Has the gua sha beauty tool been culturally appropriated?



The traditional Chinese medicine practice that’s been Instagrammified.

For $2.84 on AliExpress, you can buy a facial tool that can – reportedly – lift your skin, slim your face and help you achieve an at-home natural Botox boost.

In our wellness-obsessed world, people are constantly clamouring for the next ‘it’ item to display in their beauty fridge. And the gua sha tool, with its pastel pink hues and sleek exterior, has become a 2020 beauty favourite.

The history of the gua sha

Many of us have been intrigued by this ancient tool and have bought into the trend, if not merely out of curiosity. Although their popularity has dramatically increased this year, gua shas have been part of traditional Chinese medicine practices for hundreds of years and were initially used to treat heatstroke and colds.

This is through the Eastern belief of yin and yang, which in a healthy body, should be balanced. Sickness and disease often mean there is an imbalance, and the gua sha aims to restore stability by releasing the appropriate energy, whether that be excess cold or toxic heat.

Nowadays, gua shas are heralded by beauty gurus as miracle tools that help contour the face, help the absorption and efficacy of skincare products and minimise the appearance of wrinkles and aging. Adeline Yeak, the founder of Melbourne-based gua sha brand Zove Beauty, praises its multitude of benefits.

“The gua sha tool is used for a much deeper massage [than facial rollers and] helps relieve jaw tension and any other facial tension. Your skin will generally feel a natural flush because the blood is actually circulating,” she says.

Where does cultural appropriation come into this?

Cultural appropriation is never a black and white issue, with people within the same cultural group often not seeing eye to eye. Denise Nicole Green and Susan B. Kaiser define it as taking aesthetic or material elements from a culture that is not your own without giving credit or profit. They note that it’s dangerous because it can reduce a culture to a monetised aesthetic expression.

While we often see this called out in the fashion industry, the same scrutiny doesn’t seem to be applied when it comes to beauty. But considering how we’ve seen Korean skincare practises like double cleansing find their way into Western beauty routines, why is this any different?

There’s a lack of proper education

Often, the buzz around this ‘newly rediscovered’ item seems to be harmful, primarily because it fails to acknowledge its origins. Sydney-based acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine practitioner of over 10 years, Jaclyn McPherson of Well Balanced Healthcare, points to how this is a form of cultural appropriation.

“Chinese medicine is thousands of years old and they’ve got evidence of jade rollers and gua shas that are a few hundred years old, at least. I think it’s very disrespectful to say, ‘We’ve innovated it.’ That’s just not true and it’s creating harm because it’s part of Indigenous medicine – it’s just complete cultural appropriation and colonisation,” she tells me.

“It’s mostly White-owned companies that are just hopping on a marketing bandwagon. They might just say one sentence like, ‘This is Chinese medicine’ and then go on about it [their product],” she continues.

Adeline similarly recognises the problems that can arise from selling these tools. “What we’re doing is making sure we talk about it. We educate people on our socials, our newsletters and on our website to slot in things about its history,” she says.

The mispronunciation of gua sha

Another of Adeline’s pet peeves is the mispronunciation of gua sha. Adeline points out that when you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, you ask them. The same logic should also be applied here.

“One thing that gets to me is when you see beauty bloggers or customers who record a video using the gua sha tool and at the start of the video they go, ‘I’m not sure how to pronounce this, I hope I’m pronouncing this right,’” she says.

“Going on Google to find out what the right pronunciation is or going to the company to say, ‘Hey, would you be able to teach me this?’ before putting it on the Internet is an easy thing to do.”

How it’s been Instagrammified

I showed my Chinese parents a photo of rose gold facial rollers and heart-shaped gua shas and was met with head scratches. What they had grown up with was skin coining, a cupping-like practice that leaves red, linear bruises on one’s back and shoulders. It’s not very pretty and it’s definitely not as Instagrammable as today’s gua sha tools.

“I practise gua sha… I’ve been doing it for 15 years, just on people’s shoulders and necks for muscular tension. I usually just use a ceramic soup spoon for it, and that’s not as Instagrammable,” confirms Jaclyn.

Coins and ceramic spoons work just as well as these newly commodified beauty tools and it’s worth considering whether these ancient practices have been watered-down and Westernised to be more palatable.

Who are you purchasing from?

With the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses being pushed into the limelight this year, many of us have been assessing whether our purchasing decisions align with our beliefs.

“People have been ridiculed for taking part in [Chinese] medicine saying it’s all ‘woo-woo’ but now because [big corporations] are selling it, it’s legitimate?” Jaclyn challenges. “I like that Chinese medicine is getting popular, it’s an effective therapy, so I think that’s a very good thing. But the huge problem is who’s promoting it? It’s not Chinese medicine practitioners.”

Jaclyn recommends people contact their local acupuncturist to book in an appointment to learn from an expert and pick up a good quality gua sha. For people wanting to purchase online, she recommends Quiescence Therapeutics, Zhong Centre, Yang Face and Treatment by Lashin.

“Just be mindful who you’re buying the tools from,” she says. “There’s just so much harm done to BIPOC people and marginalised communities, so I think the best thing we can do as a consumer is just to be a little bit more conscious about how we’re spending our money.”

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