As early as January, I knew that Michelle Obama’s body
would be a radioactive site and catalyst for a public
discussion about race, class and gender.
About a month ago, I was brainstorming podcast ideas and the two
that I chose were Michelle Obama and the Black female body
and Babies Vs. Dreams.
Not more than a week later after I chose these did
Maureen Dowd write about being in a taxi with David Brooks,
who referred to Mrs. Obama’s arms as “Thunder and Lightning.”
There was an ensuing discussion on whether Michelle Obama
should cover up her arms in photographs. Dowd writes,
In the taxi, when I asked David Brooks about her amazing arms, he indicated it was time for her to cover up. ?She?s made her point,? he said. ?Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.?
I?d seen the plaint echoed elsewhere. ?Someone should tell Michelle to mix up her wardrobe and cover up from time to time,? Sandra McElwaine wrote last week on The Daily Beast.
I knew that Michell Obama’s body was going to ripe
area for dialogue because she is the first African American
woman to be treated as a symbol of fashion of beauty
who is not a singer or a movie star or athlete.
I am also not surprised by Michelle Obama’s body being
held up to public scrutiny, as Black women’s bodies
have historically, always been held up to public scrutiny.
Michelle Obama is not a set of body parts she is an
accomplished lawyer, mom and wife.
With regard to her accomplishments, I am particularly
drawn to, inspired by and would like to replicate her
work with the Chicago chapter of The Public Allies. Public Allies
is an organization that encourages young people to work on
social issues in nonprofit groups and government
agencies. In many ways Michelle Obama reminds me of a
loose embodiment of Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show.
Stylish lawyer, mom and wife.
Intuitively, I knew Michelle Obama’s body would be up for discussion
because of the history of publicly appraising the Black female
body. Historically, in the United States, the Black female body has been
on public display and subjected to public appraisal since chattel slavery.
Historically, the wealth of this nation has been tied to the health
of the Black female body. Enslaved Black female laborers picked
cotton and tobacco, cleared land and produced Black children
who were enslaved, became laborers. The healthier a woman
was, the more she worked and the more children she had who worked,
the more children she had, the wealthier the country became.
Given the history of how the African American female
body has been treated in the United States, the public
attention that she is receiving is a natural
extension of what has happened to us since we arrive here.
The discussion about her body reveals things about
us that we may not rather admit. Our discomfort about race,
the legacy of slavery and the tendency to treat women in general
and Black women specifically like objects.
She also stands out because she does not fit a White
mainstream standard of beauty or a Black mainstream standard
of beauty, for that matter.
In the Newsweek article, “What Michelle Means to Us”
Allison Samuels discusses what Michelle Obama’s brown
skin means to African American women. She writes,
Michelle is not only African-American, but brown. Real brown. In an era when beauty is often defined on television, in magazines and in movies as fair or white skin, long straight hair and keen features, Michelle looks nothing like the supermodels who rule the catwalks or the porcelain-faced actresses who hawk must-have cosmetics.
Who and what is beautiful has long been a source of pain, anger and frustration in the African-American community. In too many cases, beauty for black women (and even black men) has meant fair skin, “good hair” and dainty facial features. Over the years, African-American icons like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry and Beyonc??while beautiful and talented?haven’t exactly represented the diversity of complexions and features of most black women in this country.
That limited scope has had a profound effect on the self-esteem of many African-American women, including me. “When I see Michelle Obama on the cover of magazines and on TV shows, I think, Wow, look at her and her brown skin,” said Charisse Hollands, a 30-year-old mail carrier from Inglewood, Calif., with flawless ebony skin. “And I don’t mean any disrespect to my sisters who aren’t dark brown, but gee, it’s nice to see a brown girl get some attention and be called beautiful by the world. That just doesn’t happen a lot, and our little girls need to see that?my little girl needs to see it.”
