Meet a Model: Lakshmi Menon

So naturally the comments in the Oprah/Ash/Abhi thread devolved into an argument about skin color. Naturally. It’s like the Godwin’s Law of all things desi-related.

Lakshmi Menon - Biba August 2008 2.jpg

I don’t know about you, but I’m heartily sick of the topic. But listening to dark-skinned model talk about it? A dark-skinned desi model? A famous international dark-skinned desi model?

[OMG. Before you even think about arguing whether she's dark or not, just. stop. She thinks she is, mmkay?]

From the MTV Iggy blog archives:

If you’re a non-white woman, how many skin whitening products have you come across? Quick, GO!! (You all thought of Fair & Lovely, didn’t you?) Want to know what a fabulous international supermodel thinks about this?

Meet Lakshmi Menon, runway star, fashion editorial darling, face of Hermès, and a native of Bangalore, India. When it comes skin color and beauty, she would know of what she speaks. And sweet heavens above, does she ever!! Post-colonial hangups, “wheatish” complexions, Lakshmi lays it out:

Poor Stylist Keegan Singh is as dazzled by her intelligence as we are, and can barely keep up! Thoughtful, articulate, and really, really nice (our Iggy production crew raved about how unfussy she was about lighting and makeup…speaking of which, I don’t think she’s wearing any. grr.) Lakshmi blows away the notion that beauty and brains can’t cohabit. We’re too impressed to feel jealous. Dammit.

If the embeded video of the interview doesn’t open, go here to see the full thing. In part 2, Lakshmi and Keegan talk about their backgrounds, fashion trends, and how they began their careers.

66 thoughts on “Meet a Model: Lakshmi Menon

  1. Another thing, are you insinuating that Africans don’t have different complexions or that African’s don’t get suntans? Because hey, if you ignorantly think that Indian elites are going to be lighter-skinned or have just one skin tone then why not argue the same for blacks? If not then why aren’t you using common sense? Most upper-class Indians are going to be born with the same variety of dark-skin tones as the rest of the population. As for pre-colonial India the Ajanta Cave Paintings depict Indian royalty and nobility in Buddhist India all different skin tones, mainly dark shades.

  2. Most upper-class Indians are going to be born with the same variety of dark-skin tones as the rest of the population.

    Skin tone, especially for us brown folks, is going to vary based on how much time you spend in the sun. Depending on the season and how much time I’ve spent outside my skin color can range from that of a rather tanned Spaniard to a rather pale African.

    So while it may be true that people of all groups have representation from the entire spectrum of Indian skin colors, we’re talking in terms of generalities and it is a fact that the bulk of higher-classes tend to be lighter while lower ones tend to be darker. This is due to both the genetically higher incidence of darker pigmentation and is further compounded by the fact that they tend to work outside in the sun more often.

  3. Obviously, we’re talking past each other. I was talking about beauty ideals, not the actual complexions of individuals (which, of course, vary within all classes). I doubt that ALL upper-class women who sat for a portrait in 19th century England were pale white, but they were all painted that way because that was the ideal.

    Since Indian’s don’t all have the same complexion one complexion can’t be associated with working outdoors or low class over any other.

    I think this is where we’re disagreeing. Obviously, the reality is that there is a variety of complexions both within and across classes in all societies. That doesn’t mean that a certain “type” of beauty can’t be held up as the ideal. To say that there’s no way beauty ideals could ever be influenced by cultural ideas about class within a society, or that colorism has never had anything to do with class, is ridiculous.

    My question was if a certain complexion has, in fact, ever been associated with a certain class in India, as it has in other cultures. You say no, and provide some visuals to back up your argument (and thank you for those).

    This article, however, mentions pre-colonial India as a place that did prize fair complexions in the context of class. It’s not the greatest source (no author listed, sources not fully cited), but it’s an example of what I was trying to introduce to the conversation.

