What does an Australian person look like?
Your answer may not be immediately available to you. And that’s fair because the truth is — obviously — that Australians today are a multicultural people; there is no one set of physical descriptors that could accurately capture the range of our beautiful community. Aside, perhaps from one term: diverse.
If you ask that question on an international scale, however, the answer you’d receive would probably be quite different. The picture of beauty that Australia traditionally sells is anything but diverse. All it asks of you is that you be thin, white and blonde.
This image is the one that has been so deeply stamped into the ‘identity’ of our country, that folks beyond our borders are often shocked to learn that no, we don’t all look like Margot Robbie. And as superficial as it may sound to some, the way we present Australians — and Australian beauty — has a significant knock-on effect.
Telling the world, and ourselves, that Australian beauty equals thin, white, and blonde not only sends the message that everyone outside of that description is the antithesis of beauty, but it plain erases everyone else from the picture.
Things are improving in this space, but not quickly enough. And one of the places we can clearly see this inequality play out is on makeup shelves.
The face of Australian beauty
Indian-Australian model, makeup artist and fashion stylist Maria Thattil was crowned Miss Universe Australia in 2020. Since taking on the title, Thattil has spoken, on many occasions, about the power of representation in Australian beauty and the prevalence of racism in our community.
All while showcasing the incredible diversity, and rich beauty, our country has to offer.
The modern face of Australian beauty is currently in the States, gearing up to compete in the Miss Universe 2020 competition (which is set to be held in Florida on May 16) but before Thattil hopped onto that plane, she took the time to speak with me about diversity, beauty and Australian identity.
“Being Miss Universe Australia now, it’s a responsibility,” she told me over the phone.
“It is an opportunity to actually change things in the longer term. People have been widely and the majority, you know, the community has been very supportive. But obviously, there’s still racism as well.”
As an Australian woman with an Indian background, Thattil has been met with both incredible support and staunch resistance during her time as Miss Universe Australia.
“People have blatantly said, ‘You’re not Australian enough. You’re Miss India’. You know, ‘She doesn’t represent my country. She has no Australian heritage’. And it’s all on the basis of skin tone.
“I think it’s important for me to address that sort of thing, because that kind of comment, it actually has the same underpinning as the reasoning behind why the beauty industry doesn’t cater to people of colour.”
Thattil shared that while she understands that comparison is “confrontational because one [form of racism] is a lot more overt and aggressive and one maybe is unconscious, and might not be ill-intentioned”. But the underlying message is the same. And the consequence of certain groups of people not being heard or catered to is consistent.
Who the bloody hell are we?
When speaking about the root cause of the problems with how Australia publicly presents itself through the beauty industry, Thattil did not mince words.
“When we’re thinking that the lack of diversity in Australia’s beauty industry, it’s important to address, uncomfortable as it is, to acknowledge [that] a lack of diversity in any industry, it is a manifestation of systemic racism,” she said.
That’s why, in recent months, Thattil decided to partner with Adore Beauty as a Global Shades campaign ambassador. She hopes to address — at an actionable level — the reality that many beauty brands exclude certain groups of people by failing to offer foundations and concealers in a range of shades.
Thattil explained that “what we’re looking at here is a lack of equal access to beauty products, based on skin tone.”
“And when you think about it, with Australia being one of the most multicultural societies in the world, you know, the fact that we are not actually catering to a significant portion of the spectrum of people that comprise this country, we have to question why.”
Part of the problem is that we don’t talk about it enough
On this, Thattil made a powerful point. Part of the issue may be that we shy away from conversations around race, yes. But a much bigger part of the reason we have so much work to do in addressing inequality is that there isn’t enough “being done to amplify” marginalised voices in Australia.
“I think the reason we don’t speak out about it enough is because we don’t actually have enough representation of these marginalised communities of Black, Indigenous and POC [people of colour] Australians in, you know, public, mainstream media and international spheres.”
Global Shades, she stressed, is less of a marketing campaign to her and more of an effort to generate awareness. It’s about “shining a light on this very big, but changeable issue that people need to be educated on in order to make an impact”.
Rather than using this platform to point fingers, however, Thattil is interested in facilitating conversations about inclusivity, as well as working to ensure all Australians have access to makeup products that fit their skin tones.
Don’t brush this off as superficial
“I was a makeup artist six years ago… and at the time, I couldn’t find makeup to fit myself or my clients,” Thattil explained.
“And if I can’t buy makeup, myself as a light-skinned woman of colour, what does that tell you about the even more marginalised, deeper skin tones within the country?”
If you’re tempted to roll your eyes and say, “it’s just makeup”, I’d ask you to consider the significance of the fact that people are experiencing barriers of access to an everyday item like foundation.
It matters. And it’s worth discussing.
“I still remember when I did my first ever modelling and beauty campaign in 2019,” Thattil told me.
“It was a national beauty campaign… And I remember I was inundated with messages. I didn’t quite realise the depth of it back then maybe, but now… I’m very highly aware of the power of my representation.”
“I remember getting a message from a woman who was in her 40s, I believe, and she said, ‘I cried seeing your face today, because I did not think it was possible in my lifetime that my children would see themselves as valued Australians, in this country, in public spaces.’”
So where to from here?
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there are changes happening but things still have a way to go.
If you’d like to support the movement for a more inclusive Australian beauty industry, you can begin by signing the Global Shades petition to ensure more brands offer products in a wide range of skin tones.
“It’s important that all Australians, even those who don’t identify with the groups I’ve mentioned, please support this action because it involves all of us,” Thattil shared.
“You’re either discriminated against, or you’re benefiting from the system.”
So let’s push to have the Aussie beauty industry accurately represent its people on a broad scale, and hopefully we can see that limiting picture of what currently defines Australian beauty melt away.