Haute Off the Press: Can Skin Tone Be Measured Beyond Race?
Each week our no-holds-barred contributor Grace Gold picks apart a hot beauty topic. It’s our version of an op-ed—with lipstick, laser treatments and eyeliner.
Brazilian artist Angélica Dass has one momentous goal: to find and catalog every human skin tone on earth.
As you can see from her Humanae project that is already underway, Dass is visually enticing—and perhaps provoking—us with her approach. After snapping a profile photo of a subject, she uses an 11x11 pixel skin color swatch from the shot to match it to a hue in Pantone's worldwide database of shades. The selected Pantone shade then illuminates the backdrop of the image, which is titled by the number assigned to that particular color.
A biracial background inspired the idea for the photographic exploration, says the artist, who comes from both Brazilian and African lineages and whose African father was adopted by a Caucasian family. "It's my pursuit to highlight our true colors rather than use inaccurate terms like 'red,' 'yellow,' 'black' and 'white,'" Dass tells Makeup.com in reference to how she hopes to expand the international language for skin tone.
It's reminiscent of Crayola's foray into complexion colors with the launch in 1992 of Multicultural Crayons, a set that today includes "apricot, mahogany, burnt sienna, peach, sepia, tan, plus black and white for blending."
Makeup.com editor Christiana Molina says she used similarly themed paints when studying education at New York University to teach a class on race sensitivity. "Each child had an individual formula like five drops peach, two drops beige and one drop olive," she says. "They loved being able to see they were all unique."
Coming from a biracial background myself, with an east Indian mother and Jewish father, I'm ecstatic to see projects like Humanae and major companies like Crayola embrace skin tones that fall outside of previously held black-and-white concepts.
Yet some may question: is identity by number really better than description by word? Aren't numbers just as limiting, if not even more oversimplifying in their symbolic value?
When contemplating this, I can't help but remember being forced to fill in only one circle on the ethnicity question with my crisp no. 2 pencil when taking the California Achievement Test (C.A.T.) as a kindergartner. Flustered and not knowing what to do (I was afraid I had already failed the test), I raised my hand for Mrs. Belk to come help. Our teacher furrowed her brow and quietly discussed the issue with another aide while the class waited, wondering why I couldn't answer the question. The two adults finally told me to fill in "Other," an experience that profoundly shaped my sense of identity and inability to relate to any one ethnic group thereafter.
I can't help but wonder that if a numbered shade had existed to accurately describe my individual mix of color, I may have felt affirmed and accepted in a way that I was otherwise unable to back then.
Yes, numbers may erase much of what makes us unique. But in doing so, they put everyone on the same playing field, equalizing people in spite of skin color, culture and socioeconomic background.
And for anyone who has ever tried to find a liquid foundation match, you know that nothing beats coming upon that perfect shade that seamlessly melts from face to jawline. It's like someone, somewhere, mixed a hue with exactly your unique tones in mind. And from there, the canvas you want to create and build upon is entirely up to you.
What do you think of the artist's work to catalog skin tones?