The Naked Bias of Bra Color

Most women would question the melanin-matching ability of “nude” bras, but if you’re black in America, the options are alarmingly limited.

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In a technical sense, so-called “nude” bras are designed to match a woman’s mix of epidermal eumelanin and pheomelanin, polymers that, along with a variety of other factors, nudge human skin color along the dark-light spectrum. By extension, the bras are supposed to offer a bit of invisibility under light-colored clothing, and while they aren’t perfect, if you’re a pale-skinned woman like me, they do get the job done.

But if you’re black in America, those nude bras aren’t really nude at all — and the options are alarmingly limited.

Until the lingerie company Nubian Skin launched its line of dark skin tone bras in 2014, it was hard for many black women to find an appropriately skin-toned bra. “My nude isn’t the nude I see in shops,” the founder of that company wrote at the time of its launch. “Despite the reality that women of color have the same needs as all women when it comes to lingerie and hosiery … the industry simply doesn’t cater to us.”

Two years later, for the most part, it still doesn’t.

Victoria’s Secret, Maidenform, and the various Hanes brands (among them Playtex and Wonderbra) hold the lion’s share of the lingerie market in the United States. That means when your average woman goes bra shopping, odds are she’s looking at a bra made by one of those brands.

About 88 percent of those bras are available in at least one pale skin tone. Nearly 29 percent are available in multiple pale shades. Only 12.6 percent come in a dark skin tone. I know this because I looked at every single bra that these brands sell online. Of 183 bras, only one bra came in multiple dark skin tones. It was the Lilyette by Bali Plunge Into Comfort Keyhole Minimizer Bra, which I suppose I have to applaud for its diversity — if not for its name.

Here’s my breakdown:

Deer

It’s possible that some of these bras aren’t meant to blend in. Maybe they’re meant to be worn under thick, dark clothing or at trendy music festivals. So let’s be generous and say that only the 88 percent of bras that came in pale skin tones (161 bras out of the 183 I checked) were intended to be worn discreetly. There were 23 bras that came in dark skin tones, which amounts to just 14 percent of the available stock.

This includes the 10 Victoria’s Secret bras that came in what they termed “Dark Iron Crochet Lace.” Since that lacy bra wasn’t really a solid color at all, it was virtually useless as a nude style bra. So really it’s more like 13 bras, total, in dark skin tones. Which isn’t to say that these companies skimp on color variety. Even the standard Playtex brand averaged over four color options per bra. Victoria’s Secret had almost 12 colors on average.

It’s difficult to say why these companies are ignoring the 13 percent of American women who are black, though it likely starts at the top. Only three of the 260 shows at New York Fashion Week 2015, after all, were developed by black designers. Just 12 of the 470 members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America — that’s 2.6 percent — are black.

Most elite fashion designers aren’t working on something as simple as bras, but perhaps a lack of black fashion executives translates into a poor understanding of what “nude” actually means. Maybe the scientific nuances of the human epidermis escape them, or maybe they’ve failed to grasp the way in which light interacts with both skin and fabric to produce truly “nude” bras.

Either way, they should study up. We’re failing black women in America in so many ways — at least give them their bras.

Sara Chodosh is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a B.A. in neurobiology and philosophy of science. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) at New York University. This article is provided by Scienceline, a project of SHERP.

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24 comments / Join the Discussion

    Love this post. I have to say that I thought it was hard to find decent bras in my size but then you put a desired skin toned color into the mix, it’s a whole other issue. Thank you for bringing more awareness to the problem

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