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Maria Thattil was recently crowned as Miss Universe Australia, and while most of her journey so far has been great, she is hoping to use one recent experiences with an online tabloid to share how she rises up against trolls and empowers others.
Speaking with Yahoo Lifestyle, the 27-year-old shared what happened during the "confronting experience" with the tabloid, which saw her receive countless messages from trolls, some of whom even sent remarks encouraging suicide as well as racist comments.
"I shared a post where I spoke about overcoming judgement and under-estimation," she said. "I elaborated on this topic within my Instagram Empowerment Series ‘Mind With Me’ where I echoed the sentiments, describing how despite graduating with two degrees with Honours and working in a corporate career whilst building my own professional social media platform - many assumptions were made about these opportunities.
"My audience also shared their own experiences with being ‘placed in a box’ or having assumptions made about them - and we talked about the importance of not judging people on markers of their social identity. I saw an article go up where I was not only misquoted, but the message was completely misrepresented with a fabricated headline."
Maria's first reaction was to laugh, because the article was "so factually incorrect right down to the job I hold".
"Ironically, the stereotype they tried to uphold is exactly that which I was speaking against: as a woman of colour, I was speaking openly about navigating a society where so often, we make assumptions about people based on very limited information - and in this case, based on outright lies," the beauty queen explained.
"The messages I share are about challenging assumptions we collectively hold based on physical appearance, race, ability, sexuality, job, gender identity etc. and how as a society, we stand to gain so much more when we are open to getting to know people and learning from each other."
While the article was bad enough, what followed was shocking as Maria was inundated with horrible messages across social media. What was even more surprising was the fact so many of these trolls were people with children.
"To be honest I was absolutely shocked at how many people react without thinking to clickbait titles," she said. "I have been operating on social media for a few years and I have never experienced anything like this. It’s particularly concerning because the world we live in is a digital one and the people speaking abusively, spewing hate and vitriol have children, partners and friends who they would want to protect from this very behaviour."
"This happens to so many others, including children - so it was important to me to shake off the surprise, reframe and use this as an opportunity to talk about the harsh reality of the social media space for everyone who uses it."
When replying to some of these trolls, Maria showed her maturity and grace by responding with kindness.
"No-one who is happy, secure or at peace with themselves would seek to hurt, harm or project pain onto others," Maria said. "The same goes for bullies in real life. My message is: if you would not wish this on your child, partner, friend or yourself - why do it to someone else?
"Ultimately, I speak about these issues because I would like to live in a world where one day - if I have children - they are strong enough to not fear these spaces, and to never suppress their voice because of bullies. As I said to one person (who happened to be a parent) who had sent a nasty message: I work to stay positive and speak about these issues so that their children can grow up in a world where they don’t incur abuse and bullying online."
One of the positive things to come out of the situation, however, were the beautiful messages from her followers.
"I was so grateful to receive messages from old followers and new who were able to laugh the issue off with me. Many sent messages advising that they found me through the article, and chose to stay because they liked the positive and uplifting messages I shared. This was the gift in this difficulty. It’s why I believe in the uniting power of social media - because as hard as it can be, for every online troll, there were way more people within my community who operate from a place of kindness, friendship and empathy."
Maria shared her top tip on how to ensure her mental health is in peak condition during trying times like this.
"It was really important to step outside the ‘online’ world and to remember that the unkind responses weren’t personal," she explained.
"I kept my family and friends close and spent less time on social media just to give myself a break. I’m also someone who loves to read - particularly books on mental resilience and spirituality, so I took more time to read material that refreshed my mind and soul."
The model also shared that she believes in finding the "gift of a lesson in challenges in hardship".
"I thought to myself: if I can respond in a way that is rooted in kindness and compassion, as opposed to trying to fight hate with more hate, maybe I can help someone else who is experiencing something similar," she said.
"Maybe this can serve as an example for other people who are facing unkindness in their own lives? I received messages from many people who told me that that watching me respond to the situation influenced and empowered them in their own personal responses to bullying or trolling that they have received."
Finally, Maria shared advice for anyone who may be going through something similar in their lives.
"Who you are is not dictated by anyone else’s perception of you," she said. "If you are someone who is being bullied, misunderstood or trolled, remember that their words don’t have to hold any power at all.
"If what you say and do is rooted in faith, kindness and compassion - don’t allow bullying to suppress you or your voice. There may always be people who will mistreat, misunderstand, seek to troll or hurt you - but your power can’t lie in their actions. It needs to lie with you - and that’s when you will be able to rise above and not let their words or actions harm you.
"Remember that the unkindness and hurt that another projects onto you reflects their internal state and you have no control over their actions. Focus on keeping your own internal state clear."
Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.
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