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Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation: The Fashion And Beauty Industry By Jane Lee

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation

“That’s cultural appropriation.” If you’ve been watching the news or are on any form of social media, you’d know that racial issues have been 2020’s topic of interest, sparked by the Black Lives Matter Movement. From Katy Perry’s geisha-inspired performance to Jeremy Lin’s cornrows to a non-Chinese teen wearing a Chinese qipao to prom, discussions about what qualifies as appreciation and appropriation have increased over the years. This leads us to ask one question: When it comes to cultural appropriation vs. appreciation in the fashion and beauty industry, where do we draw the line?

Source// Twitter (@daumkeziah)

The Public Eye

Take a moment to ask yourself what you think the difference between appropriation and appreciation is. On Instagram, I asked my followers what they believe the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is. From about 20 responses, the consensus was that cultural appropriation is the cherry-picking of different aspects of a culture for a trend, costume, aesthetic, or sexual reasons. Contrarily, cultural appreciation is having a genuine interest in a culture and using parts of it in a respectful and tasteful way. One Rutgers student said, “appropriation is when a cultural custom is displayed in an ignorant or mocking manner,” whereas “appreciation is when a person actually understands where it comes from and genuinely admires it.”

Similarly, Rachelle Shao (a Brown University student) described cultural appreciation to be “when someone has done thorough research and asked multiple people from that certain culture about the clothing/action/etc. they wanna use first… and their intentions come from good places instead of just simply wanting to use a piece of the culture because they think it looks cool or pretty.” She also noted that pieces of culture could become appropriation “if the person were profiting from this piece of culture, whether it be from money or social media exposure.”

Mere Accusations, Or The Harsh Truth?

Lately, there have been many brands in hot water for incorporating different aspects of other cultures. This includes, but is not limited to, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, and SHEIN. Forever 21 is known to have sold “Navajo panties.” headwear that resembled Native American headdresses, as well as “oriental” clothing that copies qipaos and patterns from Chinese culture. Urban Outfitters has been criticized for selling clothing with Native American prints (2011), Palestinian Keffiyehs (2007), Ethiopian dresses (2013), and similarly to Forever 21, selling “oriental” clothes. SHEIN, a fast-fashion brand, has been criticized for releasing clothes that resemble traditional South Asian attire. They were also found to be selling Allah and Swastika necklaces earlier this year.

Source// Twitter (@skhadijar)

A Look At The Fox-Eye Trend

The fox-eye trend took the fashion and beauty industry by storm after model Bella Hadid and influencer Kylie Jenner began doing their makeup similarly to the eyes of a fox. Many fans and followers took inspiration from the two and followed the makeup style while also adding hand gestures that pulled at the cheekbone and outer corner of the eyes to make their eyes appear almond-shaped. People have even gotten fox-eye surgery in an effort to slant their eyes more. This trend instantly sparked outrage within the Asian community, leading them to claim the trend as cultural appropriation. Many Asian Americans have experienced being mocked and discriminated against for their naturally almond-shaped eyes by strangers and peers, while non-Asians are currently being praised when they follow the trend.

I put up a poll on Instagram, asking followers whether they thought the fox-eye trend was cultural appropriation. Out of the 84 responses received, 77% agreed that it was cultural appropriation, while 23% said it wasn’t. The majority of the responses were from people of Asian descent, and they believed that pulling at the eyes to create an almond shape is cultural appropriation and not the makeup itself, unless it’s done to “look more Asian.”

Rutgers student Jenna Han described the fox-eye trend as “more as racist because Asians have been made fun of for having squinty eyes. It doesn’t matter if someone didn’t mean to be racist… it's the impact it gave the audience and some Asians who find it somewhat racist, considering the mental trauma it probably gave them as kids to be made fun of for their eyes.” However, she disagreed with the claim that the fox-eye trend is cultural appropriation “... because having fox eyes isn’t a part of Asian culture.” This was similar to the response of those who answered “no” to the poll. Many agreed that people couldn’t appropriate physical features since it isn’t necessarily part of a culture (some used the example of excessive skin tanning/lightening to show that physical features don’t fall into the cultural appropriation category).

Source: Instagram (@chungiyoo)

Source: Instagram (@chungiyoo)

Source: Instagram (@thepeahceproject)

Where Do We Draw the Line?

While everyone has their views on ongoing trends, it is essential to keep an open mind when something is accused of being wrong. Take the utilization of cultural patterns and designs on clothing from large fashion brands as an example. Would it be fair for Forever 21 or Urban Outfitters, which are not Chinese owned brands, to profit off of clothes and designs stolen from Chinese culture? Similarly, while the fox-eye trend may have seemed like an innocent pose initially, the Asian community made it clear that the trend was offensive to them. Should the trend continue, even though it offends a whole community?

There is the argument that people are too sensitive now. However, it’s the sensitivity that betters us. By being more culturally sensitive, we become more aware of our actions and their effects on others. Out of respect, researching trends before hopping on the bandwagon is important, as well as learning to listen to other communities if something is being accused of cultural appropriation.

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