April 17, 2013 at 9:30 AM ET
Selena Gomez is paying homage to Bollywood with her new single—but did she take it too far by decorating herself with a bindi? Gomez wore the traditional South Asian forehead art for her performance of "Come and Get It" during Sunday's MTV Movie Awards. Though she's not the first musician to use the bindi as a fashion accessory, Gomez, 20, has re-ignited the controversy kicked off by Gwen Stefani back in the '90s. And at least one Hindu leader has demanded an apology.
"The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance," Hindu statesman Rajan Zed explained to the press. "It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol. It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religions."
So what's the problem with a Western pop star wearing a bindi? In a nutshell, she's appropriating a religious symbol from another culture and using it as a fashion statement, without any apparent understanding of its meaning. This kind of "borrowing" has been happening since the dawn of pop music, which may explain why the mainstream Indian press seems to have shrugged off the controversy. The bindi, in particular, has become a staple of Eastern-inspired fashion in the West.
However, for many women, the bindi has complex cultural and personal significance, and seeing it passed off as a fashion accessory is painful. Their stories are not hard to find. Here's one from a Sri Lankan woman in Canada, explaining how the bindi ("pottu" in Tamil) was historically used to persecute women of her culture. And here's a Boston teenager venting her anger on the subject. If these are a little too heavy for you, start with this terrific conversation about cultural appropriation, including bindis, from the Rookie magazine.
We're guessing that Selena Gomez didn't look at articles like these before pasting on that bindi. As far as she's concerned, she's paying homage to what she's seen in Bollywood movies. We're not expecting her to apologize—but it's important to understand that her critics are coming from a very real place.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.