It’s early, the sun not yet high enough to pierce the LA skyline, when Kat gets up to meditate. She spends half an hour cross-legged on a low wooden stool—yoga mats are harder to get up from at her age, she jokes—and then gets ready for the day. As she’s finishing up her makeup with setting powder, she chooses a clear crystal bindi from her collection and carefully sticks it on.
“It centers me. I know I’m gonna be rushing through the day, so this is a reminder of the peace I achieved in the morning.”
When asked if she associates the bindi with Hinduism, she pauses.
“Not really. I know Hindu women wear them, but so do a lot of Indian women I know who are like, Catholic or something. So it’s more of an accessory now.”
“Do you think of it as an accessory?”
“I think of it the way Christians wear the crucifix. So…a reminder of what you believe in. Or a guide, really. For me, it’s this inner peace, like you’re very aware of yourself, very accepting. I don’t really do religion but meditation has changed my life. And this helps me remember that.”
Someone like Kat, drawn to the bindi for their own reasons—sometimes spiritual, sometimes not—might not think of their choice of body jewelry as particularly controversial. But consider the debate that has attended Coldplay’s recently-released video, set in an idealized, eroticized India. As Chris Martin twirls his way through the streets of Mumbai, a Bollywood-style Beyoncé makes an appearance, wearing goddess garb and adorned with an elaborate gunmetal bindi. And while Bey is barely the first Western celebrity to don a bindi, or Coldplay the first English artists to use India as an exotic backdrop, the backlash from the Indian community was fierce.
Breanna grew up in an atheist household in San Francisco, but lately she’s been searching for something more.
“I’m in a physics program right now, and the more advanced you get in this stuff, the more you have to just shrug and admit you don’t know. So I started casting out for something to follow, something that gave you more of an answer than ‘probably entropy,’ feel me?”
She attended a Universalist church for a while, drawn by the gospel choir, and then tried hatha yoga on a whim when Groupon offered a deal. There, she was invited to a local New Age service, a mix of meditation and discussion centered on the Puranas and Vedas of Hinduism.
“And I was so nervous, like, will I be the only white girl there? But I went and was so surprised, there were people from all over. Lord Krishna’s plan includes everyone, even people caught in the middle like me. And I’m fine existing in that gray area, I’m happy.”
We finally get to how and why she started wearing the bindi.
“It just seemed right,” she says simply. “Most people wear something that tells you what they’re about. Like a yarmulke, or a Lakers jersey. So I wear the third eye to symbolize how Hinduism has influenced me, and how the mind is our source and center.”
This is where Reclaim the Bindi comes in. The social media movement started as a direct counter to the fact that the bindi tag was dominated by non-South Asians wearing the bindi purely as a fashion statement. The aim was both to educate people on the bindi’s significance and to reassert cultural ownership. Participants can submit selfies or tag their pictures with #reclaimthebindi to take part. Reclaim the Bindi is active on Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Twitter, and has recently launched a zine and an online store benefiting women’s empowerment in West Bengal.
— soniya ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ (@SoniyaaaTweets) January 23, 2016
Kyra splits her time between the U.S. and her parents’ home in Ambala, India. When she’s in the West, she’s used to trading in her salwar khameez and bindi for jeans and a beanie to blend in. But now she’s shocked to see the bindi as street fashion.
“It’s offensive,” she says bluntly. “They’re not Hindu, they’re not even South Asian, they have no excuse.”
“Most Westerners who appropriate the bindi do it for fashion. I’ve seen a few do it for spiritual reasons though, and in my opinion they’re just as bad. Either way, you’re taking something that’s not yours and changing the meaning. How much more selfish can you get?”
Hera—whose signature look includes long skirts, red lipstick, and a traditional bindi hand-drawn with vermilion powder—said she got “a lot of funny stares” because of her bindi when she was younger. Now, bindis are available at Forever 21 and Claire’s.
“Obviously this ties into the history of fetishization and exploitation of Desi culture, the history of orientalism under the guise of social liberalism and worldliness. But the short version is this: it’s not theirs, and they can’t have it. It’s not for sale, but you can’t expect Westerners to understand that.”
“What would you say to those that wear bindis for religious reasons? Sacred in the holy sense,” I ask.
“Well, if they’re Hindu, great. But I get the sense that you’re asking me more about white girls in yoga pants with books like ‘The Tao of Starbucks,’ aren’t you?”
I nod reluctantly, and she looks resigned.
“Well then I would say that that’s not religion, that’s racism under another name. I don’t care how awakened they’ve become, if their religion depends on stripping elements off other cultures for them to coo over and feel exotic, then that’s orientalism. I can’t take time off work for Gowri Habba and Ganesh Chaturthi because my boss thinks us Hindus have too many holidays. I can’t bring in a homemade lunch without getting stares. I can’t go to a company dinner in a sari even if it’s designer.”
I’m showing Kat the #bindi tag on Instagram.
“Now that’s just tacky,” she points at a girl with a crescent moon-shaped bindi. She’s tagged her selfie with #wiccan and #satanschild, among other things.
“Wiccans work really hard to fight the assumption that they’re Satanists just because they practice witchcraft,” she explains. “Then girls like this play dress-up and set the whole religion back a step.”
This seems like an auspicious moment to ask if she’s ever heard of Reclaim the Bindi. She has not. I show her the Instagram page, which includes the tagline: “Dark is lovely and the bindi isn’t indie.” We scroll through the pictures.
“So they don’t want anyone else wearing the bindi?” her eyebrows arch, voice lilting. “I don’t know, seems kind of racist to me.”
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals interviewed in this article.