When it’s all said and done, Michelle Obama’s presence in the Oval Office may rival her husband’s. To me, right now, she surpasses him.
Many remember that day in 2008, when the country elevated the first son of an African man into the top seat. Emotional. Overdue. Progressive signs on the horizon. At the moment of acceptance, the newly-elected Commander-in-Chief beamed next to two brown children hand-in-hand, bookended by a tall dark-skinned woman clad in black-and-red.
Four and a half years later, Michelle LaVaughn Obama’s essence rings loud and true in its own right.
Her “Let’s Move” campaign is on a mission to bring physical education back to schools (only six states currently require P.E. in all grades). Her colorful sartorial selections — ranging from J. Crew to Jason Wu — clash with the muted-hued threads former first ladies embraced. She comfortably rocks bangs. She is seen paling around in dirt, dancing with children and shuttling her two girls back and forth.
The cameras can’t get enough of her. Or she can’t get enough of the camera, charges critics, who feel she overexposes herself unlike her first lady predecessors. She clamors for the spotlight. Her clothing is dreadful. Detractors also like to mention her butt. Shamelessly.
She sports a black sweater and skirt to Buckingham palace in 2009; fashion gurus panned her for being too casual. In 2012, she wore a $7,000 J. Mendel jacket to the same venue and was lambasted for gallivanting abroad in fancy gear while her home country is mired in economic recovery.
Unmoved, she is setting her own standards with the ease of a nonchalant heiress and the wiles of a seasoned veteran. For Black women, she couldn’t have come at a better time.
Daughter of African-American parents, her “Africanness” is stark. Cheekbones, full lips, form, demeanor, sass…all traits I recognize in my own mother. My grandmothers. In my sister. In my classmates from K-through-12 public schooling.
Consistent criticism of her posterior is a reminder of people’s discomfort with Black beauty becoming mainstream. The standard form of beauty eschews thickness in a woman. The European lens of beauty looks at anything above size 6 as plus sized (read: undesirable).
What does this do to a community of girls, women whose genetics lend them to have more weight density?
Other than dehumanizing and setting into motion a cycle of misplaced self-esteem, fruitless assimilation tactics and skewed identity, not much. If you want to play a (not so) fun game, google “beautiful women” and see how many pages it takes before a copper-skinned woman appears.
Michelle O. disrupts this pattern. She bares her arms. She shows her curves. She is fit and does nothing to downplay her Africanness. She isn’t the first celebrity/public figure to represent the qualities of the women in my family. She’s simply the most prominent.
This paean is less about Michelle, more about what Michelle represents.
Black women are intelligent, beautiful, animated and nurturing. If all one does is watch TV and movies and read bits from the Internets, this statement may sound outrageous. But the First Lady brings those traits to the forefront, a place where no Hollywood or television exec can banish to the bottom of the script pile.
While Barack has received criticism for being aloof to the Black community, his wife has escaped such glare. Her familial background is tinged with the horrors of slavery, a factor not insignificant in her undeniable Blackness. Though she lacks the burden of sitting on the hottest seat (she’s not confronted with questions about the country’s GDP and immigration laws on the daily), it is her of the power duo who pushes the cultural needle more forward.
She projects feminine growth, self-worth and style in a social climate that marginalizes the appeal of women who look like her, women who will bear the next children of our community.
For years, envisioning the First Lady waking up with a colorful head scarf on was absurdly comical. Now, this vision only brings forth a smile.