When Michelle Obama revealed the “secret” to her workout for perfectly toned arms, it became national news. This revelation, however, did not quell the debate and fascination over the gender politics surrounding this particular body part, as CNN and Fitness magazine are two of the many outlets that use Michelle’s arms as the ideal goal of suggested workout plans. Michelle has gracefully weathered the storm of public attention about her workout regimen by turning health and fitness into one of her defining public issues, with the “Let’s Move!” campaign. But the story about Michelle’s arms is not an innocent case of celebrity flattery or fitness gossip; it is part and parcel of the American public’s obsessive concern with the public presentation of Ms. Obama’s body.
Ms. Obama’s body is under absurd scrutiny, and in many cases the connections to intersectional race/gender stereotypes are painfully clear. While noting that the media is responsible for her status as a symbol representing all black women, she simultaneously validates the notion that black women do look to her as a reflection of themselves. “When Black women see me,” Michelle says, “they recognize themselves in me. Whether it’s my shape, my dress, the way I walk.” If there is one body image issue about Michelle that trumps the ongoing arms story, it is her choice of clothing. Jackie O’s ghost appears once again, as commentators frequently invoke Onassis with reference to Michelle’s fashion sense; “Mrs.-O,” a highly trafficked blog “dedicated to following the fashion of Mrs. Obama,” has been featured by seemingly every major newspaper and publication in the country, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. For a glamorous celebrity, Ms. Obama has crafted a decidedly down-to-earth public image that is a weapon against the uppity black superwoman stereotype. This image is reflected in Ms. Obama’s frequently “off the rack” clothing choices, as her fashion sense is heralded for being just as refined as Jackie’s but more sensible—proof that she is not the bourgeois elite that her education, occupation, and income would suggest. In Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style (2011), Kate Betts makes the case that Michelle’s embrace of her role as a fashion trailblazer breaks down the dichotomy between style and substance, and challenges the notion that for women, playing it safe with one’s wardrobe is a prerequisite for being taken seriously as an intellectual. As bell hooks points out, “Rigid feminist dismissal of female longings for beauty has undermined feminist politics.” Celebrating a woman’s effort to actively construct herself as beautiful and, for that matter, sexual is not capitulation to patriarchy and sexism. When beauty and sexuality are rooted in infantilization and objectification, and physical appearance chokes out women’s intellectual expression, we have a problem.
Betts points out that when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination in June 2008, Michelle’s approval rating stalled at 43 percent. From that point on, Michelle ditched the “corporate armor of sleek jackets and pantsuits” in favor of a more comfortable, colorful, and traditionally feminine aesthetic. After crossing the 50 percent approval threshold, she has never dipped below the halfway mark again. A cynic might argue that Michelle Obama has shrewdly accommodated the norms of respectable middle-class womanhood and that she does not deserve to be called a trailblazer simply because she follows the fashion advice of the Obamas’ public relations team. But even if we dismiss the political import of her clothing choices, we are confronted with another set of bodily acts that imbue the first lady with revolutionary political significance: the way Michelle and Barack express their love for each other in public displays of affection.
As noted above, the key to creating oppressive black female stereotypes that live in the American imagination is to demonize, regulate, and desecrate black women’s sexuality. Moreover, in the contemporary culture industry, black bodies have long been circulated as voiceless icons designed to bestow consumables of all kinds with the stamp of mythic physicality, danger, and sexual power. In some cases, such as Michael Jordan’s trademark silhouette, which appears as the stamp of athletic virtuosity on Nike’s Jordan Brand basketball clothing line, these bodies circulate as derivatives of themselves. In other cases, live bodies become the stamps of power; hoards of scantily clad black and brown women decorate the videos of hip-hop’s most recognizable stars.
Michelle and Barack’s use of their bodies in public displays of love and affection is revolutionary for at least three reasons. First, as historian Stephanie Coontz observes, “We’ve seen love in the White House before, but in many cases it was the adoring wife, along the lines of Nancy Reagan. What the Obamas have is a jocular, playful love, a mutual respect, and on Michelle’s part, a lack of awe and of adoration.” Even without an intersectional lens, this poses a clear challenge to the idea of the First Lady. Second, the Obamas carry out acts of intimacy that are leagues away from the vulgar sexualization of love and romance that permeates so much of American popular culture. Photographs of Michelle and Barack dancing, touching each other gently and laughing, looking at each other amorously, and holding hands portray romance and underlying sexual attraction as fundamentally cooperative and subjective phenomena rather than explosions triggered by the visual stimuli of objectified bodies or body parts.
Finally, Barack and Michelle are black sexual beings with voices rather than icons or symbols silenced by the metalanguage of race. As mentioned earlier, Barack Obama writes extensively about his love for Michelle in The Audacity of Hope, demonstrating awareness that the meaning of their love resonates beyond their two-person partnership. Michelle reinforces this truth as she describes her physical intimacy with her husband.
My oldest daughter, now that she’s ten, she’s very precocious, and now can really articulate how she feels about this stuff. And she says, “you know, it makes me feel good to see you and dad hold hands.” We forget about that, or we think that they don’t care about that. But they like the fact that they know that we love each other. … They want to know that my mother and father love each other, and if they love each other that much, they’re going to love me.
This statement illustrates a connection between the bodily language of love (holding hands) and the stability of the family unit. Michelle reframes displays of affection between her and Barack as public statements received and interpreted by onlookers, including her children. It is important to maintain intersectional discipline and acknowledge the privileges enjoyed by the Obamas. This is not just “black love.” This is black love glamorized and legitimized because the couple is straight, married, wealthy, and monoracial (assuming Barack is considered solely black). But even as Michelle Obama benefits from those elements of her social identity that bestow her with privilege, her bodily enactment, self-awareness, and public statements about intimacy shatter stereotypes and expand the range of publicly available representations of black womanhood.
–From Paint The White House Black: Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America by Michael P. Jeffries