Generally, it is not cultural appropriation to wear henna. So long as the henna is worn with the right intention, it can be a form of cultural appreciation in which the wearer understands the origin of the art and supports the cultures of which it hails.
However, there are some circumstances in which henna is a form of cultural appropriation. Within this article, we will talk more about the scenarios in which henna is cultural appropriation and how to turn this into cultural appreciation.
The Origin of Henna
In order to know whether or not henna is a form of cultural appropriation, we must first know where exactly henna comes from.
Henna is a powder which is created by crushing the leaves of the henna plant, where the earliest dated use is predicted to be around 9,000 years ago by the Pharaohs in Egypt.
Cleopatra is a famous example of someone who used henna to adorn her body and make herself more attractive, and even the nails of mummies were painted with henna before being buried.
Since then, henna has spread worldwide, most notably to India where it is commonly used in wedding ceremonies. In some places, it is believed that the deeper the color of the henna, the better the relationship will be between the bride and her mother-in-law, and the stronger the love between the bride and groom.
Henna is usually styled to incorporate symbols of love, loyalty, luck, fertility, and prosperity, although oftentimes in the West the designs mean can mean very little: simple designs of flowers and spirals are common.
However, those undergoing chemotherapy can sometimes have henna designs painted onto their heads, and pregnant women in the West have been known to paint their stomachs. Celebrities such as Madonna have also proudly worn henna artwork in public.
Henna As Cultural Appropriation
One of the main reasons why your henna tattoo may be a form of cultural appropriation is if it has any marriage designs or religious symbols which you do not understand and which do not apply to you.
Working with a henna artist who comes from a culture which histirocially uses henna is a great way to avoid this, and you can come together to share ideas and create a design in which represents you as a person.
Historically, henna has also been used as something to relieve illnesses and ailments, such as ringworm, jaundice, dull hair, and cracked nails, along with being a beauty product. Understanding this and the cultures in which henna stems is important in not appropriating.
Henna Freckles as Cultural Appropriation
One current TikTok trend shows people using henna dye to draw semipermanent freckles onto their faces.
Many of the top creators are Caucasian, using henna with very little knowledge of how to apply it and the dangers of bad henna.
Many South Asian creators on TikTok have spoken out about the freckle trend, due to the fact that it promotes the Eurocentric beauty standards to both misuse henna and ignore its cultural value.
Along with that, the followers of the TikTok trend rarely give credit to the original cultures which use henna or even listen to those who use it; for example, within these cultures, it is common knowledge to not use henna on the face due to how sensitive the skin is and how it can cause irritation.
Henna As Cultural Appreciation
Henna is most commonly used as a form of cultural appreciation (not appropriation), and as a way to bring unity between cultures.
Many people in the West appreciate the art style and where it stems, and this is a great way to bring people around the world together.
By promoting traditional art styles such as henna and supporting the cultures in which they originate, we can begin to reduce fear and prejudice against other communities. When done respectfully, henna is a great way to showcase your love for Egyptian or Indian art, and the people who make it so great.
The Dangers of Henna
When henna is done with ignorance and a lack of wanting to understand, it can be dangerous in more ways than just one.
For example, henna is traditionally made by crushing the henna plant into a powder which is then left in water overnight, resulting in either a vibrant deep green or slightly brown paste. However, many boxes of henna bought from supermarket shelves are created by adding a mix of chemicals to the paste.
Some companies use dangerous chemicals such as P-Phenylenediamine (PPD) to boost the color of the dye and make the patterns stand out a little better. However, this is one of the worst chemicals to be used on skin and can cause blisters and severe allergic reactions.
This is something which can be avoided by doing your own research and going to traditional henna artists to get the artwork applied properly.
Whilst many things are considered to be cultural appropriation, henna is typically not in this category.
Henna is a paste which can be applied to the body to beautify it, and has very little religious or cultural significance. Saying that, it is important to acknowledge the cultures which first used henna in order to better appreciate it.
Working with a henna artist who knows and understands these origins is imperative in making sure that you are partaking in cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]