  4. There are too many ignorant people here on SM! Indians and posters here just don’t know what’s in upper-caste Indians’ ancestry that causes them to be lighter-skinned on average because it would have nothing to do with staying indoors or outdoors. The darker skin of “lower caste” Indians isn’t a suntan! Too many of you are taking for granted why the upper-castes are lighter skinned in the first place(if that’s true. I haven’t been to India).

    Now India has been invaded many times by Arabs, Persians, Mongolians etc. and their genes must have been absorbed into the upper caste and that might-be the reason behind upper castes’ lighter skin. The chocolate-licorice-cinnamon dark skin tones of India are from antiquity. I’m tired of Indians and posters here having the insolence to equate dark-brown Indians with a suntan just because they have been placed on the bottom rungs of society and happen to be outdoors only due to their marginalization. The same case is also true in North Africa such as Egypt. Upper class Egyptians are light-skinned because they are an accumulation of all the foreign (lighter) nations that invaded Egypt over centuries while the darker skin of the lower class is remaining African blood from Ancient Egypt. It’s like you all want to explain whenever the upper class is light-skinned as natural. As if the existence of a skin color discrepancy is mutually exclusive where one color has to be argued as more original than the other; in this case lighter skin being viewed as primary over darker skin. Stop having such a meme-sahib mentality by thinking of lighter-skin as the ‘starting complexion’ and darker skin as a secondary phenomenon of a suntan! Dark skin is original and natural also! No skin color is more original than any other!

    I disagree though that caste is based on skin color with a vertical light/dark dichotomy. If anyone looks at the Ajanta Cave Paintings link I posted earlier you’ll see that was not originally the case. I disagree with attributing this light-skin over dark thing to class at all. While racism (caused from outside invasion) is a form of elitism, classism isn’t by default stratified by skin color. The two are not interchangeable. Elitism within cultures originates with the elites having the same complexion(es) and physiology as the common people of that race.

    For this reason, European colonialism will forever be the real reason behind all this. Because explaining the light-skin hierarchy as simply a class issue is defaulting class to light-skin supremacy. Stratifying people is bad enough but how dare anyone have the gall to insinuate that dominance begins with light skinned people while denying dark-skinned nations and people from ascendancy.

  5. Btw the above post was directed at Yoga Fire.

    This article, however, mentions pre-colonial India as a place that did prize fair complexions in the context of class.

    I’ve read that article and the author appears to be ignorant for the above reasons I stated. Some Indians and other Asians are so used to seeing light skin as superior and are so used to the current state of things (of the upper being light-skinned) that they can’t imagine it being any other way. Thus they will try to make pre-colonial history fit their preconceived opinions.

  6. There are too many ignorant people here on SM! Indians and posters here just don’t know what’s in upper-caste Indians’ ancestry that causes them to be lighter-skinned on average because it would have nothing to do with staying indoors or outdoors. The darker skin of “lower caste” Indians isn’t a suntan! Too many of you are taking for granted why the upper-castes are lighter skinned in the first place(if that’s true. I haven’t been to India).

    Surely it would have something to do with it, but it’s a complicated thing and not likely to be explained by monocausal explanations. If light-skin is considered more beautiful then it stands to reason that people with lighter skin would be more likely to marry into higher-status families. This alone would put some selective pressure that differentiates skin tone between upper and lower class people.

    That said, we don’t really know what the perspective on skin color was in ancient times. It’s likely it played some factor, but how much of a factor it played would differ at different points in time. It’s likely that for most of history it was a pretty minor consideration and the idealized skin-tone was probably darker than we would see in film but also lighter than many on the darker end of the spectrum. On top of that, invaders in the North (and traders) could have brought their own skin-tone preferences in. In every case those invaders were lighter than the natives, so it makes sense that conquering leaders would prefer to carry away women on lighter complexions. (It should be noted that most of the invaders prior to the Islamic invasions were essentially absorbed into the Hindu fold and usually were placed at the more prestigious ends of the varna rankings.)

