How the Beauty Industry Fuels Anti-Asian Racism — Beyond Cultural Appropriation
Want to Stop Asian Hate? Start respecting Eastern Medicine.
I had a different newsletter ready to publish Wednesday morning. But when I read about the six Asian women who were murdered by a white supremacist domestic terrorist in an Atlanta-area shooting spree the night before — after a year of escalating anti-Asian hate crimes across the country — I decided to scrap that and attempt to address anti-Asian racism within the beauty and wellness industries instead. This is a very, very long article that I had planned to write in the future, but the conversation needs to happen now.
This is not an article about cultural appropriation.
That’s been talked about a lot lately — who gets to profit off of Traditional Chinese Medicine practices like gua sha, the ethics of “modernizing” Ayurvedic tools like dry brushes. That’s great. These talks need to be had.
But the people and platforms publishing these pieces are, for the most part, the same people and platforms that regularly dismiss, discredit, and demonize Asian culture — and addressing cultural appropriation won’t do much to help the AAPI community if the root issue isn’t addressed, too.
I’m talking about the colonizer mindset that’s embedded in the beauty industry.
The colonizer mindset is “a way of thinking, valuing, feeling, and behaving that reflects a norm of Euro-white dominance over non-white, subordinated peoples.” (It’s important to note that not all Asian countries were colonized by the West, but the “colonizer mindset” of white supremacy affects Asians in America nonetheless, sometimes through colonial mentality, or “the internalized attitude of ethnic or cultural inferiority felt by people as a result of colonization,” which has been particularly studied in Filipino and Indian communities.)
This is the mindset that glorifies Western medicine and vilifies Eastern medicine.
It’s the mindset that consistently presents Eastern healing systems as weird, “woo-woo,” and worse.
It’s the typical ~sassy~ women’s media tone; the one that raises an inquisitive (read: condescending) eyebrow at Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
It’s the implied eye roll that tells readers these ancient, sacred techniques — herbal remedies, crystal-carved tools, natural ingredients, facial massage, mindfulness — don’t really work.
It’s the framing of Western medicine as the only medicine. It’s the framing of Eastern medicine as “alternative,” anti-science, and untrustworthy (despite the fact that Eastern healing systems have supported the wellbeing of Asian communities for centuries).
It’s the tendency to under-research Eastern beauty and wellness practices and present incomplete information with a sneer, as if rejecting Eastern wisdom makes one smarter. (It does not. It does, however, make you racially ignorant and insensitive.)
It’s “reporting” on Eastern medicine by interviewing Western medicine experts and accepting their dismissive opinions on modalities that they have never studied as truth.
All of the above contribute to the “othering” of Asians in America.
All of the above present Eastern/Asian beliefs as inferior to Western/white beliefs.
All of the above subtly or not-so-subtly contribute to the kind of anti-Asian racism that allows for events like Tuesday’s racially-motivated massacre.
Obviously, all of the above also contribute to more casual acts of racial injustice, like cultural appropriation in the beauty and wellness spaces — but again, the industry cannot effectively address the cultural appropriation of Eastern medicine until it addresses its own role in creating the conditions that locked people of color out of the industry and allowed white founders to take over.
We — and by “we,” I mean all of us in the beauty industry; reporters, editors, founders, marketers, social media influencers, consumers — have to ask ourselves the hard questions: How have we made it easier for white founders to launch companies based on Eastern practices than for Asian founders to do so? (In Estée Laudry’s post about the cultural appropriation of gua sha, it originally tagged only four Asian-owned gua sha brands. Four. I can name 15 white-owned companies that carry gua sha crystals off the top of my head. Why is that? How have I contributed to that?) How has positioning the Western perspective as truth and everything else as bullshit pushed people from other cultural backgrounds out of the beauty space? How have we created an inhospitable environment for Asian-owned brands and businesses? How have we made Eastern practices sound stupid? How have we given more credence, capital, and visibility to the white women who claim to “elevate” the philosophy of Eastern medicine than the Asian women who live it?
The trope of the “white woman wellness founder appropriating ancient Eastern knowledge” did not happen in a silo.
Through its constant “othering” of Eastern medicine and Eastern spirituality — dismissing, discrediting, demonizing — beauty media helped make white women seem like more palatable brand founders and practitioners. It made them the faces of Eastern medicine. It carried a watered-down, soulless, consumerist, capitalist, colonized version of Eastern medicine into mainstream beauty culture — and then weaponized that watered-down, soulless, consumerist, capitalist, colonized version of Eastern medicine against actual Eastern medicine practitioners.
