How Miss Universe Australia, Maria Thattil, flipped the script on empowerment
Society’s mould got old a long time ago
By Delaney Loane
Digital Beauty Editor / July 14 2021
Maria Thattil paints an empowering picture on the cover of our autumn Digital Issue. Here, BEAUTYcrew's Delaney Loane sits down with her to discover how she overcame self-doubt and society's 'beauty' mold to make her most empowered move yet - competing for the coveted Miss Universe crown.
There are a myriad of ways women can show up as allies for one another. However, personally speaking, I believe there’s a special place in paradise for the girls who tell you where they got their clothes instead of pretending they forgot.
A minute after meeting Maria Thattil, she spills the fact that her azure-blue knit dress (which she looked a million bucks in, may I add) was actually a bargain buy from Glassons. That small but telling comment was more than enough confirmation for me that she was a ‘build other women up’ type of woman. The very best kind.
While Maria may currently be feeling the most comfortable she ever has in her own skin (as she should be; she happens to be Miss Universe Australia, and mere weeks away from journeying to Florida for the global Miss Universe competition), she’s not solely concerned with her own sense of self-worth. She wants every one of us to feel just as strong, confident and empowered as she does – she wants to bring everyone around her up with her.
Why? Because Maria understands wholeheartedly that achieving a true sense of empowerment is anything but easy. It’s a journey, with pits and peaks, as it has been for her. But just the way she was quick to share the details of her dress, she’s not the type to keep her ‘how’ a secret.
She’s determined to be exactly the person that her younger, doubt-plagued self needed, and so she’s an open, encouraging, and refreshingly honest book… here’s her story.
Maria wears SWF
“I ended up trying to occupy skin that wasn't my own”
One look at Maria now, and she’s the picture of a strong, empowered woman. But confidence wasn’t necessarily something that came naturally to her. “As a kid, I was painfully shy to the point that when we would go to family parties, I would hide behind my mum's leg and cling to her skirt before we walked into a house – I very quickly developed a self-consciousness that stayed with me into my twenties.”
The white-washed concept of beauty the world presented her with certainly didn’t do much to help tame the beast of self-doubt, either. “Media was definitely over-representing a small Anglo-Celtic portion of a beautifully diverse Australian population. And it's not saying it's any less beautiful, but that's all we were seeing. When I was growing up, I thought in order to fit in, in order to be beautiful, I needed to be fairer-skinned. I needed to have blonde hair and I needed to have coloured eyes.
“There’s actually a picture that I have from my 20th birthday, and now my heart breaks seeing that girl because I'm wearing foundation that’s four shades too light. It cuts off at the neck and I was wearing a jumpsuit, so you can see that I've got beautiful brown melanin skin and my face is white. I had green eye contacts and dyed hair, and I look like I'm wearing a mask. It’s scary to think that I internalised a limiting concept of beauty so deeply that I ended up trying to occupy skin that wasn't my own.”
“Society tells everybody they need to be compressed into a box to be okay”
But as Maria learnt, occupying her own skin, when it wasn’t exactly something society encouraged her to do, was no small feat. “My passion for inclusivity, equality and empowerment stems from reflecting on my younger self and what she needed. I grew up in a time where I was bullied for being a shy, easy target, but also because I was different racially. I didn't have people on TV or in magazines, for people to see me reflected in and therefore understand.”
“The limited representation I did have were the really exaggerated stereotypes in movies. People would watch that, and I would get treated differently. I would get ‘othered’ and I was made to feel like a foreigner on my own soil, but at the same time, I didn't feel Indian enough to be Indian. I internalised a lot of that racism and started to self-reject because I didn’t feel like there was space for someone like me based on race.”
“I get very emotional when I talk about it because I think it’s a lifelong process of un-learning that kind of conditioning and the painful or traumatic experiences. That’s what I started to do in my early twenties; work to unlearn the patterns of self-rejection. But when I look around me, everyone is doing it because society tells everybody they need to be compressed into a box to be okay. We’re taught that if you don't fit that box, then you aren’t valuable, and that's your problem.”
