scorecardSouth Asian creators explain why a trend among white TikTokers to give themselves 'henna freckles' is so offensive
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South Asian creators explain why a trend among white TikTokers to give themselves 'henna freckles' is so offensive

Charissa Cheong   

South Asian creators explain why a trend among white TikTokers to give themselves 'henna freckles' is so offensive
LifeThelife7 min read
  • "Henna freckles" is a popular TikTok trend where people use the dye to draw dots on their faces.
  • Some South Asian creators, for whom henna is a cultural symbol, say the trend is appropriative.

Henna is a plant-based dye that many cultures across several continents have used as a form of body art for millennia. But over the past two years, a seemingly new use for henna has blown up on TikTok, where people use it to draw semipermanent freckles on their faces.

The trend follows other popular fads like henna tattoos and white henna. On TikTok, the #hennafreckles hashtag has 159 million views and the #henna hashtag has 6.6 billion views, with many of the top-liked videos showing creators, most of whom are white, using henna to paint freckles on their faces.

@adelafig they are literally so cute and look like my freckles in the summer @thehennaplug :) #thehennaplug #hennafreckles #henna ♬ Alex G treehouse - eve

Some South Asian creators on the app have spoken out against the trend, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. While various Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures use henna, creators belonging to these cultures argue the trend pushes white, Eurocentric beauty standards that misuse henna and ignore its cultural value.

More broadly, some South Asian creators and experts told Insider the trend reinforces a structure of racism that has developed on social media, saying they feel ignored by apps that platform white creators who do not give credit for ideas for content or trends that people of color originally introduced.

Some creators say the trend misuses henna, a product with deep cultural significance

@tomasitobaby how would they know? #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #henna ♬ how would they know bad girls club - Chris Gleason

In January, a 20-year-old Australian-Indian student, Jasmine Diviney, said she saw a TikTok video, which has since been deleted, of "henna freckles" gone wrong, where the white creator warned her audience to do a patch test when trying the trend because her freckles ended up looking too large and she could not wipe them off.

Diviney posted a response to the video and wrote a caption that read, "Indians have been telling y'all not to use henna like this since day one but I guess y'all wanna learn the hard way." She told Insider that in India, where she's currently living, it's "common knowledge" not to use henna on the face because of how sensitive the skin is.

The creator of the original TikTok did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

@jazzmined #duet with @jennylrr Like what were you expecting? #mehndi #henna #hennatutorial #hennafreckles #desitiktok ♬ Oh No - Kreepa

Dermatologists warn that "henna freckles" can cause skin irritation, and recommend using natural henna dyes instead of products with chemicals and preservatives, according to the beauty magazine Allure.

Diviney's TikTok now has 970,000 views and sparked a debate in the comments, where some viewers accused her of trying to "claim" ownership of henna and exclude others from using it.

"Indians are not just gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping," Diviney told Insider. "We are genuinely trying to help you by showing you how to use it in the appropriate way."

Diviney described henna freckles as "cultural appropriation," which is when someone uses or adopts a practice from a different culture, often without showing proper respect for that culture.

According to St. Thomas University in Canada, henna, known as mehndi in Hindi and Urdu, is traditionally applied to the hands and feet, normally at celebrations and weddings in South Asian communities. Middle Eastern and African cultures also use it to dye hair, nails, and fabrics.

Lakshmi Nair, an 18-year-old Indian woman who was born in Canada, also spoke out against henna freckles on TikTok. She told Insider she believes when people participate in trends that use henna "incorrectly," it "discredits" the significance of her culture and the way the product is typically used.

The trend also promotes Eurocentric beauty standards, the creators said

Ome Khan, a 30-year-old Pakistani-American who also criticized henna freckles on TikTok, told Insider that as a child, other kids would often mock her for wearing henna to school by calling her names like "poop hands" and "poop feet."

She told Insider that white creators who "just want freckles" are the ones mainly taking part in the trend, and she said this feels problematic to her because "I don't know a lot of brown people who have freckles."

Anyone can have freckles, but people with lighter skin are more likely than people with darker skin to have them. Khan told Insider that she feels the trend promotes "Eurocentric" beauty standards and prioritizes freckles over more typical South Asian features.

Lawyer and anti-racism activist Kudrat Dutta Chaudhary told Insider it is understandable that South Asian women feel this way about the trend, but also said it's important to note that some people of color, such as people from Latin American communities, have spoken out about being bullied for having freckles as children.

Experts say when white creators benefit from beauty trends like this, they become even more harmful

Khan and Nair, who both said they've been mocked for wearing henna, said the trend implies that South Asian culture is only "cool" when white creators show an interest in it, and they pointed to yoga and chai as other examples of how their culture has been "whitewashed" and reduced to "fads" and "trends."

Chaudhary told Insider these comparisons are linked to a "colonial hangover." She said that the notion that white people were intellectually and culturally superior to people of color — reinforced when India was a colony of the British Empire, before it gained its independence in 1947 and established its constitution in 1950 — still persists against marginalized communities today.

One consequence of this is that skin-whitening products, which are largely thought to promote Eurocentric beauty ideals, are still popular in India.

"Growing up in India, I noticed that any product that was endorsed by a white face was always seen as more legitimate. It makes sense then that these trends are often started by white people, and why henna isn't seen as 'cool' when a brown person wears it," Chaudhary said.

Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis in California, told Insider that while cultures borrow from each other all the time, particularly in fashion, it's still important to consider who is profiting from these trends.

"I think one has to challenge this debate and push it further by talking about things like who is making money from this, and who is getting left out, because those are the things that are harming people," she said.

Lekha Nettem, a 20-year-old South Asian TikToker who decided to try henna freckles despite the controversy surrounding the trend, told Insider she feels that as long as people buy their henna from women of color, for example at their local Indian market, they "keep her culture alive" and "stay more connected to the root of the cultural practice."

@saddesigirl HENNA FRECKLESSSS (come back later to see the results I promise I’ll post them in a timely manner ) #henna ♬ original sound - Lekha

However, Davina Rajoopillai, a marketing and advertising expert who cofounded Badlands, a company focused on diversity in television and social media, said that even if trends like this boost sales for products like henna, South Asian businesses should gain credit and equity on top of the profit.

To achieve this, white creators would need to credit and promote these businesses for them to truly benefit, Rajoopillai told Insider, adding that TikTok should also make an effort to promote South Asian businesses, in the same way that Instagram recently added new tags to help Black businesses receive more credit on the app. TikTok did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment.

Like Maira, Rajoopillai said these trends point to broader issues of inequality in the beauty industry, because South Asian women have had to "work hard at being represented." When white creators go viral for trends around South Asian products, it serves as a reminder of the "slow progress that has been made in recent years," she said.

South Asian creators say that by speaking out, they hope to find productive solutions to issues of appropriation

Khan and Nair told Insider they don't want to "cancel" people or "tell people what to do with their lives," but said they want people to become more "educated" about South Asian history by making an active effort to learn about the region's cultural practices.

Khan suggested that if TikTok creators still want to try the trend, she would like to see them acknowledging and "telling the cultural story behind henna" as they're doing it.

For more stories like this, check out coverage from Insider's Digital Culture team here.