It continues to weaponize that colonial point of view today, and in doing so, continues to perpetuate institutionalized anti-Asian racism.
In this way, Eastern culture is attacked from every angle. On one side, it’s “appreciated” but appropriated. On the other, it’s discredited and demonized. Both serve to systematically disconnect the community from its culture and beliefs — a tactic of imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. (This is not to say that all Asians practice or even believe in Eastern medicine, but rather, that the systematic undermining of traditional Asian practices impacts all Asians.)
Much of the undermining of Asian culture in the beauty industry may not be intentional. I’d go so far as to say that most of it is unintentional. It is ingrained in us; a predictable side effect of existing within white supremacy.
What is intentional is not addressing those ingrained biases as soon as we’re made aware of them.
That starts with listening to the experiences of the Asian community and unlearning all we think we “know” about Eastern medicine.
“Growing up in Taiwan, in terms of medicine and wellness, I actually only went to a Western doctor twice,” Gloria Yang, the founder of LA-based beauty and wellness public relations firm Glow Yang PR, tells The Unpublishable. “When we were sick, we had herbal remedies. That was my medicine growing up, as well as gua sha. In Western beauty, gua sha is for skin — but I still remember when we had a cold or a fever, my grandmother just took a ceramic spoon and would gua sha the back of my neck to reduce fever. My family still is very big on Traditional Chinese Medicine.”
TCM isn’t “alternative” to Yang; it’s the norm. “To me, going to a Western hospital [when I moved to the States], that was different. It was completely wild.”
As someone who’s been practicing TCM for most of her life, the PR expert has mixed feelings about the philosophy’s sudden turn in the spotlight of the Western beauty and wellness space. She’s happy it’s receiving recognition, but wary of how it’s being presented.
“If you look at all the brands that use TCM and Ayurvedic ingredients — [the founders] are white, they’re sourcing and selling all these tinctures because it’s a trend,” Yang says. “First of all, you shouldn’t be taking all of these herbs willy-nilly. They can be good for you, but not for everyone. You may have an underlying issue that may be exacerbated. It’s getting out of control.” In the actual practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine, these potential contraindications are taken into account. In the Western media’s retelling of TCM, they typically are not, which contributes to the idea that Eastern medicine is “unscientific” or “unsafe.”
To avoid this kind of misinformation, Yang insists that “there has to be attribution to the culture” in reporting. “When you’re looking for expert resources, go to somebody who’s from that cultural background.” (Which is not to dismiss all practitioners who are not directly descended from these cultures, she clarifies. Credible information can be sourced from those trained in the traditional methods, as well, whether they’re Asian or not.) “Information should come from someone who truly values it,” Yang says.
Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic chemist who’s worked with Estée Lauder and Neutrogena, grew up practicing Ayurveda in India. She brings that perspective into her work today. “When I first came [to the United States] in 2008, there were so many people who weren't open to the idea of Ayurveda. It was witchcraft,” she tells The Unpublishable.
Today, “I think it’s both [exciting and frustrating] to see Ayurveda become popular in the West,” she continues. “At some level, I am very proud of my heritage and I'm proud we already knew things — we've already been using fermented ingredients, we’ve already known about turmeric. I'm very proud of my heritage and I'm glad that people are appreciating it the way they are now. But there are cases where they'll butcher it, and that's not great to see. There is so much misinformation out there and the meaning [of Ayurveda] gets lost.”
It’s more than lost meaning, though. It’s lost culture.
“When you don't understand, you're just going to picture this culture of people going ‘crazy’ and worshiping cows,” Koestline elaborates. “I've been lucky enough to talk personally to those people who say that and say, ‘Well do you know why? Do you know where that came from?’ We're not just stupid people who worshipped cows. In India, you first always feed your cow and then you feed your family, because the cow provides for your family. The cow gives you so much. She gives you her milk. You use her dung to build houses. You use her urine in medicine. And when she dies you have her hide. She provides so much to you; that's why you consider her as good as God. And when I say why, they have such a bigger understanding.”
“The same thing exists [in beauty],” says the cosmetic chemist. “If you don't understand its origin, you don't know it.”
Language adds another layer to the misunderstanding and mishandling of ancient Asian healing modalities.
“Ayurveda is written in Sanskrit, and ‘detox’ is maybe the worst word to use for [some of its practices], but we are left with the English language, and ‘detox’ is the word that comes closest to the idea,” Shrankhla Holecek, the Indian founder of Ayurvedic beauty brand UMA Oils, tells The Unpublishable. “Then it suffers with the semantics of what that world has come to mean in the modern world.”
