As body decoration becomes increasingly popular, celebrities such as Ariana Grande and Gigi Hadid, as well as many other non-South Asian women have begun to utilize henna as a fashion statement. It is not uncommon to see girls, many who are not girls of color, around Berkeley High School (BHS) sporting the designs. In fact, it is likely that almost everyone reading this article has either participated in or witnessed a friend or classmate utilize the dye with no cultural context or knowledge. However, the reality is that every non-South Asian person who chooses to wear henna for a non-ceremonial purpose is perpetuating a culture of appropriation.
The idea that this “fun and creative outlet” or “exciting fashion trend” could in fact be cultural appropriation is one that hasn’t even crossed the minds of many white girls who engage in this activity. Many feel it is not appropriation, but instead appreciation. This is a common misconception. Fordham University Law Professor Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as follows: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Essentially, cultural appropriation is adopting an aspect of someone else’s culture and utilizing it to one’s own advantage without consent. This doesn’t necessarily need to be something that others were persecuted for, just an element of a culture that does not belong to the appropriator.
By using the cultural aspect of henna in a way that differs from its original meaning, the cultural significance is diminished. Obviously, those who wear henna to Indian wedding ceremonies when asked by the family or other similar instances do not fall into this category since they were given permission to wear it and are not utilizing it to further a personal need or want. Any other use of the product as a bodily decoration falls under the category of appropriation.
While the idea that using henna for any purpose apart from its traditional use in South Asian — specifically in Hindu weddings — is cultural appropriation may seem like it targets many people at BHS, this article is not intended to attack anyone. Even though I am Indian, I have used henna in ways that, in retrospect, I consider appropriation, both with friends and alone. Body art is a fun method of self expression, and henna is a quick and easy way of expressing that creativity. However, it is important to be able to recognize how our actions contribute to the normalization of appropriation and adjust accordingly. I no longer use henna in any non-ceremonial capacities, and have encouraged my friends to follow suit. There are many other ways to decorate your body, including temporary tattoos, body paint, or even just drawing on yourself with a marker, all of which have much less historical and cultural meaning.
Though most people do not intend to appropriate or play into any such dynamics, recognizing intentions versus impacts is one of the most crucial steps in ensuring that our actions are not harmful to others; we should recognize how our actions affect those around us. The significance of henna as a ritualist decoration in South Asian culture must not be ignored.