Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)


This is not a column about Michelle Obama’s bare arms. God no. It’s not going to prattle on about her clothes and shoes either because, frankly I don’t really care what the First Lady wears.


I do, however, care about this Michelle-O-mania that’s been going on lately. While the bulk of the media are busy reporting on the public’s seething outrage over federally-funded bonuses for people who tanked their companies, there are plenty of others dissecting everything the First Lady does, wears and eats and then scrounges around trying to assign meaning and message to everything. There’s a new story almost every day about Obama, whether it’s about her visit to a Washington, D.C. school or starting a vegetable garden, meeting with soldiers and their families or about the fact that she had her official White House portrait taken while wearing a scandalously sleeveless dress. Over the past two weeks, Obama’s image was on the cover of no less than four major magazines: Vogue [1], O [2], New York [3] and the New Yorker [4]. Looking at the avalanche of attention to the minutiae of Michelle, I started to worry that the media were overanalyzing her and providing such mammoth coverage that it’d provoke a backlash, that she’d become overexposed.


Why is she receiving so much media attention? She’s sparkly and new. After eight years of a seemingly kind, but relatively quiet, wallflower-ish First Lady, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is now home to a presidential spouse whose presence appears abundantly self-confident and honest. She’s a generation younger than the previous First Lady and has young children playing on the swingset in the backyard a stone’s throw from the Oval Office. And while Hillary Clinton broke ground as a working mom when she was First Lady, Obama is a first on other fronts, chiefly as the first African-American First Lady. Looking through the recent glut of magazine stories about her, one can appreciate the awe and sense of empowerment many people feel when they see the Obama family living in the White House and Michelle Obama as the First Lady and the self-anointed “mom-in-chief.”

Take Vogue’s March issue [5] which bore the gushing headline, “Michelle Obama: The First Lady the World’s Been Waiting For” and was accompanied by images snapped by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. The magazine proclaimed that Obama was “poised to become the most transformative First Lady in history.” Not too much pressure to put on the woman, huh? “For all the sleepovers and pizza parties, will Michelle Obama be a traditional First Lady in the cookie-baking, housewife-in-chief mold?” writer Andre Leon Talley asked. “Of course not. Those days are probably over for good.” The lengthy article touched on some of Obama’s biographical milestones, discussed her wardrobe (it was Vogue after all) and said she was handling the burden of the international spotlight with aplomb. “If the great expectations weigh heavily on Michelle Obama’s shoulders, it doesn’t show,” the article said, “this is her enigma, this is her grace.”


A late March issue of New York Magazine [6] contained an intriguing Michelle-centric package examining, “The many meanings of a new American icon.” The lead article commenced with the line, “Until fairly recently, it looked like Michelle Obama was destined for the same public drubbing as Hillary Clinton, the only other First Lady to enter the White House with a law degree.” Then it proceeded to explain in how many ways Obama is different from Clinton: “Like her husband, [Obama] is a shrewd and inspiring communicator, better than any First Lady most of us can remember. And like her husband, she’s well rounded, in touch with both her maternal and professional sides.” But New York writer Jennifer Senior cautioned that it was unfair to try to fit First Ladies into one of two models: Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush. Michelle Obama, Senior added, fits neither archetype.


New York then assessed the symbolic impact Obama will have on the nation as a result of her many roles: As a wife (in a piece entitled, “Sexual Politics; How long has it been since a First Couple seemed to want each other?”), as an imperfect hostess like the rest of us, as someone who’s proud of her curvy body and as someone who was initially viewed as “militant” by critics, some of whom thought she emasculated her husband by the way she jokingly made fun of him on occasion.


In the April issue of O Magazine, Obama joined Oprah Winfrey on the cover. Inside the magazine [7] was a multi-page, wide-ranging Q&A which addressed issues ranging from transitioning to White House life, parenting, clothing, exercise, marriage and femininity in the 21st century. Oprah said to Obama: “It seems that every woman I speak to -- black, white, older, younger -- says the same thing about you: ‘She’s just like us.’ People feel an affection for you that I find so touching.” To which Obama replied, “I’ve always thought that what I owe the American people is to let them see who I am so there are no surprises. I don’t want to be anyone but Michelle Obama. And I want people to know what they’re getting.”

Lastly, the New Yorker, which last year featured the controversial and satirical cartoon image of Michelle Obama as a scary fist-bumper on its cover during the presidential campaign, chose to feature sketches of Obama on the cover of its Style issue [8], complemented by an article about Obama’s wardrobe [9], including her proclivity to go sleeveless.


But a recent Boston Globe piece -- “Michelle Obama’s right to bare arms [10]” -- objected to the media obsession with Obama’s clothing and arms, quoting a Spelman College American History professor as saying: “It’s an oversimplification of who this woman is as an intellectual, as a role model, as someone with these opinions about service, families, and the work/home balance. We’re reduced it to what her arms look like and what she’s wearing.” (This article, by the way, appeared in the Globe on the same day a New York Times [11] article cropped up in the Styles section about how YOU too can get arms like Michelle Obama.)


I initially cringed upon seeing Obama all over the media landscape, fearful that expectations would be raised too high as to what she could realistically accomplish as a living symbol to so many on a multitude of fronts, and, like the Spelman professor, that she’d be reduced to a superficial mannequin who demonstrates daily how the “new” modern mom dresses. However, after actually reading through the non-arms-related coverage, I discovered there were a plethora of insightful portraits of Obama out there -- like in O and in New York -- which were moving and inspired hope that women can start feeling more comfortable with their choices and in their own skin. Like Obama.


Lifestyle guru and Obama family friend Oprah put it well in her end-of-the-magazine column:


“She is so fully and authentically herself. Unpretentious. Smart. Engaging. Gracious. Kind. We see the best of ourselves in her and smile knowingly. She’s her best self -- regardless of what she’s wearing or doing. And watching her be her best makes us want to be better. That’s why the world is so fascinated with her.”

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