  7. For this reason, European colonialism will forever be the real reason behind all this. Because explaining the light-skin hierarchy as simply a class issue is defaulting class to light-skin supremacy. Stratifying people is bad enough but how dare anyone have the gall to insinuate that dominance begins with light skinned people while denying dark-skinned nations and people from ascendancy.

    I think you’re assuming a perspective that I don’t have. I’m not saying light skinned people are better than dark skinned people or even that they’re different. I’m saying that you can use skin tone as a rough, but highly imprecise indicator of social status. That doesn’t mean dark skinned nations never accomplished anything. In fact, I have a pretty dim view regarding the worth of most of India’s ruling classes.

  8. I think the genetic record shows that there hasn’t been much Arab, Persian, Mongolian, etc population entries into India. The population as a whole is genetically the same. Whoever invaded different parts of the country didn’t bring a changing population with them. Instead, Muslims leaders often forced conversion and/or many of the converts were likely low-caste as there was an incentive for low-castes to convert to a religion that seemed not to place them int he lower end of the hierarchy. Wish Razib would respond and/or converts were those inspired by the new religion.

    Now India has been invaded many times by Arabs, Persians, Mongolians etc. and their genes must have been absorbed into the upper caste and that might-be the reason behind upper castes’ lighter skin.

  9. Who says that lighter skin was considered more beautiful? You’re assuming that just because that’s the case today. The ancients most likely valued dark-skin as more beautiful. I quoted Marco Polo before on another thread but I won’t do it again.

    I think you’re assuming a perspective that I don’t have. I’m not saying light skinned people are better than dark skinned people or even that they’re different.

    No I didn’t. What I meant was people including you need to stop thinking that elitism beings with the upper class being light-skinned. Your problem is viewing light skin as more original than dark skin. I’ll say it again: all complexions are genetic and most ancient Indian elites were dark-skinned.

    people with lighter skin would be more likely to marry into higher-status families

    .

    Yes and for that reason here’s a thought. Perhaps the light-skin of the upper castes is recent? I don’t necessarily mean that they’re mixed with European but that along with the post-colonial favoritism of light-skin used by the British (or other Europeans) might have made the elites disproportionately light-skinned than they might have been before. To clarify, the desire to breed-out dark skin or favor light-skinned mates as you mentioned might have happened only in the last several hundred years and it only seems like forever to us since our lifespans don’t last long. We can’t get on a time machine and see what upper caste Indians looked like before European contact. So I think many posters here insisting that India’s colorism is pre-colonial and that upper castes were light skinned is presumptuous.

  10. Too many of you are taking for granted why the upper-castes are lighter skinned in the first place(if that’s true. I haven’t been to India).

    If you care to observe there is a variation in the skin color of rich people (need not be upper caste but in majority of the cases they will be) and poorer ones. Even brown people become dark if they work in the sun for long time ( I have not seen any farmers who have very fair complexion). Next time you go to India, check out the chic in the Merc and compare her complexion to any of the poor/daily labors, you’ll see the difference.

    Perhaps the light-skin of the upper castes is recent?

    I think the upper castes are comparatively lighter (it is debatable!??) because the woman with fair complexion were married to upper castes. If you know, a lower caste woman marrying a upper caste man was tolerated and the light skinned lower caste female had more incentives to do that. This is probably done over many years even before Europeans came. (Just my theory, no data to prove it)

  11. For this reason, European colonialism will forever be the real reason behind all this. Because explaining the light-skin hierarchy as simply a class issue is defaulting class to light-skin supremacy.

    I was in no way claiming that the “light-skin heirarchy” is “simply a class issue.” In no way. I would never dismiss the poisonous cultural affects of colonialism and racist social heirarchies. OF COURSE colonialism and racism have left their stamp on the beauty ideals of India.