In other words, Eastern science gets translated into Western words, and we hold it to the standard of that Western translation, and then we call bullshit because it doesn’t fit the Western definitions of those words.
“Ayurveda detoxes are not Western detoxes — juice cleanses and all of that,” Holecek says. “Ayurveda detoxes are a natural way to disseminate what doesn’t serve your body. For instance, take the process of tongue cleaning: Tongue cleaning is the idea that undigested juices coat your tongue and if you don’t get rid of that, you don’t taste your food well. If you don’t taste your food well, one, your stomach can’t really alert you when you are full, and two, taste is the most important trigger of digestive juices in the body. So if you don’t taste your food well, your body won’t digest it well. It makes sense when you think about it — saliva helps break down things, and if you aren’t salivating properly, maybe you aren’t creating enough digestive juices that will help your body break down stuff as it goes down your body. It makes a lot of logical sense that there is a ‘detox’ such as this.”
That entire chain of digestive events has been corroborated by Western medicine, by the way, though that hasn’t kept the Ayurvedic practice from being held hostage by the Western definition of “detox.” Of course a Western medicine expert is going to refute that claim that tongue scraping is a form of “detox,” because you’re not literally scraping life-threatening toxins off of your tongue. However, if you explain it in the Ayurvedic way — that tongue cleaning heightens the sensation of taste, which increases production of saliva, which kickstarts digestion, which is how the body extracts beneficial nutrients from food and discards the toxic byproducts of the digestive process as waste via the intestines and colon — then it is, in a sense, detoxification.
There are many, many examples of this almost willful Western ignorance toward Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Pacific Islander traditions, and the danger goes far beyond “detox.”
The media’s insistence on (mis)interpreting Eastern medicine has led to the latest iteration of anti-Asian bias in beauty and wellness: The coverage of “wellness influencers” as Q-Anon conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxx advocates, a popular but frankly under-examined claim — one that presents Eastern or “traditional” medicine through a white, colonial lens then blames it for the viral spread of Covid misinformation.
Take, for example, the egregious and irresponsible display of systemic racism in Harper’s Bazaar’s recent article, “The Virus, the Vaccine, and the Dark Side of Wellness.”
The intro is presented here in full. (Emphasis mine.)
You could say it began with a smoothie. In the summer of 2018, Jordan Younger, otherwise known as @thebalancedblonde (228,000 followers on Instagram), posted a “big anti-inflammatory cinnamon spirulina smoothie bowl” on her popular account. Pea-soup green and sprinkled with cinnamon, it beckoned to Caroline*, a 29-year-old PR representative based in Los Angeles, from her Popular page like a beacon of good health. Maybe this was the answer to the mysterious stomach ailments that had plagued her for years. “Her profile was like, ‘I tried eating this way, and it cured my lifelong stomach problems!’,” recalled Caroline. @thebalancedblonde’s perspective on traditional medicine—that it often overlooked root causes in favor of quick fixes and overmedication—resonated.
But after a while Caroline started to notice that, in between dreamy shots of Younger’s Brentwood kitchen and photogenic, plant-based recipes, she began promoting alternative healing methods, like water fasting. Caroline found them “a bit too out-there.” When the pandemic hit, Younger made her stance on vaccines plain: In an October 2020 podcast she proclaimed that she would not “personally” be getting a Covid-19 vaccine. “I have some really strong opinions about [vaccines]—perhaps I will bring on my holistic doctor to talk about that soon and our thoughts on diseases that are caused by vaccines in this country,” she said. “[It’s] very, very corrupt.” For Caroline, this went too far. She began to question all the advice the influencer had given over the years. “While I’m into functional, Eastern medicine, I think it’s dangerous to ignore science,” she said.
This is racism. This is colonialism. This is white supremacy at work.
White supremacy is the white influencer peddling Eastern medicine without fully knowing or acknowledging its roots, its tenets, and the science behind its practices.
White supremacy is the (assumed) white follower accepting the white influencer’s definition of Eastern medicine and doing no further research on its roots, its tenets, and the science behind its practices.
White supremacy is the journalist and media publication giving a semi-anonymous 29-year-old PR representative a platform to espouse a personal and completely uninformed opinion on Eastern medicine.
White supremacy is allowing said random woman, who ostensibly has zero training in Western or Eastern medicine and seems to have gleaned all of her information about traditional medicine from a white Instagram influencer known as @thebalanacedblonde, to position Eastern medicine as anti-science in an international publication that reaches millions of people.
