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Growing up in Detroit, skincare brand founder Rooshy Roy kept cherished parts of his Indian culture to himself.
Staple Indian ingredients, like the turmeric that abounds in family dishes and the coconut oil she used to condition her hair, became a source of embarrassment outside her native Calcutta parents’ home.
“It was girls telling me that I like to smell curry or that my hair looks like I haven’t had a shower in a long time,” she said. “Things like that, I started to recover over time and assimilate to fit in as best I could.”
She started washing “greasy” coconut oil from her locks before going to school. She stopped eating turmeric foods that stained her fingernails bright yellow when a fellow fourth-grader said the “fungus” on her hands was “disgusting.”
So when she saw hair oil trending recently on TikTok, the 32-year-old said: “All I could think of is oh my gosh, they made so much fun of how gross my hair is, and now all these cool girls do it. They are doing”.
From hair oiling to turmeric masks to Gua Sha facial massage, traditional Asian wellness practices like those for which Roy was once ridiculed have become wildly popular in Western culture in recent years.
A good opportunity to bridge cultural gaps
While it’s important to Roy that Asian cultures not get lost in the excitement, she sees it as a positive that rituals that once alienated her are now being embraced by a new generation.
“It makes me so happy to imagine that young Indian girls who are in my position now don’t feel ostracized like I do,” she said. “It’s almost a sense of relief in a lot of ways, my two cultures, my two upbringings, are finally coming together in a way that’s so precious.”
It wasn’t until after business school that Roy felt empowered to embrace her Indian roots. Roy, then stressed and turning to trusty home rituals, started her own skincare brand in 2017. As the co-founder of Aavrani, she now sells products with the same ingredients she and her mother used to painstakingly modify into modified DIY recipes for various skin concerns.
As social media influencers incorporate and revamp Asian-inspired techniques, wellness experts and founders of the Asian diaspora are trying to preserve the integrity of their cultures’ rituals.
“If we, brands like us who are authentic in the way we go after this, don’t do that, then that’s where the stories and the culture get lost,” Roy said. “And then we think that, you know, Gwyneth Paltrow is the one who discovered turmeric, when it’s actually something so sacred to our heritage for centuries.”
With opportunity, a burden to correct the course of cultural appropriation
Hair oiling, a 5,000-year-old South Asian ritual of massaging the scalp and hair with oil, is now being promoted in the US by beauty writers and influencers as “hair bumping” .
With subtitles like “Is it legit to hit hair?” and posts showing Day 1 results, content from social media influencers mentioning “slugging” terms saw a more than double increase in the number of posts between May 2021 and April 2022, compared from the previous year, and roughly 600% more video views, according to influencer marketing firm Traackr.
Shalini Seneviratne, who grew up in Sri Lanka dousing her hair in oil alongside two older generations of women in her family, says it’s disappointing to see that it took “a cool new name” for Western media to legitimize hair oiling.
“I don’t think the people of [South Asian] cultures benefit the most from these things becoming fashionable,” he said.
Seneviratne is working to change that. In March, he launched the Wildpatch coconut oil brand, as an ode to his Sri Lankan heritage.
“I thought this was an opportunity to really change the narrative and really show the stories of South Asia as it should be,” he said.
To ensure that South Asians benefit from the Western fame of their exports, his company sources ingredients from Sri Lankan farmers. “It would be so wrong not to give credit where credit is due and not to support the people whose culture I am promoting,” he said.
wow sha has amassed a similar fashion following. Celebrities like Hailey Bieber and the Kardashians are fans. Miranda Kerr’s beauty line sells the tool. Traackr’s analysis of influencer accounts cited a 40% increase in video views of Gua Sha content since May 2021, compared to the previous year.
Gua Sha expert Sandra Lanshin Chiu has considered the delicate line between cultural intersection and cultural appropriation when it comes to the practice of facial massage rooted in ancient Chinese medicine.
He noted how a simple Google search on the practice pulls up images and articles showing Asian faces and minority traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. “I find this painfully ironic,” she said.
“I think those feelings of appropriation and removal of the culture come into play, and how I’ve personally experienced it, is when you think about who is selling these Gua Sha tools and who is teaching you,” he said. “Anyone teaching and selling gua sha needs to be trained and have some kind of cultural connection to the practice, but that’s not always the case.”
Holistic Asian wellness approaches are rebranded as quick-fix beauty tips
“Gua” means “scratch” and “Sha” refers to the “redness” that results when one uses a tool such as a flat jade stone to “scrape” the face, Chiu said. The technique dates back millennia, and Gua Sha was first used on the body to relieve pain and prevent fevers and other illnesses.
However, writers, brands, and influencers have featured the technique as an alternative to Botox for wrinkle removal, among other claims of its cosmetic benefits. It has also been widely cited as a lymphatic drainage technique, notes Chiu, who says no traditional Chinese medicine text defines it as such.
“While Gua Sha can produce cosmetic results, it is important for people to understand that this result stems from its ability to improve internal health as a valid Chinese medical technique,” he said.
Chiu, an acupuncturist and herbalist who founded the New York City-based wellness studio Lanshin, spends a lot of time on Lanshin’s Instagram account educating followers about the benefits of Gua Sha facials, in part to combat misinformation. .
“On the one hand, I am delighted by the growing interest in Gua Sha and other TCM practices. These are wonderful gateways to learning more about Asian cultures and the infinite wisdom about health and vitality that is embedded in our traditions of cultivate well-being,” she said. “But more importantly, whitewashing Gua Sha leads to distortion of the practice. And this damages its credibility as a legitimate form of healing.”
Like Chiu, other Asian-American leaders in the industry do not see these rituals as “beauty” regimens. Roy and Seneviratne emphasize that their brands are part of a mindful, holistic approach, drawing on the ancient mind, body and spirit wellness rituals of Ayurveda from the Indian subcontinent.
Between May 2021 and April 2022, videos about Ayurvedic ingredients increased more than 170% in views on all major social media platforms, compared to the same period a year earlier, Traackr reports.
In another sign of growing mainstream interest, the first Ayurvedic skincare brand founded in South Asia hit Sephora.com in February.
“I love the fact that it’s finally starting to be enjoyed by people outside of India and hopefully eventually around the world, because that wisdom is something everyone can benefit from,” said Aavrani CEO Roy . Unlike other beauty trends, he added: “It’s not just about trying to adhere to a certain beauty standard, it’s really what’s good for you.”