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Calling out Mecca: Estée Laundry on culturally appropriative beauty names


TextAlex Peters

From Mecca to gypsy to kimono, beauty watchdog Estée Laundry is leading the charge against culturally appropriative brand and product names in beauty

Estee Laundry’s Instagram has been blowing up. From calling out Australian beauty retailer Mecca, named after Islam’s holiest city and site of pilgrimage, to leading criticism against brands that use words like "gypsy", "kimono", and "miso", the beauty watchdog has been at the helm of recent discussions surrounding cultural appropriation within the industry, with a focus on highly insensitive brand and product names. 

The beauty industry has had a well-documented history of cultural appropriation, from the bindi-adorned faces seen at festivals the world over, to dreadlocks being sent down the runway on white models while black people are being fired, having their hair forcibly cut off and told they smell of patchouli and weed for wearing the same look. But recently we've seen a change in focus, with brands using culturally inappropriate names as marketing gimmicks. Take for instance Fenty. Rihanna’s beauty brand, known for its dedication to inclusivity, had an uncharacteristic misstep when it announced the name of an upcoming shade of highlighter as Geisha Chic. The name faced backlash, with Estee Laundry leading the criticism and giving its followers a platform to voice their concerns. Ultimately Fenty recalled the shade and apologised.

Estee Laundry has remained at the helm of these discussions – calling out brands and lending a platform for debate amongst its followers. We caught up with Estee Laundry to get their take on the topic.

We’ve been following your coverage of beauty brands and retailers with culturally appropriative or insensitive names. When did you first start noticing this trend? 
Estee Laundry: We'd been noticing this trend for a while now. For instance, back in the late 2000s, the beauty brand Cibu International launched a couple of hair lines that they claimed were “Far East-inspired.” Product names like, ‘Miso Knotty Detangler,’ ‘Spring Roll Hydrating Cleanser’ and ‘Pho Freeze Firm Hold Hairspray’ that play on racist Asian stereotypes and fetishes upset many people. The names were highly offensive and thankfully, after much protest, they agreed to rename the products.

OPI Nail Polish is notorious for using culturally-insensitive product names as well. Most of their “exotic” or “Asian-inspired” names are just stereotypes, with some even bordering on racist. In the past, they've used names like, ‘Miso Happy With This Color,’ ‘Chop-sticking To My Story’ and ‘Kimono’ver Her.’ Major cringe. Then, a few months ago, Fenty Beauty released a new highlighter named 'Geisha Chic.' Many of our followers expressed their discontent and after we posted about how offensive the name was, Fenty Beauty acknowledged their mistake and pulled it off the shelves.

Recently, there was also a long discussion on the trend of brands using the word “gypsy.” 

What do you hope to achieve by bringing attention to these names?
Estee Laundry: Our goal in bringing attention to these names is to educate brands and consumers about cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation runs rampant in the beauty industry and should not be taken lightly. Minorities have been misrepresented for centuries and it's time to change that. We'd like to see brands be better and do better. It's important to set a positive example for future generations.

Who or what tends to be the main culprits?
Estee Laundry: Makeup or nail polish brands seem to be the main culprits. These brands often have themed collections which require many product names. In an effort to be creative they exploit different cultures to come up with "inspired" names. In many cases "inspired" crosses the line over to "appropriation." Chances are if they've gotten away with it in the past, they will continue doing it until people voice their concerns.

Now that you’ve flagged the issues, what should the brands do moving forward?
Estee Laundry: It's simple. Brands should educate themselves on why cultural appropriation is wrong, learn from each other's mistakes and do better. Most brands tend to get defensive when they are called out. Instead, they should understand why people find it offensive, apologize and consider renaming. Most of these issues arise because brands don’t have POC working for them in positions of power. A diverse workforce is crucial.

Let’s talk about “holy grail,” your followers were divided on the topic. What are your thoughts?
Estee Laundry: If we recall, an astounding 96% of our followers found that it was not offensive! Most of the comments claimed that it wasn’t religious and just a motif in Arthurian literature. Cultural appropriation is an issue when a culture that has historically been oppressed and exploited is used as inspiration for your idea. If, however, people find the term disrespectful, it is important to understand why and act empathetically.

Some people accuse our current society of being overly sensitive and too politically correct. What would you say to those people? 
Estee Laundry: In the current climate, it's easy for people to perceive our society that way. We would tell these people to be empathetic, objective and open-minded. If multiple people come forward stating they are offended by the same thing, then clearly, there's something wrong. Most likely there is an underlying issue that needs to be brought to light and discussed in a constructive manner. 

Do you ever feel that people are overreacting to things?
Estee Laundry: We feel that people are allowed to react to things however they like. Everyone's story is different. It is not our job to judge but try to get a better understanding by seeing things from their perspective. It's about acknowledgement, education and acceptance. Our role is to raise awareness, and we don’t expect everyone to agree with every issue we present.

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