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'Ethnic fashion' obscures cultural identity


I live a hyphenated existence. South Asian-American. Indian-American. Punjabi-American. Physically, I am also a patchwork of different cultures: I wear jeans and t-shirts, I braid my hair in Punjabi kudiya style, have a nose ring, and wear a bindi, a small colored dot worn in between the eyebrows by South-Asian women. Depending on who you talk to, though, I can be seen as an Indian trying to be "fashionably ethnic" in superficially "multicultural" American surroundings. While my extended family sympathizes with my efforts to reconcile my sense of belonging to both India and America, I do not meet with such understanding from those surrounding me who interpret my wearing bindis as a fashion statement rather than a statement of cultural belonging.


I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who believed that I wear bindis because, in his words, "It's a, you know, convenient way to sort of like assert an identity. Like, you're making a statement, but it's not offensive or anything. It's actually fashionable." I was shocked, especially at his claim that many others agreed with him. I wear my bindis to demonstrate my adherence to and respect for my culture and religion and the large roles they occupy in my identity and everyday life—not to imitate a pop icon. My acquaintance then pulled out a picture of Destiny's Child, taken at a recent awards program. Not only were the women clad in outfits made from sari material, but they all sported matching, colorfully flashy bindis.

This is cultural imperialism at its worst. Pop icons like Madonna perpetuate a faulty understanding of Indian culture by selecting exotic images from India, such as the bindi, taking them completely out of cultural context and popularizing them in the West. What people like Madonna don't realize, however, is that appropriating the bindi in such a way has devastating effects on the symbol's meaning in South Asia. For example, while in Delhi over the summer, I was hard pressed to find plain red bindis, finding instead very flashy, so-called "export quality" bindis, replete with sparkles and a variety of colors. The bindi is no longer what it once was—a symbol of being Hindu and of having a symbolic union with God. Now, it is not only a fashionable item to wear, but is also produced mass-produced specifically for export to other countries. The Madonnas and Gwen Stefanis of the world—along with those who have blindly followed their example—have successfully changed the meaning of the bindi in South Asia, for the worse.

And this new meaning obviously extends to South Asian Americans, among them young women such as myself who are labeled as consumers of teenybopper culture rather than as heirs to the cultural legacy represented in small part by bindis. My stomach turns when I see non-South Asians wearing bindis to proms, social events, or simply "as part of their outfits." Without realizing it, they are transforming the meaning of the bindi from an inherently sacred entity to an accessory whose popularity will undoubtedly fade, as all trends do. And the popularization of this trend may suggest to our peers that those of us who wear bindis to bridge our hyphenated existences do so only to assert cultural identity in an acceptable, Americanized way.

While I do not mean to imply that all Americans think this way, even knowing a handful that do is insulting, both to me personally and to South Asian culture. How am I, for example, supposed to react when I enter a bookstore and see The Bindi Kit lying on the shelf marked "International Books?" Am I supposed to be happy that bindis are now being sold along with body paint in kits that encourage girls to wear bindis as exotic belly button ring substitutes surrounded by colorful paint?

One could argue that the bindi phenomenon is a good thing because it could motivate interested Americans to examine diverse South Asian cultures and histories more closely. Even though this might be true, I resent the fact that a culture should be considered worthy of study or attention because of the fashion appeal of its symbols or traditions.

Assigning new cultural meanings to symbols with very old traditions or deep personal significance is inappropriate and insensitive. It reduces the complexities of South Asian culture to mere physical items, rather than the continual process that culture is.

So please—don't wear bindis, and don't think of my homeland simply as the origin of yoga, incense, and exoticism if you are going to ignore the context and meanings of these cultural components as well as the reasons why we "ethnic folk" appreciate, treasure, and cling to them. Sunita Puri is a junior in Davenport.

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