In recent years, the obsession with body jewellery has re-emerged, especially during the pandemic. However, do we know the history behind these pieces of jewellery and do we need to consider if we are undertaking a form of cultural appropriation?
Recently, there has been an increase in people wearing body jewellery especially since restrictions have started to lift and we are able to show off new outfits in bars, restaurants and clubs. It has become normal to see young people wearing six crystal rings on each hand alongside people wearing beach shell anklets and body chains around their waist.
By traditional definition, body jewellery refers to “any adornment placed through and attached to a body part, e.g., belly or nipple rings, nose studs, or tongue bars.”
If we do a quick Google search of ‘body jewellery’, popular online retailers such as ASOS and SHEIN flood our browsers with links and pictures of not only piercings in their jewellery department for us to purchase but also waist beads/chains, anklets and complete body chains.
However, where the problem lies is that whilst these accessories appear to be fashionable and a part of a new popular trend, we need to be considering the issue of cultural appropriation. It is easy for us to become susceptible to these problematic trends, especially when online retailers are purposely increasing their stock with new and favourable jewellery pieces to reel us in alongside posing celebrities who are constantly promoting new looks and have a great amount of influence upon younger people. One example of this was Kylie Jenner, who was seen wearing a waist chain in August 2020. As a result, this has led to us being unaware of damage we may be doing to communities and cultures, especially when we are ignorant and naive about what we are wearing.
Cultural appropriation is often defined as “taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions and artefacts, history and ways of knowledge”
Cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?
The question we all need to consider is whether we are culturally appropriating by wearing these different variations of body jewellery or whether we are appreciating culture. Whilst this ultimately comes down to subjectivity of the individual – by knowing the history of where these items originate from – it helps gather an understanding of whether we should or shouldn’t be wearing these pieces of jewellery.
Waist beads and chains
There has been an increase in jewellery being worn around the waist and are often in the form of threaded strings, small beads or a hooped chain. This has become controversial as waist beads originated from West Africa and have been worn for many years. The beads hold significance as they symbolise femininity, fertility and sensuality. It can be argued that the West have now appropriated this culture as we have invented our own labels to refer to the Waist beads such as ‘Belly beads’ or ‘beaded waist chains’ and moreover we now use them as an aesthetic rather than recognising their cultural significance to West Africa.
For some in the West African community, they have deemed it as disrespectful and inappropriate whereas for others, they believe that even if you are not from African origin, it is unnecessary to wear the waist beads for traditional use. The company RoyalWaistbeads, who specialise in handcrafted waist beads, deemed that the wearing of waist beads by everyone was not cultural appropriation but rather cultural appreciation as it allowed for the celebration of “the historical culture of African waist beads while giving a greater audience the chance to learn about its origins, adopt this form of body adornment, and make it their own!”
It is safe to say we have all probably considered getting a nose ring in the last few months – including myself! Whilst nose piercings have been popular for years, when I came to university this year nearly more than half of the people I saw had a nose ring or stud. However, before deciding to get one, ask yourself: do you know the origin and history of nose rings?
Despite nose rings not originating within India, they have become a very important and significant piece of jewellery for many women. It is claimed that nose rings were brought to India from the Moghul emperors in the Middle East in the 16th century. Around the age of 16, many Indian girls, and in particular Hindus, pierce their left nostril (although it can be on the right nostril or septum) and insert a ring. Around this age, girls are considered to be at the appropriate age to marry and as a result, nose rings have been associated with marriage.
For Hindus, nose piercings are considered to be an act of honour towards the God of Marriage, Parvathi. Moreover, there are several different nose rings depending on the regions of India; Shikarpuri Nath is the most popular Indian bridal nose ring which is often an oversized hoop with a connecting chain decorated with pendants. This differs from Nathuri, which is also used by brides, but is a smaller ring and is worn by women everyday – which presumably we have adopted in the West!
The issue then arises over whether the wearing of nose rings should be deemed as cultural appropriation. This is because we have adopted this practice for aesthetic purposes only and has now become the ‘norm’ in Western culture. Similarly to the waist beads, for some Asian women, they have been judged, discriminated against and stared at for wearing such features and find it problematic that it is now being commercialised as a trendy piece of body jewellery that can be worn by anyone – especially since there is a lack of acknowledgement of body jewellery’s history and cultural significance. Oppositely, other Asian women view it more as a positive change and an expansion of cultures.
Overall, it is safe to say it is a very complex issue that has many viewpoints and factors contributing to it. The rise of body jewellery has allowed us to become more expressive and develop a sense of individuality due to the vast selection of jewellery we have, alongside the positive responses we receive from wearing certain pieces. Nonetheless, although it may seem ‘trendy’ to try out these new looks, it is important that we are not ignorant or devoid of the culture and history behind some of these pieces of body jewellery.
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