“My message is: There is no mould. There should be no mould”
One of the ways Maria repositioned herself to see her own value? Through the power of social media. “When I started sharing beauty tips for people of colour on social media years ago, I didn't think it would grow an audience and a community, but it did because people were connecting with the message that they weren't hearing anywhere else, and they were seeing somebody who looked like them taking up space in arenas that we were not typically a part of. It was incredibly liberating because for the first time in my life, I wasn't relying on mainstream media to give me permission to be myself.”
“I chose to use it as a tool to create space for not only myself, but people like me and not even people who are necessarily like me, but anyone who has felt like they didn’t fit the mould. So my message is: there is no mould. There should be no mould. In fact, the reason I applied to Miss Universe Australia in the first place was because last year’s winner was an Indian-Australian lawyer named Priya Serraeo. Seeing her do it, that's when I realised there is no mould.”
“If we’re compassionate, we're sensitive, but if we're assertive, we’re bitchy”
The idea of a ‘powerful woman’ shouldn’t have to fit into a mold, either, something Maria realised from witnessing different kinds of strength within her family. “My grandma grew up in India and was orphaned at 16, with five siblings, all younger than her. She had no money and she had to raise them somehow through sheer grit and determination. She was a hustler – she ended up starting businesses that grew into two schools and she became a leader and an entrepreneur in a time where women in India didn’t have equality [or opportunity]. She changed not only her life, but the lives of her children, as she was able to have them come over here and immigrate. And it's just incredible.”
“My mum, however, has a different kind of strength. You’ve got those women who are hustlers, but I think a really beautiful marker of strength is being able to say soft in a world that tries to beat you into masculine ideas of strength. Females are constantly told that if they're compassionate, they're sensitive, but if they're assertive, they're bitchy. We keep giving mixed messages. When I think of my mum, she is strong because she's been through a lot in her life and despite all of that, she has the biggest, most generous heart and still is able to think of other people. And in that softness, vulnerability and generosity, there is strength.”
While familial role models proved extremely powerful, Maria still found comfort and inspiration in seeing herself represented within the wider world. “I remember the first woman I actually felt liberated by seeing was an entrepreneur named Deepica Mutyala. She went viral talking about how she covers her dark circles around her eyes, because at the time people didn't know how to deal with pigmentation for deeper skin tones. She blew up into this incredible beauty blogger, and she was the representation I needed. Now she’s started her own business and is the founder of a cosmetics company that caters to all hues. She made me feel seen and valued, and that’s what I hope I’m doing for other women who, like me, have felt like they weren’t seen.”
Maria wears Cecilie Copenhagen
“It’s not for us to decide what makes somebody feel empowered”
Being considered ‘vain’ because of a love for beauty is a judgment most women (Maria included) have experienced. But the way she sees it, there’s power in presenting yourself however you feel most comfortable. “I think [what] it comes down to, fundamentally, is [whether] this something you are indulging in [is] from a place of scarcity or is it a tool that you're using to tell the world ‘this is who I am’? I think we need to stop judging people who choose to show up in a way that feels good for them, [solely because] it doesn't make sense to us. It’s not for us to decide what makes somebody feel empowered.”
“Beauty, whether it's makeup, whether it's experimenting with your hair, whether it's choosing to do something like Miss Universe and investing in that, is a choice. You have a choice and a say in how you choose to show up as the most you you.”
She has a few secret weapons in her beauty stash that make her feel the most herself, too. “I love the L’Oreal Infallible More Than Concealer because it's really affordable, but the coverage is beautiful. I find that as a South Asian woman, I tend to have pigmentation around my eyes. Hair wise, I use a product called Dabur Amla Hair Oil – it’s an age-old South Asian family tradition. When I was young, once a week, my mum would put it in my hair – it leaves it glossy and healthy and I still do it very often.”
“I'm going to be whatever feels right, and right now that’s empowered”
Maria faced similar judgments around the ‘vanity’ associated with the pageantry path upon deciding to enter Miss Universe as well. “There are certain misconceptions about what that looks like, and what it takes to be a national delegate. But I knew it was a platform that I had the agency, ability, self-belief and empowerment to make into whatever I decided to. And I was going to use it to make change and challenge the status quo.”
