Is Kim Kardashian's India-inspired nose ring another case of cultural appropriation?

Nose rings are often worn by Indian brides, and are said to have healing benefits when pierced right

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Kim Kardashian and her daughter, North West, 9, were in the spotlight at the Jean Paul Gaultier show during Paris Haute Couture Week.

Not only were they sitting in the front row beside Anna Wintour, the global editorial director of Vogue, but they also accessorised their pattern-co-ordinated outfits with matching silver nose ring chains worn around the left nostril.

Kardashian wore hers conjoined with a metal choker, while North West had hers attached to an earring.

North West and Kim Kardashian wore nose ring chains to the show. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

This is not the first time North West has worn a nose ring. In 2019, the then-six-year-old rocked up to her great-grandmother MJ Campbell’s 85th birthday wearing a clip-on hoop on her nose.

While the mother-daughter duo were likely making a style statement, wearing a nose ring has cultural connotations in many parts of the world, most notably India, where a nose ring attached to a chain is called a nath.

Significance of nose rings in India

Nose rings have a dual significance in India. The ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery, Sushruta Samhita, suggests piercing the nose can have myriad health benefits for women. Chief among them is improved fertility and relief from menstrual pain, especially if the piercing is done at the correct marma pressure point on the left nostril.

The nerves from this side of the nose are said to be directly connected to female reproductive organs, and to not only affect fertility but also help in easing childbirth.

Over time, the excerpt in the Ayurvedic text was adopted by Indian families with daughters of a marriageable age. Girls often had their noses pierced when they hit puberty to suggest they were ready for marriage, and it became customary for brides — especially from Hindu families — to wear a nath on their wedding day. The more elaborate the jewel (think gold links studded with precious gemstones), the more prosperous a family was thought to be.

A model showcases a bridal outfit with Kishandas & Co jewellery and a Gaurang Shah outfit at Indian exhibition Numaish in Dubai. Photo: Numaish  

Tradition also dictates that a woman will give up her nose ring upon the death of her husband.

While many in India choose not to pierce their noses at all in present times, it is still common for modern-day women to clip on a nose ring chain as part of their bridal finery.

Somewhat paradoxically, nose rings have also come to symbolise free-spirited and even rebellious young women, who choose to have their noses pierced to look bold and exercise their freedom of choice (akin to tattoos).

This could be attributed to the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when international devotees thronged to the ashrams of India in search of spiritual enlightenment. Their attire? Free-flowing robes, bare feet or open sandals, bindis on the forehead (another traditional symbol of a married woman) and simple metal hoop nose rings.

A brief history of nose rings

While pop culture may show women from India regularly sporting nose rings and naths, the accessory is thought to have its roots in ancient Australia and Africa. The Aboriginal people and several African tribes were piercing their noses as far back as 44,000 BC — and adorning them with animal bones, shells and large metal hoops.

The nose ring is also referred to in the Bible, in The Book of Genesis, when Abraham gives his future daughter-in-law a gold nose ring before she marries Issac.

The nose ring has also been common in various countries in the Middle East, especially Morocco, and other nations that are part of the Indian subcontinent.

Cultural appropriation vs appreciation

Kardashian has often been called out for indulging in cultural appropriation — from her Om earrings and maang tikka headpiece (both originating in India), to her Kimono shapewear line and rendition of the Maori haka ceremonial dance on TikTok.

Christian Allaire, author of Power of Style: How Fashion and Beauty are Being Used to Reclaim Cultures, defines the term in his book: "Cultural appropriation is when members of one culture adopt elements of another culture without their consent. This happens often in the fashion world: indigenous design motifs have been long copied or replicated by non-indigenous fashion brands, who often misuse traditional elements or ignore a piece's original purpose."

This contrasts with cultural appreciation. Allaire describes this as buying pieces from indigenous artists or as brands collaborating with artists from these communities instead of touting the craftsmanship as their own. Arguably, cultural appreciation can also be practised by lay fashionistas who are simply acknowledging the aesthetic appeal of a particular accessory.

After all, not every Indian (or Berber or Aboriginal or African) woman pierces her nose, sacred text or no sacred text. Bollywood often puts its characters in nose rings, from brides to brothel keepers (think Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi). And young women are going against their family’s strong views against piercing and wearing nose rings, literally, left, right and centre. Is it so harmful if a Kardashian does the same?

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Updated: July 07, 2022, 1:44 PM