Asian founders work to steer the narrative as beauty trends pull from their cultures
Growing up in Detroit, skin care brand founder Rooshy Roy kept cherished parts of her Indian culture to herself.
Staple Indian ingredients — like the turmeric abundant in family dishes and the coconut oil she used to condition her hair — became a source of shame outside of her Kolkata-native parents' home.
"It was girls telling me that I like smell like curry or that my hair is like I haven't showered in ages," she said. "Things like that, I just started to pick up over time and kind of assimilated myself to fit in the best I could."
She started washing the "greasy" coconut oil out of her strands before going to school. She stopped eating turmeric meals that would stain her fingernails bright yellow when a fourth-grade classmate called the "fungus" on her hands "disgusting."
So, when she saw that hair oiling was trending on TikTok recently, the 32-year-old said, "All I could think to myself is: Oh my gosh, I got made fun of so much for how gross my hair is, and now all these cool girls are doing it."
From hair oiling to turmeric masks to Gua Sha facial massage, traditional Asian wellness practices like those Roy was once ridiculed for have become hugely popular in Western culture in recent years.
A welcome opportunity to bridge cultural divides
Although it's important to Roy that Asian cultures are not lost in the excitement, she sees it as a positive thing that the rituals that once made her feel alienated 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 aren't feeling ostracized in the way that I did," she said. "It's almost a sense of relief in many ways, of my two cultures, of my two upbringings, are finally being bridged in a way that is very validating."
It wasn't until after business school that Roy felt empowered to embrace her Indian roots. Roy, then stressed out and turning to trusty, homespun rituals, started her own skin care brand in 2017. As the co-founder of Aavrani, she now sells products with the same ingredients she and her mother used to painstakingly tweak in DIY recipes modified for various skin concerns.
As social media influencers mainstream and rebrand Asian-inspired techniques, wellness experts and founders in the Asian diaspora are trying to preserve the integrity of their cultures' rituals.
"If we — brands like us who are authentic in how we pursue this — don't do that, then that's where the stories and the culture gets lost," Roy said. "And then, we think that, you know, Gwyneth Paltrow is the one who discovered turmeric, when in reality it's like something that's so sacred to our heritage for centuries."
With opportunity, a burden to course correct cultural appropriation
Hair oiling — a 5,000-year-old ritual from South Asia that involves massaging oil into the scalp and hair — is now being promoted in the U.S. by beauty writers and influencers as "hair slugging."
With captions like "Is hair slugging legit?" and posts showing Day 1 results, influencer content on social media mentioning "slugging" terms saw more than a two-fold increase in the number of posts between May 2021 and April 2022, compared to the previous year, and about 600% more video views, according to the influencer marketing platform Traackr.
Shalini Seneviratne, 35, who grew up in Sri Lanka soaking her hair in oil alongside two older generations of women in her family, says it's disappointing to see that it took "a new, cool name" for Western media to legitimize hair oiling.
"I don't think that people from [South Asian] cultures are the ones that are benefiting mostly from these things becoming trendy," she said.
Seneviratne is working to change that. In March, she launched the coconut oil brand Wildpatch, as an ode to her Sri Lankan heritage.
"I thought this was an opportunity to really change the narrative and really showcase kind of the South Asian stories the way it should be," she said.
To ensure that South Asians benefit from their export's Western fame, her company sources ingredients from Sri Lankan farmers. "It would be so wrong not to give credit where it's due and not to support people whose culture I'm promoting," she said.
Gua Sha has amassed a similar faddish 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 facial massage practice rooted in ancient Chinese medicine.
She noted how a simple Google search on the practice pulls images and articles showing Asian faces and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in the minority. "I find this painfully ironic," Chiu, 47, said.
"I think where those feelings of appropriation and culture erasure come into play, and how I've personally experienced it, are when you're thinking about who is selling these Gua Sha tools and who is teaching you," she said. "Anyone teaching and selling Gua Sha should be trained, and should have some sort of cultural connection to the practice — but that's not always the case."
Holistic Asian wellness approaches get rebranded as quick-fix beauty tips
"Gua" means "scraping" 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, with Gua Sha first used on the body to alleviate pain and to prevent fevers and other illnesses.
Yet writers, brands and influencers have billed the technique as a wrinkle-ridding alternative to Botox, among other claims of its cosmetic benefits. It's 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's important for people to understand that this result comes from its ability to boost internal health as a valid Chinese medical technique," she said.
An acupuncturist and herbalist who founded the New York City-based wellness studio Lanshin, Chiu spends a lot of time on Lanshin's Instagram account educating followers about the benefits of facial Gua Sha, in part, to combat misinformation.
"On the one hand, I am overjoyed by the increased interest in Gua Sha and other TCM practices. These are wonderful gateways to learning more about Asian cultures, and the endless health and vitality wisdom that is built into our traditions of cultivating well-being," she said. "But more importantly, the whitewashing of Gua Sha is leading to the distortion of the practice. And this harms its credibility as a legitimate form of healing."
Like Chiu, other Asian American leaders in the industry don't quite view these rituals as "beauty" regimens. Roy and Seneviratne emphasize that their brands are part of a mindful, holistic approach, one that pulls from the ancient mind-body-spirit wellness rituals of ayurveda from the Indian subcontinent.
Between May 2021 and April 2022, videos about ayurvedic ingredients soared over 170% in views across major social media platforms, compared to the same period in the previous year, Traackr reports.
In another sign of the growing mainstream interest, the first South Asian-founded ayurvedic skincare brand hit Sephora.com in February.
"I very much 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 everybody can benefit from," Aavrani CEO Roy said. Unlike other beauty trends, she added, "It's not just about trying to adhere to a certain beauty standard — it's truly what is good for you."
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