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South Asian women changing the beauty standards of (white) Australia

We speak with five women fearlessly embracing their brown identity

Growing up as an Asian-Australian in the West, all I knew was to reject my Asian heritage. 

When you’re constantly bombarded with white people on television and in the beauty industry, you become accustomed to the notion that whiteness is the only way to look beautiful. 

But, it’s not just the West. Whitening creams like ‘Fair and Lovely’ in the Indian subcontinent dehumanise dark skin on the daily, and the sentiment is heavily imported through migration. 

South Asian-Australian women are here to challenge toxic expectations of beauty and change them altogether, head-on. 

Maria Thattil, Miss Universe Australia 2020, is one of the only three women of colour to represent Australia in its 69-year history at the worldwide pageant. 

“For a long time, the beauty standard was built on proximity to Anglo-Celtic or Eurocentric ideals. South Asian beauty reflects a spectrum of diversity that cannot be encompassed within such exclusive ideals, but we have internalised them,” says Maria.

While she has become a household name for young brown women like me, it hasn’t come easy.

“People raise eyebrows when you represent Australia and say things like, ‘But you’re brown’. Or you walk on set and are told, ‘Oh, you’re not a six-foot-tall glamazon’ - as expressed by a crew member during my first shoot as Miss Universe Australia.”

 One of the primary reasons we don’t see many South Asian women in the Australian fashion industry is because it is difficult to enter in the first place.

Tamanna Rafique, the founder of Tamanna the Label, says she feels extremely proud when she sees fellow South Asian women doing their thing in the beauty industry.

“Careers in the creative space are hard to pursue because the pressure from parents to keep a stable 9-5 is immense - so the setbacks can really start at home. There are so many unspoken battles we face before even entering the industry, so it’s always a ‘you go, girl!’ moment for me,” says Tamanna.

“You go, girl!” is correct, especially given the multiple stereotypes South Asian women are subjected to in Australia. 

Digital creator Ruchi Page mainly writes about beauty and knows that finding it within oneself can be difficult to navigate.

“I am familiar with strangers ‘complimenting’ me as being pretty for an Indian and mimicking an accent I do not have. For example, I was afraid to take a photo of myself with a towel on my head for a skincare post, in case someone would make fun of me for wearing a turban. As though South Asian culture was something to be embarrassed about,” shares Ruchi.

But shattering stereotypes can be immensely powerful. “As a brown and curvaceous woman, I wanted to stand as an equal person in the beauty industry.”

Equality in the beauty industry is an important subject. For South Asians with darker skin, finding the correct foundation shade can be daunting. Opting for a shade that doesn’t match or having no foundation at all can be painful.

Shanthi Murugan, Head of Campaign & Strategy at Adore Beauty, is a firm believer in inclusive skincare and makeup brands for women of colour. She started the movement ‘Global Shades’ and hashtag #StockAllShades in 2017 to help mould a more inclusive beauty industry for Australians.  

“For far too long, Australia has been viewed and represented as a Caucasian country, with a disregard for representation of its First Nations people and people of colour in general. Once organisations open up their product offerings and services, we need to ensure the industry trains its professionals on how to service BIPOC consumers because we all have different needs,” says Shanthi.

Shehzeen Rehman, a Pakistani-Australian blogger, echoes Shanthi’s inputs. “We need more diverse campaigns and equal pay. But, to hire more diverse talent, you need more diversity at the root. We need a workforce that is not all the same and where more people of colour make decisions, so products represent real people and not one-dimensional standards.”

 For me, seeing incredible South Asian women flourish in the beauty industry replaces the deprecating thoughts I once had into nurturing, loving ones. I never imagined it was possible to relate to someone with the same experiences and culture in the beauty industry. 

Growing up in (white) Australia meant I was always positioned to believe European features were the absolute epitome of beauty. Being mixed also presented its own challenges because I felt ‘too Indian’ for my Southeast Asian side and too ‘Asian’ for my South Asian side. It’s all very confusing and hard to navigate.