Wildling Co-Founder Gianna De La Torre Addresses Asian Cultural Appropriation Issues

In the past month, against the backdrop of repeated hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, there’s been a reckoning in the beauty industry over Asian cultural appropriation, specifically involving gua sha, a tool used by Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for centuries. Wilding is one of a number of beauty brands at the center of discussions on the right and wrong ways to profit off of implements and practices rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It hasn’t taken accusations of cultural appropriation lightly. On March 7, Wildling co-founder Gianna De La Torre talked about them with beauty industry consumers and professionals, including Pink Moon founder Lin Chen, on the audio app Clubhouse. A day later, beauty industry watchdog Instagram account Estée Laundry spotlighted the brand in its Instagram Stories. De La Torre then took to Instagram Live to share the moves Wildling is making be more mindful of the culture gua sha comes from and hosted a room on Clubhouse to hear from the wider beauty community on how the brand can do better. She also spoke to us at Beauty Independent about missteps Wildling has made, what she believes the brand handled properly from the beginning and its plans going forward. 

Looking back at the ways you spoke about the history of gua sha and TCM since the launch of Wildling, do you think you could have done a better job of respecting tradition?

TCM has been at the foundation of what we’ve been doing since the very beginning. The very first conversation that we [Wildling co-founders Britta Plug, Jill Munson and De La Torre] had on it was about the way that we can heal the skin and, simultaneously, improve the way that it looks. Thinking back to how we integrated TCM, I remember these very intense conversations about the naming of the Empress Stone. [The Empress Stone is Wildling’s gua sha tool.] 

The name comes from me thinking about the most quintessential text in Chinese medicine, the Huangdi Neijing. It’s written by the Yellow Emperor, and I remember having this really intense discussion with Jill where I was like, “We don’t really know how long facial gua sha has been used for beauty according to traditional Chinese medicine.” It was the first time I reflected on the fact that there’s no female voices in the text of TCM. I felt inspired to call the stone Empress because it’s like the female principle of the Yellow Emperor. 

One question I remember racking my brain with at the very inception of the brand is, “How do we deeply honor these roots?” I love the nerdy aspects of TCM, so incorporating that into the brand, from the very beginning, there’s no question that that’s where it comes from. I’ve been practicing TCM for 15 years. 

Going back to what we would’ve done differently, I take a lot of responsibility because I was a pregnant mom. I was about to give birth when Wildling launched and, as a healer, whenever someone comes into your office and you put your hands on them and you take their pulse and you look at their tongue, there’s no question that you’re honoring traditional Chinese medicine in doing that. But, as somebody who’d never built a website, somebody who never ran social media, I wish that the first thing we had built out was the origins [of TCM] page. I would have done that first because I took for granted all of my experience and the fact that people know me. The initiative that we’re starting now, which is a dedicated [Instagram] post to TCM once a week, is something I would have started [at launch]. 

Can you understand why people have criticized the name, “Empress Stone”?

When I reflect on it, I can understand the perspective. I feel aligned with our choice to call it that because it’s such a specific reason that’s really meaningful to the medicine, but I understand the question, and I welcome the opportunity to explain it in more detail because, to anyone that I’ve actually explained it to, they get it. It doesn’t feel like we just called it Empress because it’s from China. I welcome the opportunity to explain where it comes from.

Do you think what’s happened to Wildling on social media is unfair?

The question of are we culturally appropriating is really a valuable one because we aren’t Chinese. I’m not a Chinese TCM practitioner. I think it’s a valid conversation. I completely understand where it comes from, even within the TCM community. There’s issues of racism because most of the schools are run by white people. So, this is a bigger conversation in the TCM community as well. That conversation, we’re here for that. I’ll have that conversation all day because I think it’s so important. 

There’s so much racism that’s woven into the fabric of our society, and we have to do all of this healing around it. I really want to acknowledge that. It requires all of us to go into this really uncomfortable space and self-reflect and say, “How have I perpetuated white supremacy?” Unless we’re all doing that, there’s not going to be progress. 

One thing that really caught us off guard, and I think has been the hardest thing about this—and we can’t know exactly where this is coming from—but, for example, the comment that was made and quoted [in the previous Beauty Independent article], it had a hundred or so likes on it, and they were all bot accounts. That’s very startling. I don’t even know how to do that. How do you get a bunch of bots to like a comment and, then, basically boost it in the algorithm? 

There were also some untruths that were perpetuated in some of these comments like that we blocked TCM practitioners. That came up as well in the Clubhouse room, and I was so confused. That breaks my heart to think that people are saying that we would block TCM practitioners. I don’t know what we would have to gain by doing so.

So, that’s definitely a rumor that’s out there that we blocked TCM practitioners. And, then, that we have bought followers or basically that the creation of our account isn’t real, which isn’t really a serious allegation. That same person who is quoted [in the previous Beauty Independent article] bashed somebody that we collaborate with who is Asian and was making really nasty comments toward her, which is what ultimately made us say, “We’re going to block this person.”

Then, [there was] somebody writing into Estée Laundry, perpetuating those same untruths. Ultimately, the net-net of blocking TCM practitioners and blocking this other person is kind of like being called racist, blocking Asian people from your site. I think that that conversation is not productive because that’s just untrue, and it’s spreading rumors. And it’s said not with the intention of the greater good and all of us learning and growing. It’s said with the intention to tear us down, and I separate out those two things. 

