Tuesday, February 18, 2020

One Student Reminded Merriam-Webster That ‘Nude’ Does Not Belong to White People


Whether they resemble bandages or a makeup palette created by Revlon, for whatever reason the general idea is that nude is a “color” associated exclusively with a Caucasian skin tone. No surprise here, people have started noticing that nude goes beyond Euro-centered aesthetics.

In reality the simple definition of nude is “wearing no clothes, naked.” This means the idea of being “nude” expands across all skin tones. White people do not have the monopoly on nakedness. However, as one BuzzFeed article pointed out, nude is typically identified with lighter skin tones, especially in the beauty industry.

Perhaps, the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement has ignited people of color to revisit their beauty labels but regardless of timing, the principle is key. Subtleties in racist perceptions create building blocks for bolder displays of racism. Women of color enjoy buying “nude” high-heeled shoes as part of their essential collection, though the “nude” they are referring to does not reflect their natural skin tone.

To combat this, one company— Nubian Skin—changed the conversation with their skin-colored lingerie line that accurately matches bras and underwear to women of nearly all pigments. According to their site, the creator behind the lingerie was “‘frustrated by the lack of skin-tone choices” to go with her ever-expanding wardrobe. Nubian Skin founder, Ade Hassan, decided it was time for “a different kind of nude.”

Interestingly enough, during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Crayola learned the lesson of racial mis-identifiers early in the game by changing the name of their “flesh” colored crayon to “peach” in an attempt to avoid any legal issues.

Last month, one college student happened to notice that Merriam-Webster had the definition of nude completely wrong. The dictionary’s online definition of “nude” held a racist view of the word by clearly identifying it with the color of a white person’s skin.


On July 14, National Nude Day to be ironic, Luis Torres, a sophomore student at Ithaca College, launched a DoSomething.org campaign called “Nude Awakening.” The campaign drew out more than 8o0 individuals who flooded the Merriam-Webster website demanding the dictionary update their racist definition.

“‘Nude’ is a state of being — NOT a skin color. Defining ‘nude’ as white perpetuates the idea that white skin is the norm or even more ‘beautiful.’ Please remove the racist definition and make ‘nude’ inclusive!” the protesters wrote in the dictionary’s website comment section.

“I started doing research around Band-Aids, which led to nude fashion, which led to me discovering the Merriam-Webster definition of nude,” Torres recalled. “It blew my mind that an academic source was perpetuating this same racism. Looking up the definition of ‘nude’ and seeing that even academic sources perpetuate the idea that white skin is more relevant … or just simply important, is detrimental to the psyche of people of color. Language is how we all communicate, and when words are designed and defined to be exclusive, it can be hurtful and harmful.”

Merriam-Webster’s Director of Marketing, Meghan Lunghi, wrote to Torres in an email:

‘Our principal aim in our dictionaries is to provide definitions that are accurate and clear. In addition, we are attentive to comments from the public about our definitions, and recent comments concerning one of the definitions of nude led us to review current evidence of the word’s use in the fashion industry.

That evidence showed that the existing treatment was in fact inappropriately narrow, so we recast the definition with language that accurately reflects the word’s broader meaning while also indicating more clearly the contexts in which this sense occurs.’

Merriam-Webster’s new definition is slow progress down a long road to social equality and acceptance.

“People are quick to overlook small things that can actually harm a community,” Torres said. “We can become dismissive and defensive of very real issues because we don’t see their importance. This is why if you don’t understand why something is offensive but an entire community says it is, you need to listen. As a society we are quick to jump to conclusions without hearing each other out. You may see a small battle that you might not think is important, but no fire has ever been started without a spark.”


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