Beauty Around the World: The Bindi
Originally Published on theparachutemedia.com
Aashna Sharma, founder of Shared Planet, a vegan and cruelty-free beauty brand, first began wearing bindis when she was around three years old. The bindi, for her, acted as an accessory when wearing traditional Indian attire, but it was also an important part of wearing customary Indian clothing and was an emblem and tie to her culture.
“For me, [the bindi] is a symbol of my heritage,” Aashna said. “Women who are married wear red bindis compared to when you're a young girl, or when you're unmarried, you can wear ones that are bejeweled or different colors. Now people kind of wear it as a stylish statement. They'll match the color of their traditional clothing to the color of their bindi.”
The bindi is a colored dot that is placed between the eyebrows and forehead. It stems from Hinduism and it possibly dates back to around 3,000 years ago, according to Arvind Sharma, a Professor at McGill University in the School of Religious Studies. The bindi is often used for aesthetic purposes, but has multiple representations with some of them being secular and others being religious.
“The Hindu religious tradition is very prudent,” said Professor Sharma. “It has many capture detectors, many deities [and] many approaches to God. Symbols or practices have many meanings. So, the bindi can stand for many things, it can be purely secular [and] it can just be a declaration just to make oneself look good.”
One of its more religious meanings is a representation of the third eye, said Professor Sharma. The third eye acts as a gateway to knowledge and wisdom. The space between the eyes where the bindi is placed also represents a center called the cakra which is an important concept in Hinduism that signifies how a person may become enlightened. The popular way of spelling cakra is “chakra’, but the way that it is preferred to translate the Sanskrit word in English, within academic circles, is cakra. It is said that within a group of about 7 or 8 cakras that extend from the base of the spine going upwards, the second to last cakra is the final one before reaching enlightenment. The bindi represents the end of duality and final vision of all human beings uniting. The bindi also has various ways and different occasions that it can be worn. Depending on where you are in India, the bindi could also be used as a signifier of status.
“It is significant,” Professor Sharma said. “In some societies or communities, [as] it's an indicator that a person is married. The other [significance] is of course beautification. When you go to a temple in India, they normally put a mark on the forehead of those who go there. It's not called a bindi then, this is called a Tilak. It looks like a bindi. But it's not something that is fixed. It's just a temporary marker of some kind of thing.”
When Debamita Banerjee, a graduate student at Government College of Engineering and Leather Technology in Kolkata, India, was a child, she associated bindi’s with beauty after seeing her mom, someone who she looked up to, wearing them during Indian cultural festivals.
“We live in urban settings, so my mother obviously doesn’t wear traditional sarees everyday, but I remember as a kid, during festivals my mum would be dressed in ethnic attires and she’d put on a bindi,” Banjeree said. “I’d just look up to her and think she was the most beautiful woman in the world.”
Like many cultural elements that belong to people of color, the bindi was adopted and repurposed by the West. Over the past few years, bindis have been worn by non-indian people as fashion statements to social outings like Coachella. Some don’t consider this cultural appropriation and enjoy sharing their culture with outsiders.
“As far as cultural appropriation is concerned, I think people should be able to wear anything that makes them feel beautiful,” Banjeree said. “Tourists often come to our country and dress up in an authentic way. That sure includes the bindi too and trust me, our people love it. I think it's more about sharing the richness of our culture than plagiarizing it. Expecting [the understanding of the culture] out of every single person who wears a bindi is too far out in my opinion. A mutual respect for all cultures alike is something that should be expected though.”
Although some think of it as cultural appreciation, others don’t like the adoption of the bindi since western beauty standards have otherized them for their cultural beauty practice by labeling it “strange” or “weird” until it is decided by white people that the beauty practice fits within their beauty standards.
“It’s so frustrating to see people associate exoticness with the bindi because I think it's not even necessarily hurtful that they're wearing a bindi, but [its] just the idea of wanting to look exotic and tribal and associating that with Indian or brown people being uncivilized,” Aashna said. “I think that's the bigger connotation that comes out of when other people wear bindis.”
Although she feels frustrated by bindis association with exoticness, Aashna said that she believes that it is okay for non-Indian people to wear bindis as long as they have some understanding of the culture.
“I think so many insecurities, especially of women of color, stem from [other people] not being educated about other standards of beauty and this Western ideal standard of beauty being put above like all else,” Sharma said. “ I think the more that we explore, people from the past who look different, or even today currently, the more we'll be able to break out of those insecurities that were established by Western ideals of beauty.”
Whether you believe non-Indian people’s adoption of the bindi is cultural appropriation or not, it is beneficial to understand a culture that you are borrowing from. If you ever choose to wear a bindi or try another culture’s beauty practices, take a second to think about the historical and cultural significance.