Dissecting cultural appropriation in the beauty industry

Cultural Appropriation

We hear about cultural appropriation A LOT. By definition, cultural appropriation refers to ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of customs, practices, and ideas of one person or society by more “dominant” people of society’

The very definition states that we still perceive some people and cultures as ‘dominant’, which is exactly where the issue begins. 

The beauty industry is increasingly becoming more inclusive (about time?), which means that both content creators and brands are actively broadening their spectrums when it comes to inspiration. From here, things start to get shady: products, names, hairstyles, and even Halloween costumes end up displaying elements that look like they are ‘borrowed’ from other cultures (intentionally or not). 

Byredo’s ‘Gypsy Water’ fragrance, OPI’s ‘Chop-sticking To My Story’ nail varnish, Fenty Beauty’s ‘Geisha Chic’ highlighter (all called out by anonymous beauty collective @esteelaudry) are only a few of the names used by major brands for their products – and they have created a stir. 

Justin Bieber and Zac Efron are only a couple of celebrities that got dreadlocks ‘Just for Fun’, as Efron’s 2016 caption of his new hairstyle picture read. Love Island’s Molly-Mae Hague was called out for wearing a Cleopatra outfit for Halloween in 2019 as the ex-islander has no connections to the Egyptian culture. “My culture is not your costume” commented a follower. Polish influencer Aga Bzostowska has faced many ‘blackfishing’ accusations in 2018 when the media revealed pictures of her hourglass figure, dark tan, and braids and compared them to photos of her natural look, which featured a much lighter complexion and straight hair. ‘White girls, if you want to pass as black, how about using your platform to address the injustice and discrimination actual black people face’ someone tweeted.

All the examples stated above are, of course, obvious instances of cultural appropriation. It (hopefully) is not rocket science for a consumer to understand how people belonging to a certain culture could be offended by them. There are, however, beauty trends that have all reached the peak of Western consumerism without many questioning their origins, despite their association to different cultures – most of which are not white.


Let’s start with the not-so-obvious: eyeliner. Yup, you heard it – the flick that has become a signature to so many people’s looks originates from ancient Egyptians and it has a cultural signification: black kohl was used as part of the ritual of honoring Gods. Cosmetics historian Madeleine Marsh told Vice in 2018 that ‘The Ancient Egyptians lived and died surrounded by their cosmetics palettes…If you are going to meet the Gods, you want to look your best’. 

Fast-forward to centuries later, women belonging to cultures requiring them to wear the Hijab have been known to express themselves through make-up and, more specifically through eye-makeup. ‘Arabian make-up’ comes up with an array of images and step-by-step’s on Pinterest, and it’s all about elongated eye shapes and seamless eyeliner wings.

Most people showcasing the looks haven’t got anything to do with any Middle Eastern culture, but the acknowledgement of the trend’s inspiration seems like a well-indented act. One Redditor even took it upon herself to start a thread asking whether it is ‘cultural appropriation’ if she does ‘Egyptian makeup’. ‘Let us hope that anyone who sees wrong in it will have the courtesy to wipe the wings from their eyeliner before calling you out’ another replied. 

Illamasqua’s ‘Eyeliner: A History’, written by Nadine Bourne in 2016 starts with a picture of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, features Indian Bollywood actress Hema Malini and concludes the thread with British singer Adele. The moral of the story? We have definitely white-washed eyeliner, and we are so far down the line that all that’s left to do is educate ourselves on the cultures we have taken inspiration from.

Bushy Brows

I googled Frida Kahlo to get my facts right and brow serums and gels instantly popped up in the ‘Shop Now’ section. It is ironic but, at the same time, somehow encouraging to see that the bushy brow lovers are being pointed in the right direction when it comes to inspiration. The OG protagonist of what is now a mainstream trend lived in an era when overly-plucked eyebrows were the thing; she was also Mexican, which gave her the asset (yet possible downfall, at the time), of being blessed with thick, dense hair. 

Women have been conditioned by the media to remove most of their body hair and tweeze their eyebrows to the extreme for decades. ‘I am my own muse’ famously said Frida, who chose to keep her unibrow and embrace her upper lip hair as parts of her Mexican identity. 

The idea sounds very empowering and liberating and seeing the media finally shine some light on naturalness feels like a step in the right direction; however, when Matter revealed the Frida Khalo Barbie in 2018, the doll had a milder version of the infamous unibrow and no signs of facial hair, which only goes to show how we ‘dilute’ features for the sake of our visual comfort. We are now seeing bushy brows everywhere, but often fail to acknowledge the true inspiration behind this ‘virgin brow’ trend, and, consequently, disregard the cultural aspects behind the movement. 

To assume white people couldn’t possibly have thick eyebrows is foolish, but, more often than not, they are a characteristic associated with thicker hair and darker skin, adopted by Western cultures.