It’s one thing if we’re TCM practitioners and we’re not Asian, but it’s another thing if the underbelly of the company is that we’re actively blocking Asian people or actively blocking TCM practitioners, and that we’re actively avoiding challenging conversations, which is not true. 

In your Instagram posts, you write a lot about the beauty benefits of gua sha—that it’s firming, toning and slimming—which doesn’t address the practice’s TCM roots. Why do you talk about gua sha that way?

We highlight the benefits and what it can do. A lot of what we share is content that is very tutorial-based. Recently, it’s come to our attention that some people are very triggered by the comparison, for example, between Botox and gua sha, and we talk about that a lot because we choose to do gua sha rather than injectables. We also want to create a judgment-free zone for anyone who chooses to do [injectibles]. But we highlight the skin benefits so much because we’re trying to bring people over to the other opportunities and the other options that there are.

We can always focus more on the TCM benefits because there are many, but, even in those posts that might have [beauty-focused] headlines, if you really go into them, you read that when you open the flow of energy in the face, you’re opening the flow of energy in the entire body. We very rarely just leave it at that headline in almost all of our posts. There’s a deeper explanation. And, at the end of the day, we really appreciate the full-body benefits [of gua sha], and I know that that’s in our messaging. 

With the catchy titles, if that’s all that people are reading on our brand or they’re just visiting our page and they’re just seeing that because that’s what catches the eye, it might be easy to make that assumption that that’s all we’re trying to do. I think we received so much support from our community because they’re the ones who’ve attended our classes. We do a lot of virtual events. They’re the ones who might watch our videos and read our captions more in depth. So, they have a little bit more context for what’s beneath the caption on the photo. We’re always hitting on that, but you wouldn’t really know unless you are actually reading it.

Let’s talk about your community. Do you think you have a responsibility to go to back to your community and say, “I hear where you’re coming from, but this conversation about cultural appropriation is also important”?

Yes, and we’ve said that in direct response, and there’s been so much conversation about it. When it’s going back and forth between people on our page, we haven’t had a chance to get in there and moderate. It’s like a reflection of what’s happening in the country as a whole. I was on the phone with my Taiwanese friend, and she was like, “I can’t believe some of the comments on your page from people who don’t want to have this conversation. It’s so heartbreaking.”

The whole experience has been shocking because of the polarity on both sides. Of course, we need to have this conversation. It’s a really important conversation. That’s why we’re showing up and having it. We’re leading by example. I don’t know if it’s our responsibility as a brand to go in and educate each individual in our comments, but continuing to share the message of why it’s important and why we’re doing what we do is the path that we’ve been taking.

You’ve spoken about being Native American. What role, if any, do you think that plays in Wildling as a brand using modalities like TCM?

I think that it is relevant in the sense that I know what it feels like to be part of a marginalized community. That being said, I know that I also benefit from white privilege. I say that because I’m white passing. When you’re a white passing BIPOC person, you tend to hear the most racist conversations said in front of you. I think that’s why I’m so passionate about confronting this issue because I know that standing up for this issue is standing up for any minority issue. So, in some ways, it’s really relevant because maybe it takes that to really want to have the conversation, but it doesn’t make me more worthy of carrying on Chinese medicine because I’m half Native American. 

How has the current focus on Asian cultural appropriation impacted your business?

It’s greatly impacted our business in a very direct way for a lot of reasons. Negative comments, negative press and canceled events are a setback. Everything at Wildling has come to a screeching halt so that we can address this issue. I want to be clear that I’m not resentful of that. I think this is a clear priority to address. 

Is there anything you want to share about what Wilding is doing going forward? 

Because we’ve decided to go into this space, we’ve done a lot of listening, listening in Clubhouse rooms that were talking about cultural appropriation and gua sha, really wanting to hear what people have to say. Some concrete steps that we’re taking [is] first to take a stance against Asian hate. We’ve been in contact with someone from the Asian American Collective, and we [did] a fundraiser on Monday to donate profits to Hate Is A Virus. They’re really trying to figure out the best place to allocate social equity dollars and donation dollars to really benefit their community. 

We’ve always wanted to have a social equity initiative. Our initiative has been in the past that we planted a tree for every Empress Stone sold. We’re shifting that because we realized that only .6% of social equity dollars actually go to support the AAPI community. We’d like to put our support behind the AAPI community going forward. That’s a quarterly donation that we’ll make. 

I’ve been consulting with a TCM practitioner who’s a colleague of Asian descent. We’re in a conversation about how to best introduce her onto the team in a way that works for her schedule and for us, and to offer that perspective on all of the different things that we’ve built out in our brand. We’re also consulting with a diversity and inclusion coach because we don’t yet have employees, but we’ve been really excited by the fact that we could actually create a plan to create a really diverse workplace at Wildling with all different kinds of people. So, we’re really grateful for this conversation because I don’t know if we would have had a diversity inclusion coach help us form a model for our hiring going forward. That’s a big strategy. 

We’re going to be doing that dedicated TCM post every Friday and that doesn’t necessarily have to do with gua sha, but more so educating people on the medicine, which is something I’m really looking forward to. Then, really getting feedback and staying in this conversation. I think it’s one thing to decide to have this conversation, but continuing to have the conversation, continuing to have that feedback, continuing to check in about it is something that we are also creating a plan for.