bra shopping with my mother, I noticed that bras came in black, white and flesh. The idea of brown as a neutral is strictly a 21st century concept, at least in my world, and one that has in some places not yet caught on. I know this because I overheard a woman describing her New Year's outfit recently. She was close to my complexion, and mentioned that she had worn flesh-coloured shoes "so nothing would clash". Flesh? Her friend asked. Yes, like this, she said, and pointed to a taupe wall.

They're not just crayons. Some of the messages we internalize as children, about our identities and the very visibility and validity of our person, never go away.


  1. Now this was one that made me chuckle. I always wondered about those 'flesh' coloured tights and I definitely remember flesh coloured crayola... look at you trying to 'school' the teacher from so young! Nice one

  2. just wanting to add that the new word for "flesh" is "nude" (especially for bras and nylons); still not any more accurate, though.

  3. I feel the same way about this elusive "nude" shade favoured by cosmetic companies for lipgloss. What's even more sad is when folk like you and I who are varying shades of chocolate and caramel actually think this shade works for them. Like the poor unfortunate, bitter-chocolate coloured soul at my hair salon whose thick lips are perpetually glistening with what can only be described as a dusty pink (read: totally inappropriate) shade of "nude". I'd call her aside and introduce her to the wonderful world of Black Opal or Iman but this is Britain and on some level I would end up causing offense. Some battles aren't worth fighting.

  4. Well, Katrina, to be fair, you don't know that she's going for nude. Maybe she's going for dusty pink, like I sometimes go for fuchsia or whatever shade I want even though some might say I shouldn't because they have their ideas of what a Black woman should wear in order to look inoffensive and appropriate. So in that case, it wouldn't be your battle to fight. In fact, it would be a different battle.

    But yes: cosmetics companies can be part of the institution that fails to acknowledge Black bodies. Some don't even want to be associated with Black consumers, and so keep their shades on the lighter side of things. Which is fine by me; when it comes to those companies, I just keep my wallet on the heavier side of things.

  5. Excellent post. Reading the comment from Katrina however I was surprised to read the reference to 'thick lips'. Thick relative to what? Because this phrase is often used to stereotype 'non Caucasian' features, I wasn't expecting to see it used here...but perhaps I'm being just a little too politically correct...

  6. @alldaydoodler: I get your objection to 'thick lips'. I usually say 'full lips', which for me is a little more self-affirming, assuming 'full' to be preferable to 'empty' as a concept. But you're not too PC. It's something to think about.


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