Fake Tan

From influencers like the Aga Bzostowska to top-tier celebrities, many have been accused of ‘blackfishing’, ‘brownface’/’blackface’. Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ music video faced many allegations claiming that the singer not only looks darker (many publications have revealed pictures of the performer’s natural skin colour, which appears much lighter) but also the ‘blaccent’, as called by The Atlantic, that she puts on when singing some of the lyrics. 

Fake tan makes it so easy for one to alter their skin tone and, despite its purpose of helping us look more bronzed, it facilitates the ease of people adopting black aesthetics, despite them having no relation to the culture and definitely not being able to understand the struggles that unfortunately still relate to being dark-skinned. 

‘Can we start a thread post of all the white girls cosplaying as black women on Instagram? Let’s air them out because this is ALARMING’ someone tweeted back in 2018. ‘While white supremacist beauty standards have dominated for centuries at the expense of women of colour, for non-black folks, racial ambiguity can actually raise your profile and profits’ said Jen Tribbet in a 2019 piece for yr.media. Whilst there is nothing wrong with using fake tan, utilising it as a tool to create vagueness surrounding one’s ethnicity is undoubtedly inappropriate, especially in the unfortunate socio-political climate we are currently in.


Piercings are so common nowadays, yet, they carry important cultural meaning for many nations. Nose rings are seen as a formal piece of jewellery in Pakistan and have a traditionally decorative function; septum piercings date as far back as the Aztecs and were seen as religious pieces – they are also part of many current tribes’ customs; ear-stretching is associated with Buddhism and there are even statues of Buddha with stretched ears. 

White cultures adopting all these practices and incorporating them into their styles are not only seen as an exercise of privilege by many cultural appropriation experts (Victoria Pitts-Taylor, as quoted in Grazia) but also disregards the traditions behind the piercings. Stretched ears alone are part of people’s religious beliefs, yet Western sub-cultures have adopted them as a sign of ‘rebellion’. 

From the type of jewellery used for various piercings, some of which has been altered to fit the Western aesthetic, to, of course, the meaning – or lack thereof – behind them, there is no doubt that, at least to an extent, they are a form of cultural appropriation. Whilst we are now unapologetically displaying them, the least we can do to pay some respect is to celebrate them whilst acknowledging the privilege.

Of course, there are much more obvious specific examples of cultural appropriation in the beauty industry which have been called out by the media, but the above mentioned are some of the ones we are so far down the line with that we fail to speak about them correctly and credit the cultures they initiated from. The issue with cultural appropriation is that despite society becoming increasingly more fluid when it comes to cultural boundaries – more of that please – we cannot deny that a lot of the elements we tend to borrow are from cultures that have been oppressed in some way or another in the past and are still at the risk of facing discrimination today. 

Black women are still facing inequity when embracing their natural hair or black hairstyles in the workplace, which makes it wrong for celebrities like the Kardashians, with no black origins, to display box braids as a simple style choice. Fake tan allows people to become dark enough for their racial origins to become vague – the point is, when the fake tan fades off, they are back to being ‘white’; but naturally deep skin doesn’t come with an ‘off’ switch, and neither does the injustice people of colour have to put up with.

Understanding cultural appropriation in the beauty industry as a white person was undoubtedly challenging, and it took the odd ‘you look so exotic’ when I would wear dark fake tan, or the ‘you look Middle Eastern’ when I wore bold eyeliner for me to question how to look at these remarks when I am, in fact, neither ‘exotic’, nor Middle Eastern. 

It took a lot of work to look at the term from my level of perception: despite being white, I am not English, and I do have an accent. I would often hear the phrase ‘accents are sexy’; ‘people find accents attractive’. I imagined a British person trying to impersonate an accent just to get more attention on a night out, for example, and I realised I would find that upsetting – it would be like someone simply borrowing one of my attributes that isn’t just part of my identity, but it also comes with many downfalls; I am still convinced it has stopped me from getting jobs, slowed down the process of forming friendships and made me feel looked down upon, especially in post-Brexit Britain. 

If you want something of mine, don’t just cherry-pick the only situation that it would benefit you in, but take it as a whole and understand all the struggles that come with it. Whilst the hypothetical example is not looks-related, it helped me comprehend how disturbing I would find it if someone exercised their privilege by inappropriately adopting the characteristics of a minority.

When it comes to beauty, the minorities have not only had elements of their cultures used for name inspiration, packaging, and cultural ambiguity but they have also long been excluded from many aspects of consumerism. There are still make-up brands lacking a range of foundation shades that caters to all skin tones, many hair brands with no products suitable for curly hair and many advertorial campaigns displaying an alarming lack of diversity when it comes to model choice. 

Tackling major issues like these and still having the odd ‘slip-up’ when it comes to properly acknowledging when inspiration has been taken from different cultures is utterly unacceptable, and, despite some people getting offended at the ‘sensitivity’ of the ones calling out these situations, it is the only way to ensure that the industry is moving in the right direction.



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