“I think it’s incredibly important [to speak up],” the 47-year-old told HuffPost Australia. “I’ve never had an experience like that but my heart goes out to women who have suffered under an unfair workplace environment.
“I know there are certain professions where this sort of behaviour is protected by men but also women who themselves feel under threat,” she continued, though didn’t specify a particular industry.
When reflecting on her own experiences of feeling safe as a woman, Poh, who features in L’Oreal Paris’ ‘Women of Worth’ campaign, said there were a “couple of incidents” of concern while dating in her younger years, and had she not trusted her instinct to get away at the time, things “could’ve turned bad quickly”.
She hopes more women feel confident in calling out inappropriate behaviour though also acknowledges this isn’t always possible.
“Of course an affected woman may take years to find the strength to report the incident and they deserve our deepest empathy,” said Poh.
“Moving forward, it’s my hope to build a culture of girl warriors listening to their gut – if it feels like a potentially dodgy situation, call it on the spot and leave. There’s certainly no harm in being in control right off the bat.”
Having moved to Australia from from Malaysia at age nine with her family, Poh and her mother became Mormons several years later before the cook left the church at age 24. Looking back, she believes her upbringing played a role in how she dodged tricky situations when dating.
“It’s interesting, I resented my conservative cultural upbringing because it took away from my freedom, but at the same time it made me very cautious in dating situations,” she said.
“There are a couple of incidents during my youth that could’ve turned bad quickly but I withdrew from them because of this caution.”
She said it’s a “struggle” for women “to not compare” themselves to others, but it’s important to create “your own standards of measure” when battling self-esteem issues and lacking a sense of self-worth.
“I suffer from it all the time but with age I’ve managed to develop devices to help me turn off self-doubt,” she explained. “Painting is definitely one of them. But every time I start a painting, there is still self-doubt there.
“That’s when I brew a dozen cups of tea, to get me over the nerves!” she laughed.
“But I‘ve now collected enough history to tell me the doubt is not justified. That’s what I use to push through those moments and then, to be able to create something I’m proud of at the end – that feeling is enormously affirming.”
When asked about the impact her cultural upbringing has had on her feelings of self-worth, she said, “This is a universal struggle for women of all races”.
“There were feelings of isolation when I was younger, but honestly, I’m certain it was less a migrant thing and more that I just popped out like that.
“Even when I was in Malaysia, I had those feelings. I was terrible at school and always getting into trouble for not listening – a chronic daydreamer with terrible marks and a totally dysfunctional student. I felt very lost all the time and confused.
“So when I came to Australia, a lot of those things lifted because of the healthy emphasis on social development, rather than on academia.”
Poh admitted she was still insecure about her appearance growing up.
“Looking physically so different from everyone was my biggest challenge, I found that haunted me probably until my early thirties,” she said.
“It took me a long time to go, ‘Hey I’m OK with the way I look because I know I can’t change it, and I need to start to have a healthy relationship with what I have’.”
Poh shot to fame after finishing as runner-up on the first season of ‘MasterChef Australia’ in 2009. She returned to the show last year and placed sixth in its all-stars season called ‘MasterChef Australia: Back To Win’.
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