I’m Indian, don’t white-wash my culture by wearing a bindi
If you don’t know the religious and spiritual meaning you shouldn’t be wearing it
Over the past few years, bindis have become a trendy fashion accessory in the West, especially at festivals like Coachella. Even celebrities such as Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ellie Goulding have worn them in their music videos, turning them into a fashion icon.
But while the Western world may tell themselves that they are paying a homage to Indian culture by wearing bindis, what they’re actually doing is trying to look cool and fashionable without truly understanding the depth of meaning that lies behind the bindi. And that’s exactly why the words ‘cultural appropriation’ – a term bandied around so much without fully explaining what implications it has for ethnic minorities – come into play.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for embracing other people’s cultures and sharing my own culture with others, but appreciation is one thing and appropriation is another. I doubt Selena Gomez knew the real meaning behind the bindi she wore in her Come & Get It music video.
The history and tradition behind the bindi is extraordinary and has evolved over time. It means something slightly different for every woman, or man, who wears it. Men often wear it as a religious symbol (called a tilak), whereas on women it is often a symbol of marriage if worn on the forehead, and a symbol of respect to one’s deceased husband if worn at the base of the neck.
It also represents the ajna chakra or spiritual ‘third eye’, the site where we lose our ego and reach a higher level of spirituality. So wearing a bindi is also a reminder in society to see the universe through the mind’s eye. It’s so much more than a fashion accessory – it’s a sacred, spiritual and societal symbol. Unless people appreciate and respect its significance, then yes, it’s a form of cultural appropriation.
Of course, it’s true that the meaning of the bindi has evolved within Hindu society itself to become a fashion accessory. In today’s modern society, Hindu women will attend weddings and other special occasions wearing colourful and sparkly bindis with no intention other than to complement their outfits.
But at least they still understand and respect the tradition behind it, and have witnessed how its significance has changed in society. White people wearing bindis at festivals, on the other hand, do not. By wearing one, they’re exoticising the foreign Hindu culture and demonstrating a lack of respect and cultural awareness. Especially if they couple it with a crop top and a pair of bum shorts.
And it’s not just bindis that are the issue here. Clothing items and jewellery with Hindu symbols or images of Hindu gods on them have been filling the shelves at some high street stores. Why wear a t-shirt with a Hindu god on it if you’re not even a Hindu? Ever considered that you’re disrespecting an entire major world religion? Hinduism and its symbols should not be exploited for mainstream fashion purposes.
If you do turn up to Coachella wearing a bindi along with a profound knowledge of Hinduism and the cultural meaning behind the bindi, go you! But please don’t wear one if you have no idea what it’s all about. Just put on a little extra glitter instead.
Integrating and being open to other cultures is great, but vainly white-washing the bindi at a festival, or on a night out, does not constitute cultural awareness.