The term ‘cultural appropriation’ has been a hot topic of conversation in the last few years. It has mainly focused on pop culture, homing in on celebrities that have borrowed from cultures that are not their own. But this discourse has a lot more to offer.
The cultural appropriation conversation can be expanded beyond its basic terms by applying it to other aspects of culture. This is especially prevalent in the phenomenon of wellness as the discussion pivots from appropriation to questioning where exposure to non-western medicine ends and exploitation of non-western cultures begins.
What is Cultural Appropriation?
Erich Hatala Matthes describes cultural appropriation in the arts as the use of certain cultural practices, styles, art, or objects by cultural outsiders. Think Katy Perry’s This Is How We Do music video where the singer is seen doing neck rolls with corn rowed hair and gelled down edges, emulating the stereotypical ghetto Black woman. Perry later apologised for this portrayal. Consider Nicki Minaj or Gwen Stefani’s use of the Harajuku Japanese subculture in their music and style. Stefani could even be seen totting around with four silent Asian women dressed to compliment her outfits during the promotion for her album at the time.
Matthes asks us to think about the portrayal of indigenous culture in film and television. For example, Hollywood westerns and the dichotomic theme of the American hero cowboy versus the savage American Indian, or teams in the National Football League’s use of names like The Chiefs and the Redskins, replete with stereotypical mascots. “We often find misrepresentation, misuse, and theft” of whatever culture is being borrowed from, Matthes states. This is because the representing, through whatever medium, is not being done by the actual representatives of that culture; it is instead being showcased through the eyes of someone who may have the best of intentions but does not always get it right. This is where appreciation turns into appropriation.
Not only do these examples show cultural outsiders taking from others, but we can also attribute the misrepresentation and misuse to their financial and social success. This is capital that the originators of that culture are not allowed access to in the end. The same can be said for the wellness industry.
Wellness, appropriation, and Goop
Contemporary wellness and the subsequent products needed to substantiate the wellness lifestyle seem essential. Face creams costing thousands of pounds and aerodynamic pillows are must haves along with trips to faraway islands with indigenous populations that perform ancient wellness rituals. There is a promise of feeling “brighter and lighter”, as Pandora Sykes puts it in her essay on wellness. Sykes also discusses the tourists that visit obscure islands under the guise of wellness but are transparently there for the aesthetic as much as they are to meditate on the beach.
In recent years, actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s company Goop has garnered attention for its products, including a candle that smells like a vagina and packets of vitamin dust that promise to make you feel ethereal. This has been expanded upon with the help of Netflix, which hosts The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow on their platform. The series looks to explain certain wellness phenomena, aiming to be both scientific and spiritual in its approach. Marrying the ideas of wellness, a trend that is known for its lack of scientific evidence and empirical studies based in fact is a great idea in theory. Additionally, Goop, a brand with name recognition partnering with Netflix to help viewers gain access to possible alternatives to traditional western medicine is admirable. Despite this, viewers should still take into consideration who is and is not visible when Goop employees dip their toes into indigenous medicine and rituals. This is where the conversation of appropriation and exploitation begins.
Why it has the potential to be harmful
Now we know what cultural appropriation is, we can start thinking about it more broadly, outside of it referring to clothes and hairstyles. We can come to understand how western wellness plays a role in othering and taking from non-western cultures.
In her essay, Sykes discusses vacationing in Tulum and seeing people document what is supposed to be a spiritual experience for their Instagram grid. She also lays out a study from Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources that states 80% of recreational swimming holes contain “traces of cocaine, Viagra, and ibuprofen.” While Sykes is not discouraging readers from visiting, she does make an interesting point about those who may have more than one reason to attend a wellness weekend. She also points out the environmental impact of wellness tourism. What is supposed to be a trip focused on reconnecting with one’s body and mind is also conveniently complimented by class A drugs and western medicine. Because these wellness-seekers are also tourists, they can handily leave all of the remnants – both natural and unnatural – for the natives to clean up themselves.
As wellness becomes more expansive, asking people to physically traverse obscure places with small communities in order to mentally reconnect with their own bodies, it is easy to get lost in chasing personal goals and forget about the people and places that are integral to supplying the experience. This is where exposure or, appreciation turns into exploitation or, appropriation.
The Goop Lab: Exposure or exploitation?
The first episode of The Goop Lab focuses on the use of psychedelics. We see a video montage of unidentified indigenous people smoking through pipes and performing rituals with unspecified drugs. Mark Haden, executive director from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS for short) explains that psychedelics were used in spiritual practice, then associated with the hippie movement in the mid-20th century, and now they are being used medically. Paltrow and her team choose a group of people from their offices in California to go on a trip to Jamaica where psychedelic mushrooms are not regulated in order to participate in a MAPS therapy study. They meet other people from the MAPS organisation, who the Goop chief content officer calls “psychedelic elders.” One of the MAPS doctors explains that indigenous people have used psychedelics to cure illnesses and how they are “perplexed” by westerners who use them, claiming that indigenous people see westerners as people who are only connected to material things. But why do we never hear the indigenous people say that for themselves?
The episode shows the audience how psychedelics can have a positive impact on those dealing with trauma, allowing some to access their fears and let go of anxieties they may have about themselves or other aspects of their lives. But everyone on screen (aside from Dr. Will Siu at the beginning of the episode) is not visibly a person of colour. We also do not hear or see any Jamaicans despite most of the episode taking place there. This is where exposure/appreciation (the usefulness of psychedelic mushrooms in Jamaica) turns into exploitation/appropriation (non-natives speaking for natives and not seeing or hearing from any of them throughout the show). While the upsides of wellness tourism are on full display here, it is also essential for viewers to question what is missing.
Where do we go from here?
As consumers of culture, we could be more conscious of the information being presented to us. Infotainment like documentaries and informative series can help shine a light on issues, ideas, and solutions we may not have thought of, but we should still question how information is presented and who is presenting it. Asking how it is presented will help audiences to question what (or who) is missing. Asking who is presenting the material may help viewers to understand that more information is needed to get a full picture.
Edited by Abbie Harby.