    I tried to acknowledge as much in my original post:

    I do not want to downplay the cultural effects of colonialism

    and

    Obviously, class issues get tangled up with racist beauty standards in a colonized or slave-holding society

    I was simply trying to point out that colorism (prizing one shade of skin above another within an ethnic group) exists in many cultures and that it probably has had to do with class (historically) AS WELL AS race. That’s all. I never claimed it was only about class. If colorism of any kind did exist in pre-colonial India, I am 100% sure that European colonialism and racism strengthened and twisted it into something much stronger and much worse.

  12. But you guys still think that upper castes would just be light-skinned and if that was the case that’s why I stated:

    Too many of you are taking for granted why the upper-castes are lighter skinned in the first place (if that’s true. I haven’t been to India). Now India has been invaded many times by Arabs, Persians, Mongolians etc. and their genes must have been absorbed into the upper caste and that might-be the reason behind upper castes’ lighter skin.

    Lizzie, I understood you, but my point is this

    Any colorism with class would still be racist because the upper castes wouldn’t have originated with light-skin. There would have been no reason for any favoritism or association of light-skin with higher status as long as the upper castes are completely indigenous Indians who therefore should inherit dark-brown skin like most Indians. If things changed in between our day and the time the Ajanta Paintings were made there would have had to have been a change in the upper-castes’ ancestry and genes. Again, I disagree with saying it’s from class because class systems in each nation don’t originate with foreign rule or the upper class physiology differing from the natives. The real root of such a standard would still be racism. Take Brazil for example. While beauty standards that value light-skin and straight hair can be said to be a class issue the dynamic was still caused by colonial racism stratifying Europeans at the top and blacks/mestizos at the bottom.

    Self deprecation is against human nature. Human beings love self, so on a mass scale civilizations’ always prized their culture as the best and things like beauty standards supporting common physical attributes like skin color would be a given. India didn’t always favor light-skin above their own dark skin. There was a time when dark-skin, especially the darkest shades, were highly valued, but to read you guys’ comments you make India’s self loathing seem from time immemorial!

  13. Um, of course she has beauty and brains! She’s desi, isn’t she? It’s practically a foregone conclusion!

    hmm… maybe im in gteh wrong city or something. I meet a lot of vapid desi women.

  14. I meet a lot of vapid desi women.

    well, my suggestion is to them is to drop a couple of “postcolonials” in the conversation. but delay the use of the word “subaltern” till at least the third date. don’t want the person to get all hot and othered.

  15. saying all skin types is attractive is being politically correct. I do not think very dark skin is attractive and i am not going to be politically correct or be apologetic about it. if me thinking fair skin is prettier because of colonialism, then i would also think that blonde hair is prettier but i dont! i dont like extremely fair white pale skin either which was seen as beautiful during colonial times. there are so many albinos in india who look just like europeans but i have never seen them in bollywood or indian television or mis world etc. if indian prefers fairer co of colonialism and more association with europeans…..she would bring out these albinos and say hey we can be white skinned, lighter eyed and blonde haired too. pschology says we attracted to people who look like us….i am a fair skinned girl and i like me, maybe thats why i think fair skin is pretty.

  16. I think the genetic record shows that there hasn’t been much Arab, Persian, Mongolian, etc population entries into India. The population as a whole is genetically the same. Whoever invaded different parts of the country didn’t bring a changing population with them. Instead, Muslims leaders often forced conversion and/or many of the converts were likely low-caste as there was an incentive for low-castes to convert to a religion that seemed not to place them int he lower end of the hierarchy. Wish Razib would respond and/or converts were those inspired by the new religion.

    Thw whole claim that muslims treated the so called “lower castes” better is just theory. They continued to be treated unfairly. What explains the obsession with fair skin in Pakistan? Infact I have seen a popular TV host from Pak “the fourman show” calling indians kaale aur gandey

  17. I have a question why is the “colour” of a South Asian woman’s skin so important in relation to Indian beauty standards but Indian men are ignored? It seems to me that South Asian men are not pressured to have “light skin” in order to be considered attractive.

    • absolutely right in india men need not be fair while considered for marriage proposals ,but they expect woman to be fair