By Maria Thattil
I have a bit of an interesting relationship with make-up. As a person of Indian heritage, at one point I was wearing foundation three shades too light in order to make myself look ‘more Caucasian.’
At other times I searched in vain to find the exact shade of foundation to match my skin tone, only to be told by a sales woman in a major department store that, “they don’t sell foundations that dark here in Australia,” but, that I could source it online.
Due to scarcity, not knowing how to do my own makeup and having appropriate makeup available to me growing up, I decided to enrol in a make-up artistry course to learn how to properly work with my features.
Now, as Miss Universe Australia, a brand ambassador and model, I have the privilege of having conversations with powerful global brands to collaboratively work toward making makeup more inclusive. I’m currently an ambassador for Olay because the people behind the brand kept their mind open to my lived experiences and ideas.
An open mind is not always easy to find though. Once I started work in corporate HR in my early 20s, I never thought my make-up and appearance would be a hot topic at the office. However I was surprised to hear it brought up by others time and again.
Unwarranted comments help no one
Whilst our mothers may tell us to ‘look our best’ in the workplace, the issue of how a woman is perceived at work due to looks and presentation, and whether it has any bearing on her ability to do the job, is a vexed one.
On the one hand, research indicates that women who present well have more favourable experiences in the workplace. On the other hand, I’ve had the message that presenting as “too attractive, and too made up” can be a detriment – particularly for women in male-dominated fields. With so many subjective ideas about what is appropriate for women, it is easy for it to feel like we walk a tightrope of expectation.
To my own dismay, I’ve incurred unwarranted comments on my presentation irrelevant to my professional value from both men and women. I’ve had a male superior tell me I seemed less ‘mature’ because I “wore too much make-up and spent too much on clothes.” Another male recruiter assumed I landed a great contract role not because of my two degrees in psychology and management, professional experience or interview expertise, but because “I likely walked into a room of male managers and ‘they liked what they saw’”. I was phone interviewed by two women for the job.
A female superior advised me early in my career that to be taken seriously I needed to be “less extroverted,” whilst still balancing being “extra nice to everyone so that people wouldn’t perceive me as being stuck up” because I ‘presented well’. From my first commercial internship to my last role, there have been many confusing messages that I’ve received as a young woman trying to demonstrate her work ethic and professional value.
Everyone has a right to speak up
For generations, women have reluctantly accepted disempowering cultural and social norms and inaccurate ideologies about femininity and professional capabilities, because being vocal about our rights and grievances makes us ‘trouble-makers’. The remarks I received were upsetting, but I silenced myself and it took me years to share inappropriate comments made to me by superiors because I didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’.
Women are being more encouraged to speak up about gender bias and inequality, and yet research shows female whistle-blowers and those who ‘complain’ experience more retaliation. I personally know one woman who was unable to continue working after speaking out against bullying, sexual harassment and unwarranted personal comments.
What ensued was more than six years of legal battles, a lack of protection against retaliation and long-term detriment to her professional brand. Not only are women more likely to experience malfeasance at work, but they are more at risk of retaliation like poor performance reviews, verbal harassment, intimidation and tighter scrutiny just for speaking up.
When it comes to appearance organisations need to be mindful
So, what can we do? For a start, organisations need to be mindful of how they speak to employees, and be open to listening to feedback when it comes to sensitive issues of appearance and personality.
Organisations have dress codes for a reason and have a right to enforce this. However, when comments are unsolicited, suggestive, irrelevant, mean, or laden with innuendos that don’t belong in the workplace it’s another matter. Most people who have these particular comments directed at them feel distinctly uncomfortable and it does little to improve ‘work performance’.
What to do if you feel uncomfortable
When faced with problematic statements, you can address it privately with the person – but also give them the benefit of the doubt. Discuss what made the comment problematic, and if you’re still uncomfortable, consider speaking to your Manager or HR. And whether the commentary is a one-off or repeat offence, I’d recommend documenting the instance, just in case you need to refer to it later in formal procedures.
Other than institutional overhauls and investigations, deep cultural change and legislative reform, we all need to protect and support people who use their voices to speak up – whether it is about sexual harassment and bullying or inappropriate personal remarks about how one presents.
Additionally, when we hear stories about inflexible workplaces, suggestive comments, unsafe working environments, unwelcome opinions or bullying – we need to connect the dots between these more subtle manifestations of sexism and misogyny. This only contributes to workplace cultures that reinforce power imbalances – allowing harassment at very serious levels to escalate or prevail.
We need to change the narrative so when a woman speaks up rather than being silenced into submission the rest of society lifts their head and asks ‘how can we do better?’
Writer and speaker Maria Thattil is the creator of Mind With Me – an empowerment series on Instagram and podcast which inspires women, men and young people to be confident and live their best lives. As the current Miss Universe Australia 2020, she is ambassador for Olay Regenerist Whip UV SPF 30 and Olay Super Serum Hyalauronic Acid.