Monday’s Met Gala may have been all that the media could talk about, but Padma Lakshmi’s Sports Illustrated cover is all that certain people (it’s me, I’m people) could think about. The multi-hyphenate — best-selling author, TV host, and model — debuted her first ever Sports Illustrated cover on May 1, much to the delight of fans and celebrities alike. And unlike this year’s Met Gala theme, it’s very much worth the hype.
“Padma’s list of accomplishments is as stunning as she is, and it’s an absolute honor to feature her in the 2023 issue,” SI editor MJ Day said in an article about the shoot. “At 52, she has curated a life that represents who she authentically is: a powerful, beautiful, brilliant, accomplished woman in her prime.”
The headlines surrounding Lakshmi’s photoshoot all emphasize posing in a chic, skimpy swimsuit at 52. Lakshmi herself has even brought up the subversiveness of it. “I want everybody to see this pictorial and understand that sometimes a whole new phase that’s even more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced before can happen well over 40,” she told the magazine. If anything, 2023 has affirmed Lakshmi’s sentiment, considering Michelle Yeoh’s historic Oscar win at 60 and Viola Davis’s EGOT status at 57.
But there’s more to celebrate about the cover than Lakshmi’s age. For brown folx everywhere, the most revolutionary part is witnessing the perpetuation of what Lakshmi does best: unwaveringly and unapologetically honoring her autonomy, her desires and her body. This doesn’t always come easy for those in the diaspora because our culture is rife with body policing and respectability politics that imply that women that show a lot of skin are, simply put, worth less.
Shame (I knew it as “sharam”), especially around sexual expression and body positivity, remains a vehicle of patriarchal oppression in South Asian cultures. How women present themselves is judged on an invisible scale of chastity, purity and innocence. Hypocritically, desire is undesirable, and wearing revealing clothes or showing skin stands to undermine pillars that brown communities view as vital to “success,” which largely means marriage and kids. In more progressive circles, it means a respectable career, too.
Don’t get me wrong: Modest fashion is something many South Asian women embrace, and we’re even seeing it permeate high fashion. But when modesty is pushed on us as a threat, it’s a true mindfuck.
Lakshmi is no stranger to these structures, facing media scrutiny over her daughter’s paternity and being a single mother, not unlike the cultural stigma her mother faced a generation prior and an ocean away in India. Yet, Lakshmi refuses to bend to be digestible to South Asian cultures’ male gaze, nor does she heed their demands. It’s evident that she loves being Indian American but loves being her most authentic self just as much.
Everything about her SI shoot upends that culturally dated, sartorial, ageist notion of femininity — but it’s also a reminder that it doesn’t take a whole photoshoot to embrace sexiness. We see it in the gloriously unbothered photos that she posts of herself, and it’s a consistent reminder that Lakshmi’s leaving the worst parts of brown cultures behind and embracing the parts that serve her.
“I’m here to tell you that you can have a beautiful relationship with your body and your sensuality,” Lakshmi said in a conversation with Page Six at the recent TIME100 gala. “And be a mother and be a lover and be a friend and have a multidimensional complex human being.”
And for Lakshmi, there’s so much more to being South Asian than the patriarchy. “People often ask me how I hold on to my culture in this country,” she says in an episode of her Hulu show, ”Taste the Nation.” “That’s easy — I live it every day. In the food I eat. The languages I speak. The place I pray. And the company I keep.” Anyone who’s watched the host devour something carby on TV knows she never puts pleasure (or her culture) on the back burner.
Growing up in a religious Hindu family, I was surrounded by full-bodied statues and figurines of goddesses, ones whose curves looked a lot like mine. And while those deities are known for much more than their appearance, there’s something beautiful about finding power and divinity in skin and flesh. Padma Lakshmi, unlike her namesake, isn’t a holy figure in Hinduism by any means. But the goddess vibes just won’t quit.