November
29th 2009
“Flesh” trade

Posted under: American history, bad language, race, the body, women's history

APTOPIX Obama US India

Photo by the Associated Press

Via CorrenteSociological Images notes the use of the word “flesh” to describe the color of the dress Michelle Obama wore to the State Dinner at the White House last week (at right.)  I guess someone didn’t get the memo that that old Crayola color was changed a long time ago to the less racist (but no more accurate) word “peach.”  (I personally would never eat a peach the color of that particular crayon.)  Sociological Images notes that “[t]his is what happens when white people are considered people and black people are considered a special kind of people, black people.  ‘Flesh-colored’ becomes the skin color associated with whites and darker-skinned peoples are left out of the picture altogether.  We see this all the time.  Bandaids, for example, are typically light beige (though they rarely call them ‘flesh-colored’ anymore), as are things like ace bandages.”

By the way:  that’s an awesome dress worn beautifully, and it’s more accurately described as “champagne,” not (pasty) “flesh.”  Aside from the racial implications, “flesh” is just an unlovely and unflattering word.  I can’t see it without thinking of the German fleisch, which means meat, and I can’t imagine in a hundred years complimenting someone on her “meat-colored” dress. 

I’m glad that Sociological Images raised the issue of Band-Aids:  WTF, Band-Aids?  I’ve wondered for a long time why “normal” Band-Aids are still peachy-tan.  I don’t buy the fake “flesh”-colored kind–I prefer the Hello Kitty, Barbie, or the Sponge Bob Squarepants varieties.  Two of the HK variety are on my left hand as I type, remnants of my klutziness in baking my Thanksgiving pies on Wednesday afternoon.

13 Comments »

13 Responses to ““Flesh” trade”

  1. nicolec on 29 Nov 2009 at 10:37 am #

    My favorite was at a bra shop when the saleswoman asked me if I wanted my bra in nude. She was really confused when I asked her whose nude we were talking about….I then told her I’d take the camel colored bra. Ugh. Oh and Historiann- we are totes a post-racial society (didn’t you get the memo?)
    Flesh is a horrible word in my opinion- it makes me want to become a vegetarian… further I really don’t want to wear it.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf on 29 Nov 2009 at 10:51 am #

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/arts/meatdress.asp

    I think it’s quite becoming!

  3. Historiann on 29 Nov 2009 at 11:10 am #

    Thanks, CPP–how appropriate for the meat dress to have appeared in Ottowa, considering the importance of moose and caribou meat in the diets of the First Nations people. (It actually seems to me to be a kind of jejune feminist-vegetarian “artistic statement,” but to each her own.)

    Nicole–”nude,” so long as it’s tailored to the skin tone of the customer, isn’t a bad concept. (Presumably, she’d offer a different bra to match the “nude” of a darker-skinned customer.) But if there are bras that are labeled “nude,” then that’s the same as the “flesh”-colored dress.

  4. justme on 29 Nov 2009 at 11:35 am #

    I’m so glad I’m not the only grown-up academic to wear Hello Kitty bandaids. We also have pickle bandaids, which are, surprisingly, the best I’ve ever used.

  5. Sweet Sue on 29 Nov 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    Yes, Mrs. Obama’s dress is lovely and she looks stunning but it feels a little like admiring Marie Antoinette’s lastest court gown before the tumbrels roll.
    Hey, Mr. President, we are losing our homes out here.
    I really don’t give a damn what color they call Mrs. O’s newest couturier creation.

  6. Another Damned Medievalist on 29 Nov 2009 at 12:31 pm #

    I give her a pass expensive clothes, because it’s part of the job. And goodness knows she wears non-couture clothes often enough.

    I’m seriously confused as how anyone could call that color ‘flesh’ though. I have noticed that some bra companies are calling ex-nude ‘buff’.

    I was sort of interested in the pic of the elastic bandages from China (or possibly Japan) — considering the relative homogeneity of their populations, it’s not all that surprising, and I wouldn’t really lump them in with the Bandaids because concepts of race are slightly different in Asia.

    Also, are the Hello Kitty bandaids latex-free?

  7. Paul S. on 29 Nov 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    The standard pale-pink colored band-aids never bothered me, since they match my actual skin pretty well. That dress, though – if my skin resembled that color it would probably indicate that I had suffered serious blood loss and needed a large transfusion ASAP!

  8. Historiann on 29 Nov 2009 at 12:50 pm #

    ADM–I just checked: the HK Band-Aids have latex.

    The best adhesive bandages I’ve ever used are those NextCare bandages, which don’t come in “flesh” and instead feature clear adhesive and all have cartoon characters or other decorations. Those things will stay on through a week of showers or baths. (If you want them to, that is.) They’re more expensive than Band-Aids, but they really stick.

  9. Ruth on 29 Nov 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    When my kids were in preschool, the classroom had a box of bandaids in a whole rainbow of “flesh” tones. It must have come from a multicultural educational catalog or something. I’m sure they liked the cartoon character ones better though.

    When I was in graduate school, a group of us were discussing Crayola crayons and we decided the “Flesh” color should be renamed “privilege pink.”

    Just one more anecdote–in 1980, there was a line of Shetland yarn available in the UK in which one of the colors was called “N***** Brown.” The saleswoman in the shop in Oxford didn’t see anything wrong with it.

  10. Indyanna on 29 Nov 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    I had to fight to get any kind of a bandaid at all over the needle spot when I got my “seasonal” flu shot the other week. The administratrix said oh, it’ll hurt when you tear it off. I said that’s o.k. It really took some wheedling. Maybe they’re just in cost-containment mode, as this was a U-provided “free” shot. What can I say, I had an internist once who said you should cover any place where the skin is broken. Not that I do so with the dings and nicks of everyday life.

    I thought that White House party-crasher’s sari was pretty cool the other night. It certainly seemed to light up the Biden team. Maybe they could describe it as “sunburn?” What a bizarre story.

  11. Kathleen Lowrey on 29 Nov 2009 at 10:06 pm #

    I think only the twilight vampires might have “flesh” that sparkly ;)

  12. Historiann on 30 Nov 2009 at 12:55 am #

    Heh.

    Sparkly vampires!

    Ruth’s story about the obscene yarn reminds me of other examples in which the British don’t quite get American racial politics. (It’s not just a British problem–I think most outsiders to any culture have a hard time grasping what’s taboo and what’s OK.) Example: a restaurant and bar that used to be (maybe still is?) in Covent Garden called “Navaho Joe’s,” which features as its logo a Navaho male figure tipping back a giant bottle of booze. (But then, whose cultures and histories am I disregarding and/or trashing because I can’t be bothered to learn? A lesson for all, perhaps.)

    Indyanna–congrats on the flu shot. Hell, if you can’t get a Band-Aid for a shot, then what’s the point? (Then again, I used to give blood for the juice and cookies). Maybe you should donate several boxes of Barbie or HK Band-Aids to your local flu shot clinic.

  13. Laura on 30 Nov 2009 at 4:11 am #

    Agree with this all the way, however, why should the UK know about the racial politics of the US? i think with our history of colonialism we have quite enough to sort out on our own account… BTW, black people here get irritated if called british african-americans!

    However, i think that both examples are not us specific so much as just plan ole’ racist – N**** brown was a common name for a brown colour in the 50′s and earlier because of very racist reasons, and it is shocking that it lingered into the 1980s.

    The navaho image is different, in that although i agree it is racist, however given that in the UK the priniple image of first nation people is from US media, i.e. disney, etc., this is much less surprising.

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