IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The backlash to TikTok’s viral ‘spa water’ explained

"I strongly believe in learning and growing from our mistakes, but people need to be given the opportunity to do that," said TikToker Gracie Norton.
TikToker Gracie Norton and cucumber agua fresa drinks.  
TikToker Gracie Norton and cucumber agua fresa drinks.  Courtesy @strawberrryc0ugh TikTok / Getty

While the Internet offers the opportunity for online creators to teach the world the things they know, on some occasions it’s the creator that gets taught a little lesson — sometimes by thousands of people.

The drama all started on June 24 when Gracie Norton, a wellness influencer, shared a now-controversial recipe to her more than 500,000 followers on TikTok. Norton, who typically shares videos on skin care, grocery store finds and other health food tips, named her recipe “spa water,” a drink she concocted from water, cucumber and sugar.

Touting the beverage as “anti-inflammatory and packed with antioxidants,” Norton in at least one subsequent video makes a variation on the drink she calls “spa water” by subbing out the original recipe's pineapple with another fruit.

What Norton didn’t say in the video about her “spa water” was that it’s the same exact recipe as “agua fresca,” a beverage that has been around since the Aztec empire, according to Mexican lore. Agua fresca, which translates to “fresh water” in English, involves blending fresh fruits, vegetables, rice or hibiscus with water before straining to make a refreshing beverage with a rich centuries-long history.

Even without the provenance of agua fresca, the term “spa water” already referred to a trend from the early 2010’s where folks would float slices of fresh fruit and herbs in water — beverages that can still be found in luxury spas and the lobbies of fancy hotels today. Now, the term “spa water” unfortunately has come to be synonymous with cultural appropriation, with many users on TikTok responding to Norton’s video in kind.

“They are now gentrifying agua frescas,” TikTok user @itsdonutshole said in a stitched video. “They’re calling it spa water.”

In another video user @alexa.alexuh can be seen asking a woman making agua fresca if she’s making “spa water.”

 “Spa water?!” said the woman in the video, followed by a string of choice words in Spanish. The woman ended her exclamation by remarking, “It’s a delicious water with cucumber and chia. Spa water!” Insert eye-roll emoji here.

In another TikTok, user @erikangel_ poses as a woman approaching an agua fresca stand and ordering “spa water” to a confused vendor who responds in Spanish with comedic results.

This video has since garnered 4.7 million views and inspired the TikToker to create a series of videos of the same character trying to order “spa water” from the same off-camera vendor.

These responses and more to Norton’s original “spa water” clip was constant enough that Norton deleted the original videos and posted an apology on her Instagram account’s Stories.

“Recently I filmed a spa water series, which I titled incorrectly. The proper name for this drink is agua fresca, and the origin belongs to the Latin community,” Norton said.

Even though Norton deleted the videos by July 26, the controversy reignited a discussion on the internet phenomenon of “Columbusing,” a term for a situation when a marginalized culture is appropriated for a dominant culture’s own benefit. While it’s undoubtedly true “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492” like the famous poem about his historic trip to the Americas, what he “discovered” there is a point of contention for many people, especially the millions of people who had been living on that land for millenia. 

“I noticed that several creators of color that I follow on TikTok were all commenting on this new trend amongst white creators,” said Daniela Rabalais, a TikToker who was inspired to create her own series of videos where she turns the tables on food appropriation, to TODAY Food. “It’s something that we as Mexicans have been enjoying for many, many moons, called agua fresca. When I saw that, I was a little bit mind-blown. I thought it was a joke and it turns out it wasn’t.”

“The criticism that spa water received is valid,” Rabalais said in another interview with Refinery 29, adding that “spa water” is cultural appropriation as it’s something Mexicans and Latin Americans have been enjoying for generations that is being presented as a new idea by white creators. “These drinks are meant to be shared and enjoyed by anyone and everyone, but it’s important to call them by their proper name and acknowledge their cultural roots. Simply saying, ‘I can’t take credit for this. This is an agua fresca, which is a popular drink in Latin American countries that comes in a variety of flavors that I’ve grown to love since I was introduced to it,’ would have made this a non-issue.” 

For her part, in addition to her initial apology, Norton has since apologized further in an exclusive interview with The U.S Sun.

“Upon reflection, it has become clear to me why this was so harmful to the Latino community. I hope that in time, everyone will know how much I have learned from this experience and that I am truly so sorry to the people I have offended,” Norton told The Sun.

“I strongly believe in learning and growing from our mistakes, but people need to be given the opportunity to do that,” Norton said. “If we cancel everyone who makes a mistake, we don’t give them the chance to correct it and truly evolve, and I think that’s a shame."