beauty

Maria was the shortest contestant at Miss Universe 2020. Not everyone wanted her there.

As a woman who stands at 5’3, I’m used to being the shortest one in the room. 

When I was in Year 7, I recall preps being taller than me. I shrunk beside my peers as a small bean of a child with a school dress down to my ankles that my mother affirmed I would grow into. 

Into my teens, being shorter and scrawny didn’t work in my favour and I experienced bullying. Short, small and shrinking. 

Side note: How to improve your daughter's body image. Post continues below.


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Only a few months ago, I was paying for petrol at a service station when the female cashier asked my age. 

28, I told her. She immediately retorted, "But you’re so small!" and said her 13-year-old-daughter was taller than me. 

She then asked, "What are you? A size zero or something?" I paid in silence but my mind ran a mile a minute. 

Commenting on another person’s body is inappropriate – period – and yet it happens so often.

Even in professional circles, my height has been a talking point. 

Before I left for the international Miss Universe competition, I spoke to the aspiring Miss Universe Australia 2021 contestants, and whilst nearly all of them were mindful of language, I overheard one saying, 'Aw, she’s so cute!' like I was a Pokémon.

Image: Supplied.

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I still remember packing a pair of six-inch heels that felt like a pair of stilts.

The world knew I was 5’3 – after all, it was a hot topic of conversation in the Miss Universe world. 

As the shortest entrant out of 74 competitors, I knew all eyes would be on me. I felt 'taller' than ever but the online commentary was different: 

"She’s smart and beautiful... but she is ONLY 5’3."

"How will she compete with the REAL beauties on stage at that height?"

"She’s great online but she will drown on stage next to the taller women."

And this: "I love Miss Australia, but she is scary short, like a midget."

I must say, that was one of the best insults I’ve ever received – I mean forget about a pandemic and all the wrongs ravaging the world, what about SHORT PEOPLE?

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Height can be a factor when it comes to professional and personal success.

Although the global Miss Universe competition has no official height requirement, most countries send representatives taller than 172cm. 

In the modelling industry height is a huge hurdle when it comes to runway work. 

In my earlier days, I was constantly told that my height was an issue, and my 'look' made it hard to 'place' me in the Australian market – and so the door was shut on this seemingly 'good thing in a small package' many times before I decided to rewrite the narrative for myself and others.

It’s not just pageantry and modelling.

Let me preface this by acknowledging that this pales in comparison to the issues that the most marginalised bodies experience; larger, disabled, coloured bodies face a world of systemic oppression impacting their health and livelihood in ways that others do not. 

Nonetheless, what I am discussing is an issue in its own right. 

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average height of Australian women is 161cm, and yet the average height of female shop mannequins is 172cm.

In addition to struggling to find clothes that fit, research tells us that being shorter has consequences beyond having to occasionally surf the kid’s department.

A university study in the Netherlands, home to the tallest people in the world, revealed that people perceived stature and status as linked. 

That due to physical dominance in height, there is a perception of leader-like qualities, health and intelligence. 

Think of these (heavily gendered) terms – if I were to call you 'big guy', dominance, success and power come to mind. 

Now if I said 'little man' – I get Danny DeVito in his stint as The Penguin. 

We can joke about this, but in all seriousness, it is alarming that outward characteristics – height included – do impact labour market outcomes. 

In fact, some research has shown that the height premium is comparable to that associated with race and gender, with taller workers receiving a wage premium.

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So, I learned to manipulate perception.

Whilst I used my status as 'the shortest contestant' in the class of 2020 as part of my advocacy for inclusion, diversity, and redefining beauty standards globally, I still packed a pair of six-inch heels for the journey because I anticipated the selection committee and other contestants to (pun intended here) 'size me up' subconsciously because of height biases – and I wanted to leave nothing to chance. 

So whilst I decided to embrace my shortness as much as possible, why did I take to the stage in a pair of skyscraper stilettos? 

Because firstly: your glutes look amazing in heels and I’m not going to fight that. 

Secondly, unlearning lifelong conditioning isn’t an immediate thing. Buried deep in my subconscious was the belief that my shorter stature would be a detriment to endeavours of success – and with good reason.

Here’s the thing. My philosophy for life is simple: live and let live. If it’s makeup that makes you happy, going to the gym and investing in your physique, wearing clothes that accentuate the parts of your body that you love – do whatever makes you feel happiest. 

For me, I learned that if you do want to look taller, there are ways to alter perception.

Whilst campaigning for Miss Universe, I took photos from a lower angle to distort perceptions of my length. I would stand front and centre or on the end of group pics to not get lost amongst the taller people I stood beside. 

Image: Supplied.

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It helped me feel more comfortable in the industry I chose, but at the international competition, I decided not to shy away from the way that I am.

People jeered about anticipating photos of me alongside the taller entrants – including my own roommate, Miss Bahamas Shauntee Miller, who was one of the tallest competitors at 6'0! 

But I embraced it and took the opportunity to stand right in between my competitors, even if it did resemble THAT photo of Shaq and his girlfriend. 

Image: Supplied.

I knew that it was more noticeable because the other women were in heels too, however I wanted to make the point that you can take up space in realms once deemed inappropriate for you, even if you don’t 'fit the mould.'

Reframing my height.

After I became Miss Universe Australia, some people online started referring to me as 'small but mighty'.

Fortunately, not everyone was negative – but even then, I reframed the statement to proclaim that I am small AND mighty. 

Right after the global competition, pageant fans worldwide began campaigning for national Miss Universe organisations to remove their height requirements, citing me as an example of why they should. 

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Immediately after, Mexico, The Philippines and Singapore all removed their height restrictions. India reduced theirs. The change is catching on worldwide. 

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Beauty, power, leadership, worth and capability are not rooted in something as trivial as the number of cm's you are. 

I needed to walk the talk, and I’m so proud that my decision to 'stand tall' helped to successfully challenge beauty standards.

Markers of our social identity – race, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability – have long been used to determine who we are and where we fit in the world. 

You don’t have to subscribe to disempowering ideas just because 'that’s how it's always been.' This is a good way to think, for anyone who feels like they need to compensate for parts of who they are. 

You can be a change maker – don’t sell yourself short.

Writer, speaker and the current Miss Universe Australia 2020 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. 

Feature Image: Supplied.

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