Samuels goes on to discuss how Michelle Obama
an serve as a reminder that we can exercise,
take care of ourselves and still have fly hair. I can identify
with this. Even though my hair is natural, the steam room turns my
twists into an lopsided afro, every time. Its irritating. Samuels
discusses how Mrs. Obama exercise routine may impact
us when she writes,
A self-proclaimed fitness junkie who works out every morning, Michelle could actually encourage women of color to take better care of themselves. African-American women face alarmingly high rates of high blood pressure and obesity. And like everyone else, we have plenty of excuses for being sedentary, including the always-present fear of messing up our carefully done hair. “I look at her and think, I have two kids and she has two kids,” said my friend Tamara Rhodes, a 37-year-old public-safety officer in Long Beach, Calif. “If she can find time in the day to do her thing to look good?why can’t I? She looks good and in a way that I can see myself looking?not a size zero?but really healthy.”
There have been other articles written about Michelle Obama’s body.
Last November, Erin Aubrey Kaplan wrote “The First Lady
Got Back” for Salon. On one hand while the article was warm
and appreciative of the fact that a woman with curves
would be a first lady in The White House. The article also
struck me as salacious. I cringed at seeing the word “boo-tay“
in the same to Michelle Obama’s. The tone seemed a little
too informal given the seriousness of the topic.
Gina McCauley, a writer, lawyer and activist
who runs What About our Daughters made
it clear that she didn’t care for Kaplans article. McCauley felt
that Kaplan was enhancing her career at the expense of writing
in an exploitative way about Michelle Obama’s body.
Taking these two views into consideration, I believe that
African American women, regardless of where we fall
on the color, body or political spectrum,
the prominence of Michelle Obama has created a space for
us to talk about things that we wouldn’t normally do publicly.
This is a great thing, in light of the fact that our needs often take
the back burners to the needs of our parents, our partners, our
jobs and our children.
I say this with the understanding that there is a distinction
between Black women talking about themselves, and mainstream media
talking about us.
I am light. As my momma would say, high yellow. When
I visit Oakland in the spring or summer, I turn copper. When I mentioned
this post to a male friend he asked me, “Why does this matter to you,
you are light?” I responded, “This isn’t about me, this is about little Black
girls seeing a brown skinned Black woman, who isn’t an entertainer,
be treated in our society like she has a contribution to make.” He
While African Americans do not talk about it publicly, we
have pervasive color issues. We are not alone. Many Asian
folks, Indian folks and Caribbean folks do as well. I contend
that having color issues around beauty is one of the
consequences of being descendants of a group of
people who have been colonized. Being lighter,
especially for Black women, historically has meant having
access to resources and being perceived as being more attractive.
Being light has meant being able to assimilate into main stream
American culture more easily. Being light has meant an easier
time finding a husband.
We can’t post racialize our way out of this. The only way to change it is
to understand why it is this way, and work to correct how it plays
out in our everyday lives.
I was reminded of how loaded Michelle Obama’s body is
for some people when I visited a The Field Negro blog today
and a reader was upset over the fact that the Saturday
London Times published a picture of Michelle using a ho
to dig into the ground.
While I wasn’t offended by it, I could see how someone
felt that there was an inconsistency between the photographs
of the other prominent women featured in the photo stream.
I just wonder how healthy it is to constantly be reacting
to perceived racist portrayals. Besides, the Obama’s did
just break ground on a garden, which is what the photograph
But then again, I can understand the sensitivity.
We live in a culture African American people start speculating
about whether a child’s hair will be “good” while the baby is still
in the womb.
We live culture where Chris Rock recently made a documentary
titled, “Good Hair” after his daughter came up to him
crying, saying, “Daddy, why don’t I have good hair?”
How can we be post racial, if we don’t have a fundamental
understanding of how race works in the first place?
I also am led to wonder, whose interests are being served
by constantly repeating that we are living in a post racial society?
When it comes to Michelle Obama, we see her and our issues,
with a capital “I” get triggered. Being triggered is fine,
so long as the anger is focused and not reactive. That being
said, I am excited that we are having an open an honest
dialogue about Black women, race, gender and standards of beauty.
Blog Talk Radio Podcast:
Michelle and the Black Female Body
Sunday April 4th 6-7pm EST.
Call in. (347) 843-4723. Join us.
Do you think there is Michelle Obama and a
If not, where does the fascination with the Black
female body come from?
When will we deal with race and for that matter gender?