White supremacy is linking Eastern medicine to one individual white woman’s anti-vaxx ideology — when the entire concept of vaccines originated in the East. “Smallpox was the first disease people tried to prevent by intentionally inoculating themselves with infected matter,” according to research from the Smithsonian National Museum. “Inoculation originated in India or China some time before 200 BC.”
White supremacy is using Eastern medicine as an introductory scapegoat for what is ultimately an exposé on three white/white-passing women — Jordan Younger of @thebalancedblonde, Dr. Christine Northrup, and Jen Stoeckert of @minimalbeauty — with zero elaboration or input from Eastern medicine practitioners from that cultural background.
White supremacy is inexplicably using imagery of spiritual tools from Eastern and Indigenous cultures — sage, amethyst, jade — to accompany an exposé on three white women in “wellness.”
White supremacy is women’s media platforms insisting on positioning “wellness” influencers as the primary spreaders of Q-Anon and anti-vaxx theories (and again, overtly or covertly positioning those white wellness influencers as Eastern medicine experts when, in reality, they are largely uninformed white women who’ve appropriated and butchered Eastern medicine to the point that it is no longer recognizable as Eastern medicine, which perpetuates the devaluation and demonization of this ancient and actually highly scientific healing system) without acknowledging the evangelical Christians and the far right base who are actually at the core of Q-Anon.
Don’t get me wrong: Yes, the holistic sector of the beauty and wellness industries harbors Q-Anon or Q-Adjacent individuals. Q-Anon or Q-Adjacent individuals can be found in every industry. They can be found in our own families. They can be found on the right and the left. There is a way to report on this without implicating Eastern medicine. Subtly implicating Eastern medicine (as practiced by white women) in the rise of Q-Anon conspiracy theories *while not mentioning the far more foundational roles of evangelical Christians and the far-right* is a convenient way to seem “woke” while protecting existing political and economic structures. It’s white supremacy on top of white supremacy topped off with a heaping helping of white supremacy.
This Harper’s Bazaar article is a prime example of structural white supremacy undermining surface-level “wokeness.”
For all of the industry’s recent talk of cultural appropriation and structural racism, the continuous vilification of the ancient, ancestral knowledge passed down from Eastern, African, and Indigenous cultures has not yet been acknowledged as a manifestation of racism by any mainstream, Western publications. (At least, not the time of writing.)
Why is that?
For one, it’s much easier to point out surface-level manifestations of structural racism than to examine the deeply-embedded beliefs that eventually give rise to these surface-level manifestations. It stems from a place of defense; the false belief that if we’re pointing at the bad guys, we can’t also be the bad guys. But mostly, as I’ve written time and time again, it’s because the beauty industry was built on a foundation of patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism — all of which require a constant and unrelenting undermining of the “other” to exist.
The industry’s recent pivot to perceived “wokeness” does not change that. It reinforces that.
A certain sense of “wokeness” is all but required in order for any kind of business — whether product-based, media-based, or service-based — to thrive in the West at this point in time. Surface-level “wokeness,” then, now props up capitalism and its fraternal twin, colonialism. Surface-level “wokeness” is a strategic effort that allows more insidious structural racism to go unchecked.
“These days, high-profile companies will support just about any social movement if they think that doing so will be good for their bottom line. Neoliberalism prioritizes profit above any kind of morality,” writes James Grieg in a Vice article titled “Free-Market Capitalism Is at the Root of So Many Conspiracy Theories,” an overview of Marcus Gilroy-Ware’s After The Fact: The Truth About Fake News. “[A] key argument in After the Fact is the idea that capitalism’s co-opting of social justice movements (think brands posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity with Black Lives Matter) can help fuel conspiracism, as well as the racism and misogyny which often play a role in conspiratorial thinking.”
After all, white supremacy and ethical capitalism are the ultimate conspiracies.
The ever-present bias toward the Western way is so ingrained within the industry and within ourselves that we don’t even see it as bias. We see it as truth. I’m sure there are people reading this now thinking, “But Eastern medicine isn’t valid or scientific! Advocating for the inclusion of Eastern medicine in mainstream media is anti-science and irresponsible!” And that is the definition of internalized white supremacy — the unshakeable sense that your beliefs are better/smarter/truer/more valuable than the beliefs of others.
They are not.
