Why Poh Ling Yeow & Maria Thattil Unpacking Beauty Standards Hits Home For WOC

Image courtesy of Channel 10
Poh Ling Yeow on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
Embracing natural beauty has been more so normalised in recent times – and rightfully so – but appearing makeup-free on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! was initially a daunting experience for Poh Ling Yeow and Maria Thattil.
While we see barefaced selfies trending on social media and endless 'makeup-free celebrities' photo galleries published by media outlets, the representation of women of colour looking naturally beautiful is still lacking – a hangover from the whitewashed beauty standards and colourism we saw growing up.
Former MasterChef Australia star Yeow recalled "growing up and not feeling enough physically, and always having those feelings of being inferior", while Miss Universe Australia 2020, Thattil, spent "five or six years wearing white makeup, blue eye contacts and dyeing my hair blonde" to achieve the eurocentric ideals of beauty she saw projected in the media.
With no makeup, no hair products and just one mirror shared between 13 celebrities in the I'm A Celeb jungle, South Asian Australian Thattil told Refinery29 Australia she was "very nervous to be bare" on national television.
"I was also conscious of the fact that I am challenging beauty standards as it is representing Australia [at Miss Universe] and thought, how significant is that going to be when little kids turn on the telly and they see a barefaced brown woman and she's [representative of] Australia?"
Image courtesy of Channel 10
Maria Thattil and Joey Essex on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
Thattil said the "six foot tall, white woman who gets the beauty stereotype" is beautiful, but it's not the only image of beauty in Australia and "you don't have to look like this to be considered enough". By going on the reality show where "every detail" on her face was on display, she would be "challenging beauty standards" – something she yearned to see other brown women do when she was growing up in Australia as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
"I know that when I was little, had I seen that, maybe I wouldn't have spent five or six years wearing white makeup, blue eye contacts and dyeing my hair blonde," she said.
Looking back at that period in her life, the 28-year-old said she was "absolutely" trying to look less Indian.
"I was trying to occupy skin that wasn't mine. However, at the time, I was genuinely convinced that I looked better that way," she explained.
"You're trying to be what you're seeing. Your subconscious soaks up these messages. If you want to be a news anchor, you've got to look like this. If you want to be on telly, if you want to be on Neighbours, if you want to be a model, you've got to look like this. That's what beautiful is.
"So people subconsciously absorb that and try and rise to that, but they end up betraying themselves. So I know that that's what it was with me. I was just trying to fit what I was absorbing to be the standard of beauty and success."
Thattil's not alone. As a South Asian woman myself, I remember dyeing my hair in my early 20s in a bid to look less Indian while studying journalism. I truly believed the more ethnically ambiguous I looked, the more likely it would be that I would land a media career in television. Up until that point, I had rarely seen a brown woman on Australian news television. Now, when I make TV appearances, I still worry that the darker circles under my eyes, which are very common amongst South Asian skin tones will show on-screen. Thattil said she too was anxious about the pigmentation when she went into the jungle.
Yeow, who finished as runner-up on the first season of MasterChef Australia back in 2009, wrote in an Instagram post in 2020 that she desired to look different after migrating to Australia from Malaysia when she was nine.
“Growing up as a migrant kid I had so few role models,” she wrote at the time.
“I dreamt of being blonde and blue-eyed, fantasised about having long legs and was ashamed of the shape of my nose and my face, but today we get to be this for anyone who’s ever felt on the outer. Thank you,” she wrote, referring to an episode of MasterChef Australia: Back To Win that featured all-Asian Australian contestants in an challenge.
Speaking to Refinery29 Australia, Snackmasters host Yeow said she bonded with Thattil in the jungle as they both "had very similar experiences growing up, coming from religious backgrounds... and not feeling enough physically and always having those feelings of being inferior."
"I always struggled with the way that I looked," said the 48-year-old.
While the celebrity and artist feels a bit more confident in her skin now that she's "old enough", she said "it was still a really big deal for me going on the show without makeup".
"I think my relationship with makeup has helped me now but I think when I first discovered it, it was just this huge revelation that I could transform the way I looked, which was from something that I didn't like at all seeing, into something that I'd like seeing."
Yeow, who has also previously worked as a professional makeup artist, said there were periods in her life where she was "addicted" to makeup in an "unhealthy" way.
"I think going on the show was just such an act of personal bravery for me more than most things because I'd be doing all those things and feeling very naked without I guess that 'faking it' which makeup usually is for me."
The reality star is touched at how "warmly" her makeup free appearance has been received on the show and said the experience has been "really affirming and life-shaping".
Another topic that Yeow and Thattil discussed in the jungle was the challenges they faced growing up with two cultures.
"You know that migrant thing of just feeling indebted to the sacrifices your parents have made?" Yeow asked Thattil during Monday night's episode.
"I feel that and it’s that sense of not feeling like you’re ever doing enough to give back to them."
When Yeow asked her co-star if she too had grown up "with that whole thing of trying to fit into two cultures", Thattil confirmed, "one hundred per cent".
"It felt like I would go home and there was one world, go to school and there’s another and you feel like you’re just teetering on the edge," said the model.
If Yeow and Thattil's portrayals on the show can shape the confidence and lives of the next generation of women of colour, that certainly affirms the beauty of representation.
I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! airs Sunday to Thursday at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10 Play on Demand.

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