Welcome to South Asian Gen Z’s ‘auntie’ era, with hair oiling, cups of tea and mom’s beauty secrets

Before Kaaviya Sambasivam left for elementary school each morning, her mother performed a ritual that generations of South Asian women had done before. In familiar rhythmic motions, she massaged her daughter’s head with coconut oil, combing through the strands of hair and securing them in two tight braids. The slick plaits, looped and finished with ribbons, were Sambasivam’s signature look growing up in her Georgia suburb. They made her stand out. 

“The first time I felt self-conscious about it, some little white boy was like, ‘Why does your hair smell like that,’” she said. “I went home and asked my mom, ‘Why does my hair smell like coconuts?’ She was like, ‘You’ll thank me later.’” 

Kaaviya Sambasivam
Influencer Kaaviya Sambasivam as a child.Courtesy Kaaviya Sambasivam

Over a decade passed, and Sambasivam’s waist-length black hair has earned her brand sponsorships on TikTok and a fan base of hundreds of thousands. Videos about her hair oiling routine have been viewed millions of times. 

She’s part of a growing community of people who are owning their ancestral practices and posting them online. South Asian women, fueled in part by lockdown forcing them to go home to their moms, have become a receptive TikTok community. Taking back wellness trends that have long been co-opted, they are officially entering their “auntie” era. 

“It’s literally romanticizing the concept of being in touch with your culture,” Sambasivam said. 

Now 23 and on her own in Los Angeles, the Tamil American influencer has gone full-blown auntie mode. To her that means a lifestyle reminiscent of our mothers’, grandmothers’ and ancestors’, no matter what age we are. It’s a life that’s rich with cups of tea, the soothing smell of incense and calls to her parents. 

She still oils her hair every Sunday. She cooks South Indian food, wears bangles with all her clothes, drinks hot water with turmeric and ginger, and listens to Tamil music. TikTok and YouTube have become mediums for her to document it all. 

“I want to experience that part of my culture,” she said. “I’m glad that I get to celebrate it and I get to tell other people to celebrate it because I’m sure a lot of people were forced to feel ashamed of it.”

For You pages are now filled with the faces of brown women sharing their hair oiling secrets, moms’ recipes, traditional clothes and mehendi designs. Uniquely South Asian routines that once relegated them to the social outskirts now find an audience of thousands online. 

In their apartments and houses, Gen Z brown girls are auntie-fying, embracing routines women in their family performed for centuries before them. Getting comfortable in their distinctive South Asian femininity, they say this represents an entrance into a new phase as well as an inevitable homecoming. Now they have new forums to share it with the world. 

Some of the most popular videos about hair oiling on TikTok feature brown women showing off their long, healthy hair along with the “Dos and Don’t of Hair Oiling” or “my mom’s hair secrets.” Continuing to explode in view count since the trend took root earlier this year, they’ve accumulated millions of views and opened the door for a new generation of South Asian female influencers. 

‘I legitimately did not know I was beautiful until I moved out of Oregon’: Overcoming eurocentricity

To Sambasivam, Indian goddesses were always the epitome of beauty. She remembers admiring them as a kid, looking at paintings representing them with cascading black hair, brown eyes and South Asian features like she had. But when she looked around her growing up, no one else seemed to see it that way.

Before she became a model in her teens and an influencer in her 20s, she remembers feeling decidedly ugly. She went to white-dominated schools and watched white or light-skinned women dominate popular media; she was entrenched in Eurocentricity. 

“I definitely was made aware that I wasn’t a pretty girl,” she said. “I’m not gonna lie, I was desperate. I wanted that, I wanted the popularity. I wanted to feel like everybody else.”

South Asian women say the ethnic features that set them apart from white students also made them feel further removed from their own femininity. 

“I was masculinized because I was darker and because I had body hair,” Sambasivam said. “I didn’t really have a concept of beauty and what it meant to be a woman in my own skin. I was introduced to that based on the white kids.”