At the end of the day, that’s the word she’s working to spread: “My message is all about inclusivity, and inclusivity means equality. I’m championing a world where people can be themselves, irrespective of markers of their social identity that they have been told is a deficit, whether it's sexuality, faith, their job, their socioeconomic status, their gender. People should have the ability to represent themselves wholly in society with the same dignities, freedoms, and resources that we have denied them for decades.”
She’s living proof that a pageant journey can be immensely empowering, too, holistically rather than solely visually. “I have never felt more empowered in my life than what I feel right now because [for the most part] I don't feel inhibited by any of the conditioned beliefs that completely used to drive me when I was growing up.” She’s proud of the road she’s taken, too – a sentiment that women often don’t feel entirely comfortable claiming. “I think as women we're told, be modest, be humble, you can’t say this, but it's like, you know what? No. I think that we should be able to say, I've worked for this. I have this power. I'm confident.”
“We keep getting mixed messages: Be confident. Oh, but you're too confident. It's like, you know what, I'm going to be whatever feels right, and right now that’s empowered.”
Maria wears SWF
“Shedding disempowering conditioning is a lifelong journey”
Reaching an empowered state doesn’t do away with bad days altogether, though, and Maria is a keen believer in the ‘let yourself feel your feelings’ mentality. “You don't get to a point in your life where you always feel like ‘yes, I'm so empowered’ without having days where you feel human and vulnerable. Because shedding disempowering conditioning is a lifelong journey, right? And there are days where sometimes those thought patterns creep back, or I compare myself to somebody else and I feel like I'm not doing enough.”
“I’m a very emotional person, and I think it's a beautiful thing to cry when you're overwhelmed, and to say ‘I'm not okay’. I’ve become okay with saying, ‘I need some help’ or ‘I need to shut off’. That's something that I previously thought would potentially compromise strength – I didn’t want to be seen as the emotional woman because of these patriarchal lies we've been fed about how we should be. So for me now it's owning that vulnerability and understanding that life ebbs and flows. It’s not an upward trajectory; it zig zags.”
“Those days do come and go, but sometimes you just want to get in bed, put on your fairy lights, watch Netflix, not talk to anybody, and wear your bed socks and a onesie. You have those simple indulgences, you have things that you do for your spiritual wellbeing. You switch off, you say you’re not okay, you eat what you want to eat, and you do what you need to do to heal.”
“Choose a lens that empowers you”
Progress, however, is something worth celebrating. And the fact that the beauty look that makes Maria feel most powerful now is “something extremely natural with a focus on dewy skin” (FYI, Chanel’s Baume Essentiel is her fave); “no glitter, no texture, no colour, just dew”) shows just how far she’s come.
“I’m talking a touch of mascara (IT Cosmetics Superhero is her go-to), brushed-up brows and either a bold lip or a natural glossy lip (she loves the Fenty Gloss Bombs). It’s not really changing my features, but just enhancing what’s already there.” And though the decision between full face glam and a low-key look is yours (and hers) to make, her affinity for the latter is a goosebump-inducingly far cry from the pale-foundation-applying, contact-lens-wearing Maria in that photograph all those years ago.
It’s that version of herself that she has a message of motivation for. “If I could go back 10 years and tell myself something, it would be ‘hang in there’. I know at that age I was about to have a number of really difficult life experiences, and I was on the cusp of really severe mental health challenges. The year after that, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but I was super high-functioning – I was going to Uni and smashing it, but I was not okay.”
“If I could tell anything to that girl who was trying to perform, but struggling so deeply internally, I would say know that your past and the things that you've gone through do not determine your future. Ultimately you can use these things to be a part of your story to help not only yourself, but to help other people too. I think it's just choosing a lens that empowers you as opposed to choosing a lens that puts you into a victim mindset. You always have a choice, and I would remind 18-year-old Maria of that choice.”
Photographer: Paul Suesse @paulsuesse
Hair and Makeup: Katie Angus @katieangusmakeupartist
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