“For many, from whatever perspective Western Medicine has been viewed, it has been accepted that ‘our’ medicine was the real and only ‘sound’ medicine to practice,” Dr. Robert Grosz writes in The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. “However, there are some concerns with this thinking. Isn’t it possible that the ancient medicines that have been practiced for thousands and thousands of years might have something to offer us? Indian medicine can be traced back 10,000 years, traditional Chinese medicine has existed almost as long, and records of Egyptian medicine show similar long-standing interpretations. For example, how long did we look down our noses at the practice of acupuncture before we finally recognized an acceptable use for this practice? Today we see more and more contemporary clinicians going back to school for training in acupuncture so they may incorporate it into their practices.” (Acupuncture is also covered by a large portion of health insurance providers now.)
“When we look at TCM or the Traditional Indian (Near-eastern) Medicine, we see that they recognized how close a healthy mind/spirit was to a healthy physical condition and how closely related an unhealthy body was to a disturbed mind/spirit,” Dr. Grosz continues. “More and more, during the past half century, we see a closer recognition of the mind, behavior, and the many ways that behavior affects the physical self, and vice-versa. Aren’t we becoming more and more concerned with including the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in the training and practicing of our clinicians?”
The beauty industry alone provides endless examples of ancient wisdom validated by modern science: fermentation (probiotics), adaptogenic herbs (the “‘shroom boom”), and the skin-mind relationship (psychodermatology), to name a few.
To write off Eastern medicine as being “unscientific” or “not backed by data,” then, is not only prejudiced, but lazy. (Did you look? Actually look? Or did you just accept that it must be “unscientific” and “not backed by data” because that’s the message the media relays? Because that’s what you’ve heard from Western medicine practitioners who are not trained in the practice and analysis of Eastern modalities and do not know enough to comment on them?)
As I wrote for Coveteur at the beginning of the pandemic, there’s plenty of Western-minded data to validate the efficacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (Not that we should need Western-minded data to validate the existence of a system that’s supported the Asian community for multiple millennia.)
A recent review of SARS-CoV patients concluded that, although more research is needed, “TCM, used together with conventional treatment, had some positive effects, including better control of fever and quicker clearance of chest infection and other symptoms.”
The South China Morning Post reports that 87 percent of China’s COVID-19 patients “were given traditional medicines” alongside “mainstream antiviral drugs,” and 92 percent of those patients showed “significant” improvement. “Traditional Chinese Medicine has played an active role in improving the recovery rate and lowering the mortality rate among patients,” Gao Xiaojun, a spokesman for the Beijing Health Commission, told the Post. CNN reports that the rate of recovery for patients with mild symptoms who received TCM treatment was 33 percent higher than for those who did not.
What’s more, “the WHO recognizes Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine as effective for over 43 conditions,” Ahn says.
Still, in the case of Covid — as in the case of Eastern-inspired beauty and wellness in general — the Asian community gets hit with anti-Asian racism from both sides. It’s either “the China virus” or “Eastern medicine is anti-vaxx.” Their culture is either co-opted and commodified or discredited and demonized.
Members of the beauty and wellness media: There is a way to report on Eastern medicine without undermining it.
Present Eastern concepts as Eastern; there is no need to force them into a Western framework.
Research the origin, history, and cultural importance of said concepts, not just their modern manifestations.
Source information from Eastern medicine experts with the appropriate credentials and clearly explain to readers what those credentials mean.
Do not include critique or comment from Western medicine experts. They are not Eastern medicine experts and their training does not qualify them to comment on the history or efficacy of these practices. (Think about it: Do you include critique from holistic healers in your articles on Western medicine concepts? No? Then why would you feel the need to “bring both sides of the argument” into an article on Eastern medicine? That urge is internalized prejudice.)
You don’t need to convince yourself that Eastern medicine has merit, but you do need to stop convincing readers that it doesn’t.
This goes for all traditional medicines — Eastern, African, Indigenous, and more.
All of us in the beauty industry — especially my fellow white women — have an obligation to examine our own ingrained anti-Asian racism and adjust the way we position these traditional systems accordingly. I have not always been mindful of this. I’ve used “woo-woo.” I’ve allowed dismissive Western perspectives to cloud my reporting. As I’ve learned, I’ve adjusted. Now that I know better, I do better. Because it matters.
“Words fuel action,” as journalist Sophia Li tweeted on Wednesday. “We must start with our own subconscious and conscious minds shaped by a society that upholds white supremacy.”
Until the Western beauty industry recognizes that the dismissal and demonization of Eastern culture is anti-Asian racism, it cannot eliminate anti-Asian racism. It can only perpetuate it.
I create the content of The Unpublishable for free. Would you consider subscribing for $7/month to support independent beauty reporting that isn’t beholden to brands, advertisers, algorithms, and affiliate product sales?