Being Indian wasn’t cool, she said, and open displays of culture like coming to school with oily hair only contributed to that otherness. Other South Asian women say they can relate too. 

“I legitimately did not know I was beautiful until I moved out of Oregon,” said model Manju Bangalore, 25. “I was the opposite of femininity in every way. … I’ve been told my whole life that my culture and my traditions are not beautiful.”

Manju Bangalore walks the runway for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Runway Show in Miami Beach
Manju Bangalore walks the runway for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Runway Show in Miami Beach, Fla., on July 16, 2022.John Parra / Getty Images file

Now, on the runway, she makes a point to wear a bindi and beautify herself the same way her mom did. She engages in self-care that’s deliberately South Asian. She decorates her hands with mehendi and lights incense whenever she needs a reminder of home.

“I remember instances where I had henna on my nails and I was made to feel really insecure about it,” said Aaliyah Yaqub, 23, who is Pakistani British. “I didn’t really want to embed any of those practices in my life. You have this disassociation with your culture, and I had that in my teens.”

Yaqub said that, in an effort to fit in, she abandoned many of the Pakistani traditions she grew up with. Even when she was around other South Asians, she felt the pressures of the dominant white culture around her. 

“It wasn’t until I moved back home after university, and I realized how removed I was from my childhood and my culture,” she said. “There was an absence there.” 

Unlike her friends who had stayed home and entrenched in their culture, she found she was missing simple things. She didn’t know what the South Asian music scene looked like anymore; she feared she was losing some of the recipes she had learned to cook. 

That feeling slowly started to ease as she slipped back into her old routine. She started oiling her hair again, she started to spend more time with unapologetic South Asian women, and she saw faces that looked like hers when she opened up apps like TikTok. 

“You go onto social media and you see them talking about their day-to-day routine,” she said. “I take a lot of inspiration and practice from what I see them doing.”

Reclaiming wellness practices with nighttime auntie routines 

To Bangalore, the modern popularity of ancient Indian beauty practices just makes sense. She remembers the familiar smells associated with her mom massaging and washing her hair with Tamil hair cleanser shikakai podi, plus the teasing she faced from white peers when she showed up to school in her oily braids. 

“My mom knew what she was doing and my ancestors knew what they were doing when they started these traditions,” she said. “Reconnecting with those things gives me a sense of healing that virtually nothing else can give me.”

With things like thick, slicked-back hair and full eyebrows becoming staples in internet beauty trends, it’s only natural that South Asian women lead the charge, she said. The coveted “clean girl look,” which prioritizes effortless, healthy skin and hair, has existed in warm, South Indian climates for generations.

But Bangalore’s view of entering the auntie era goes beyond physical beauty, and she said she’s reconnected with meditation and yoga as part of the same transformation.

“Just like there’s generational trauma that can be passed on, I think there’s generational healing that can be passed on,” she said. “The little girl in me that wanted that validation so bad, I’m just telling her that it’s OK to embrace these beautiful traditions and this beautiful culture.”

For writer Geetika Rudra, 30, social media has always played a role in bringing young brown people together. She remembers the days when the Facebook group Subtle Curry Traits was the only cultural touchstone for South Asian diaspora kids. 

But the way we connect with each other has become deeper than just laughing at our parents (though memes are still a staple), she said. Social media forums are giving now-young-adult first-gens the opportunity to celebrate their culture and become the faces of the trends their ancestors started. 

“I’m always discovering new pieces of South Asian American culture on Instagram,” she said. 

Having grown up on the internet, Sambasivam has seen her fair share of Asian cultural staples co-opted by white people. This feels different, she said. Brown women are leading the conversations when introducing their auntie era to the world. 

“Women of color are just point-blank the blueprint,” she said. “For beauty, fashion, culture, food, diet. Everyone is looking to people of color for all of that. We are the blueprint. And I’m just happy that that is being recognized.”