Pop icons like Madonna perpetuate a faulty understanding of Indian culture by selecting exotic images from India, such as the bindi, taking them completely out of cultural context and popularizing them in the West. What people like Madonna don’t realize, however, is that appropriating the bindi in such a way has devastating effects on the symbol’s meaning in South Asia. For example, while in Delhi over the summer, I was hard pressed to find plain red bindis, finding instead very flashy, so-called “export quality” bindis, replete with sparkles and a variety of colors. The bindi is no longer what it once was—a symbol of being Hindu and of having a symbolic union with God. Now, it is not only a fashionable item to wear, but is also produced mass-produced specifically for export to other countries. The Madonnas and Gwen Stefanis of the world—along with those who have blindly followed their example—have successfully changed the meaning of the bindi in South Asia, for the worse.
…One could argue that the bindi phenomenon is a good thing because it could motivate interested Americans to examine diverse South Asian cultures and histories more closely. Even though this might be true, I resent the fact that a culture should be considered worthy of study or attention because of the fashion appeal of its symbols or traditions.
Assigning new cultural meanings to symbols with very old traditions or deep personal significance is inappropriate and insensitive. It reduces the complexities of South Asian culture to mere physical items, rather than the continual process that culture is.
So please—don’t wear bindis, and don’t think of my homeland simply as the origin of yoga, incense, and exoticism if you are going to ignore the context and meanings of these cultural components as well as the reasons why we “ethnic folk” appreciate, treasure, and cling to them."