According to Jezebel, this past week, Vanessa Hudgens posted a picture on Instagram with this caption: “Just dust. Everywhere. Lol #bindi marks.” This particular fashion trend wasn’t exclusive to Hudgens alone; many others sported multicolored, rhinestone-studded stickers on their foreheads. Immediately, there were rallying cries from social activists everywhere screaming “cultural appropriation” and questioning whether people were even aware of the cultural significance behind the bindis they wore. But should we really be picking a fight over something so small?
Derived from the Sanskrit word “bindu,” meaning “drop,” a bindi is the red dot that Indian women traditionally wear on their foreheads, according to surfindia.com. The position of the bindi between the eyebrows denotes the third eye, the seat of latent wisdom, where all experience is supposedly gathered in total concentration during meditation. Other names for the bindi are “pottu” in Tamil, “tilak” in Hindi, “tilakam” in Telegu, “bottu” and “tilaka” in Kannada, and “teep” in Bengali. While the traditional bindi is a red dot worn by married women, it now comes in various colors, shapes, and sizes today for women of all ages and marital statuses to wear. Today, simple red bindis, dots, and drops can be purchased in bulk, while more colorful and creatively shaped bindis are sold in individual packets.
According to Everyday Feminism, the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation is that there has to be some element of mutual understanding and respect for something to be a true exchange. In the context of Hinduism, an example of cultural exchange would be if a white woman married an Indian man and wore a sari to the wedding, or if someone learned forms of classical music and dance simply for the sake of learning them and appreciating the culture. An example of cultural appropriation would be if someone wore a T-shirt depicting one of our gods, such as Ganesha or Shiva, without any sort of context.
But the boundaries within which something remains a cultural exchange and doesn’t veer into the territory of cultural appropriation aren’t always so clear. Defining cultural appropriation becomes messy at this point–were the people wearing bindis at Coachella appropriating Hindu culture, or simply appreciating what it has to offer? It’s probably safe to say that many of the people who wore bindis that day did so without its cultural significance in mind.
But frankly, neither do very many of us Indians, either. If we held the same sort of respect for our own culture that “cultural exchange” demands, the only sort of bindis we’d be wearing are red dots or drops positioned perfectly between our eyebrows–but only if we were married. And yet my own collection of bindis—multicolored and rhinestone-studded stickers–don’t seem to match up, and my friends, my relatives, and I have been wearing these for practically our entire lives with virtually no opposition. Granted, I grew up in a community kind and accepting enough that the worst my family and I received were questions from small children about why my mother wore a red sticker on her forehead, and other communities may not be nearly so accepting. Regardless, we bought these bindis from Indian stores in this country and, in some cases, even the motherland itself.
According to Anjali Joshi of the Huffington Post, there was no such uproar when Bollywood actresses forsook the traditional red dot in favor of the more fashionable, multicolored stickers. If non-Indians find them beautiful, then who are we to argue? If we’re going to take issue with cultural appropriation regarding Indians, then we should be arguing with people who sexualize our clothing, people who expect Indians to act exactly like characters in Bollywood movies, people who defile our classical music and dance, people who see Hindu gods and goddesses as little more than hipster symbols–not a bunch of people who decided to adopt what, at least today, is little more than a fashion accessory.