See, I’m not letting it lie.
I’m at it again. The smart thing, the peace-making thing, would be to shut up about this. I’ve already made our friends uncomfortable enough listening to my rant. But I’m really, really…irked. (To put it mildly.)
If I hear another comment about Michelle Obama’s arms (or her clothes or her style or her looks), I’m going to punch someone.
It’s not that I don’t think Michelle Obama is beautiful. She is. And it’s not that I don’t think she’s stylish. I mean, I definitely covet her wardrobe, and I’m impressed with her ability to combine off-the-rack clothes with original designs. And I’m relieved that, for a change, the woman we’re all up in a tizzy about it is a real woman, not some airbrushed-eating disordered-plastic surgeried bionic Barbie. If this is our new model of feminine beauty–poised, athletic, curvy, confident, elegant, tasteful, unashamed–I’ll take it.
You see, it’s not that I don’t think Michelle Obama is beautiful. No, that’s not it at all. It’s that she should be more than that. Michelle Obama is more than her arms and her dresses and her style and her looks. She is a freaking brilliant woman! Two Ivy League degrees–with a thoughtful senior thesis and a bar exam under her belt. Years of practice at a top law firm. A second career as a vice-president of the University of Chicago hospitals doing community outreach. She is a thinker and a scholar and a leader and an activist in her own right. But do we talk about that? Nope. Do we pay any attention at all to Michelle Obama as more than a well-sculpted dress-up doll? Nope. And that really, really, really enrages me. Despite all the campaign rhetoric around the death of sexism with Hillary’s near-candidacy, around Michelle Obama, we watch it rear its insidious head.
Now, when I say this to people, a really angry conversation ensues (anger on my part, not theirs). For example, the other night after bowling (yep–we’re on a bowling league…we are living in Wisconsin), the boys got a few pints in them, and somehow they got on the topic of Michelle Obama’s arms. One of our friends was laughing that even his wife had to admit that they were hot and sculpted instead of simply scowling jealously. And so I said:
If I hear one more comment about Michelle Obama’s arms I’m going to punch someone.
And then I gave my above rehearsed speech. And got responses like this:
But she’s hot because she’s smart. If she doesn’t want people to look at her arms, why’d she wear a sleeveless dress? If she doesn’t want people to look at her arms, why does she obviously work so hard on them? You don’t see Barack Obama parading around with his sleeves rolled up…in March. Don’t you think she’s asking for all this attention, the way she parades around in those designer dresses? (And a quiet little, Who said sexism is dead?) I could go on.
Now, keep in mind that these were all men. The other woman at our table just sat watching me turn into Medusa, snakes reeling and hissing and snarling out of my head. Before it devolved into me storming out of the bar on dear Fresh (I mean, we were late for our late-night soccer game), I tried to respond to the inanity of their comments: I don’t doubt that part of what makes Michelle Obama “hot” is her intelligence, but still–she is more than a beautiful woman, and the fact that this is all our nation sees her as reminds me of how close to 1950 we still are. And as for her ‘asking’ for this one-dimensional national portrayal, women are allowed to be fit and to take pride in their appearance…without that becoming their entire identity. It’s like there are still only two roles that a woman can be: the butch-smart one (Hillary) or the hot one (Michelle). (Remember Condoleeza? When she went from being asexual to the f* me boots–the media wouldn’t shut up about it!) And the comparison to Barack, well, it’s absurd! Men are not sexualized and objectified publicly in the same way. Even if he did roll up his shirt sleeves, it is not at all analogous. He wouldn’t be ogled in the same way. And this whole idea of Michelle “asking for it”…By being beautiful, by taking pride in her appearance and her health, she is asking to be objectified and sexualized in the one-dimensional way we’ve been doing? That language and that logic smacks to me of when people say that a woman was “asking for” a sexual assault because of what she wore. It’s a slippery slope, my friends.
When do women get to be beautiful and fit and smart and poised and leaders? When do we get to be the multi-dimensional people that we really are? (And when does a Black woman get to be a multi-dimensional, real person?) When do we get to be more than eye candy?
So that’s what I should’ve let lie. But I didn’t. And just like I scared the bejeezus out of our relatively new friends that night (who, I think, were convinced that Fresh and I were getting a divorce the next morning…ha! They clearly don’t know the joys of living with someone you frequently disagree with politically), I’ve probably ticked some of you, dear readers and friends, off. Part of me wants to apologize. And part of me says, heck no! If I’ve ticked you off, so be it.
But since that rant, I’ve still been mulling over Michelle Obama’s arms and her portrayal in the media. (In part becuase I’ve had to recount the bowling night story multiple times. And I’ve been trying to figure out whether to let our relatively new friends know that wasn’t a real fight.) And since my continued mulling, I’ve come to realize that it’s even more complicated than this.
As Fresh pointed out that night on the way to soccer as he tried to make peace, since the campaign she hasn’t exactly been putting herself out there as more than Barack’s fashion plate wife and doting mother. And that made me think about two things. On the one hand, look what happened when she did–she was slammed by the media and instantly typecast as the Angry Black Woman. Is her current role in part a response to that? Has she retreated into some kind of Barbie doll safe zone? Where it’s easier to be objectified than typecast? On the other hand, this could be (oh heck, it undoubtedly is) a very conscious political choice. During the campaign, she and Barack talked a lot about wanting America to see that they were a normal family (with the subtext being we are a normal Black family). How often does the media portray prototypical nuclear African American families, where Dad is the breadwinner and Mom stays at home? (Even in the Cosby show, Mama Cosby worked full time.) How often does the media show African-American families that speak back to the stereotypes of the dysfunctional and broken home, of the emasculating woman, of the authoritarian household, of poverty? For millions of African American children (girls) out there, how often do they get to see that 1950s ideal as something they are allowed to choose? The ability to be a stay-at-home mom can be construed as the ultimate bastion of White privilege. The Obamas are conscious and crafted stereotype busters. Maybe Michelle Obama hasn’t been putting herself out there as the brilliant leader and woman she is in part because she’s trying to be a different kind of role model.
Maybe the fury over Michelle Obama’s arms is the price we have to pay for a different kind of progress
One step forward, one step back?
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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