If white-owned companies seemingly “discover” every beauty practice that exists, then there is no room for us to claim our own traditions, like henna.
By Ammal Hassan
A few months ago, I passed by Lush, a bath and skincare chain, to pick up a couple of things. While browsing I came across their hair section where they had a henna block on display. It felt slightly surreal to see one of my cultural staples being sold in a mainstream, high street store. What made it even more of a surreal experience was hearing the white employee describing to a customer how this “new form” of natural hair dying was a total game-changer for hair health.
While I initially couldn’t quite put words to how I felt about the short interaction, I later came across a piece in Marie Claire written by a white journalist who described this new way of hair dying as, once again, a major game-changer in the beauty industry. It finally all made sense — what wasn’t sitting right with me was the continuous description of henna hair dying as “new” and “ground-breaking”.
Henna, also known as Mehndi or Mailanchi, is a natural dye that derives from the Lawsonia inermis plant. Its hair dying properties are most certainly not new and date as far back as Ancient Egypt. It has been popularly used in Asian and African societies for over 5,000 years. Many cultures — such as my own as a Somali — have kept henna as a cornerstone of our beauty practices for hair dying, hair treatment and body art and beautification for generations on end. So why do white journalists and beauty practitioners keep praising it as a “new” emergence?
As we have seen with other culturally appropriated beauty practices such as box braids, turmeric masks, bejeweled nail art, eyebrow threading, and more, describing and marketing age-old beautification practices primarily used by majority Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) as “new”, has become a way for white companies, consumers and communities to benefit from these mostly natural practices without acknowledging the communities in which they originally derived from.
Perhaps the most appalling developments surrounding the “discovery” of henna by white-owned companies is the use of the practice by L’Oréal industries. L’Oréal professional now offers an herbal hair colour service called “Botanéa”, which is essentially just a new way of describing the practice of henna hair dying. This service is not only extremely expensive (looking at 70 British pounds—or roughly 90 dollars—for one hair dying treatment at most salons), but based on the L’Oréal site it is seemingly being directed at…white women. The website is filled with white women getting their hair dyed using henna, white hairdressers fulfilling the service, a cover photo of a white model with henna-dyed hair and opinions on the product from “Top Colourists” who are once again, all white. The only nod or mention of the practices’ Eastern origins seems to be a description stating that the Cassia plant (one of the versions of henna they offer) is grown in India. Just browsing through the website, L’Oréal’s message is clear. This is a practice they have stolen from our communities, appropriated and commodified for the benefit of their prime target audience — white women.
The description of henna as a “new” and “surprising” emergence, as well as using white women to market the product, is a way of colonizing a linchpin of beauty culture from many BIPOC while simultaneously changing the history of its origins. This terminology implies that the practice was non-existent, or perhaps not used right until white beauty practitioners and companies came about and “discovered” henna and its benefits. Therefore, the treatment of henna hair dying as a new beauty fad not only becomes a careful way of erasing the cultural importance and the roles people in my community and those alike have contributed to the beauty world, but it also becomes a way for white-owned beauty companies such as L’Oréal and Lush to capitalize on false pretenses of “new beauty”.
The result of a situation like this is that communities such as my own are left to fall back and watch our traditional beauty practices — that we may have been previously deemed primitive for using — be consumed and profited from by a community that has never appreciated our contributions to the wider beauty industry. Through the insidious and overt exertions of white supremacy and capitalism, the never-ending cultural appropriation by the mainstream beauty industry has become a way of discreetly upholding the functions of colonialism. If white companies seemingly “discover” every beauty practice that has ever existed, then there is no room for BIPOC to claim and have acknowledged the traditional practices that they contribute to the beauty industry. Cultural appropriation is significant because it feeds into the erasure and degradation of communities of colour.
From very obvious forms of white supremacy to the more subtle iterations of it, issues such as these are a clear way of proving that the principles and practices of colonialism didn’t die with independence, but rather they have tactfully evolved and ingrained themselves in modern culture.