SEVERE WX : Dense Fog Advisory View Alerts

The secret to Michelle Obama's 'most admired' status

Polls now confirm it! Michelle Obama is the country's ...

Posted: Jan 2, 2019 5:37 AM
Updated: Jan 2, 2019 5:37 AM

Polls now confirm it! Michelle Obama is the country's most admired woman. This recognition is about much more than looks, but they play a part.

In her record-setting memoir "Becoming," Mrs. Obama confesses to having been initially frustrated by the public's interest in her appearance as first lady. "It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say," she explains. Over time, she found ways to make an asset of what she calls the "hawkeyed attention paid to my image."

Michelle Obama

Political Figures - US

African Americans

Beauty and personal care

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Demographic groups

Females (demographic group)

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Minority and ethnic groups

Politics

Population and demographics

Society

US federal government

White House

The decisions Michelle Obama made in creating her public persona reveal how carefully she had to navigate a cultural landscape determined to confine women, especially women of color. Her facility for navigating racism and sexism has always drawn admiration from some Americans, especially black women, because their experiences at school, work and other realms have required the same of them.

Now, a larger swath of Americans has recently joined in this admiration. Perhaps witnessing the ascendency of Donald Trump's first family has led even the most skeptical to conclude that the "polarization" attributed to the Obamas always said more about the public than about them.

Mrs. Obama constructed her public image through such things as gardening and a commitment to military families and education, but because her time in the White House was also shaped by the public's interest in her looks, it was her hair choices that proved especially telling. And its importance cannot be underestimated.

As noted in "Becoming," FLOTUS is "not technically a job, nor is it an official government title." Nevertheless, the nation expects a first lady to represent American womanhood and inspire all women to identify with her. Because Mrs. Obama always wore her hair straightened and in a medium-length bob while in the White House, women of all backgrounds could ask their stylists to approximate the look, which was not particularly elaborate.

If Mrs. Obama's hair had been kinky or coily -- terms used to describe the unstraightened hair texture of African- Americans -- or if it had been braided or locked, women of other racial or ethnic backgrounds may not have easily aspired to and achieved her style. One black woman -- even if she was the first lady -- was not going to spark a trend of white women requesting super-tight curly perms.

Given Western beauty standards, it was much more expedient for Mrs. Obama to wear her hair straight and therefore avoid having the majority of non-black women hesitate to consider whether they could achieve the first lady's look.

And even more than the question of achievability, was the question of acceptance. Many Americans would simply not be welcoming to natural hair in the White House. After all, in 2016 a federal court essentially ruled that approximating white people's hair makes one more qualified for jobs. The message that straight hair makes one "professional" and "appropriate" is constantly sent to black women and girls.

What would have happened if Michelle Obama had decided to wear an "ethnic" style? Americans did not find out. Mainstream standards are too rigid to be tested by a woman whose job is to be accepted as a representative of US womanhood.

And, make no mistake, representing American womanhood meant that she was held to standards that created a no-win situation. Some feminist critics insisted that focusing on Mrs. Obama's beauty and fashion choices was trivial, but this was easy to say because she made the "right" choices.

If Michelle Obama had worn dreadlocks or even a modest afro, her hair would have likely suddenly ceased to be a trivial topic among these purportedly progressive critics. I dare say it may have become a national security concern, because when black women don't seem to be trying to meet mainstream standards of beauty, they are sometimes assumed to be resisting "the American way."

In other words, it would have somehow confirmed the fears that cartoonist Barry Blitt caricatured for the cover of The New Yorker in July 2008, which showed Mrs. Obama with an afro and wearing combat gear, fist-bumping her husband beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden.

Even while encouraging non-black women to identify with her, Michelle Obama's public persona also accounted for the messages black women received. Though she did not have dreadlocks or wear her hair in twists or braids, there was always the possibility that her hair was "natural," or free of chemical straightening -- known as a relaxer.

Indeed, whether FLOTUS had a relaxer or not seemed to be a guarded secret. Since stepping into the public eye as her hair stylist in 2008, Johnny Wright did not answer questions about whether her hair was chemically processed. This began changing in 2014. Wright finally confirmed that Mrs. Obama hasn't chemically relaxed her hair since 2009, but this was only after a photo of Mrs. Obama wearing her natural hair went viral in 2017. The Internet, especially women of color, rejoiced while also noting that it made sense that she had not appeared this way in public as first lady.

By straightening her hair while occupying the White House, but also leaving open the possibility that it was natural, Mrs. Obama affirmed both black women who wear their hair straight and those who do not.

Since the "black is beautiful" movement of the 1960s, natural hair has been associated with self-love and self-esteem. Even while complying with what most Americans (and American courts) consider "professional" and "appropriate," Mrs. Obama avoided tampering with the idea that natural hair, for many black women, is the more loving choice.

As FLOTUS, Mrs. Obama's public persona demonstrated awareness that she was not free to go natural (conspicuously) but also that she was not willing to capitulate completely. The particular secret she kept created more flexibility for other black women, not less.

This is important because a prominent African-American woman's choices are so easily used against ordinary black women in their everyday lives. By keeping space open for black women, Michelle Obama's public persona demonstrated that she found them relevant. Black women mattered to this first lady.

Now that she's out of the White House, she can fully embrace her status as an extraordinary woman. As she continues to promote public health, for example, she is no longer Mom-in-Chief doing so, but a former medical center executive.

Likewise, as the shimmering, golden Balenciaga boots she wore to a recent appearance in Brooklyn attest, she need not shy away from glamor by foregrounding her appreciation of the middle-class, attainable fashion of J. Crew and White House Black Market. I don't think we'll ever see that modest bob again.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 132412

Reported Deaths: 1799
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah28237458
Washington18512171
Marion16085238
Clackamas11577138
Lane8219108
Jackson686284
Umatilla670968
Deschutes490736
Yamhill316245
Malheur312452
Linn310246
Klamath242238
Polk241340
Josephine170633
Jefferson168725
Benton168414
Douglas166643
Union110416
Wasco106323
Columbia103318
Lincoln98517
Hood River94821
Coos93315
Morrow92710
Clatsop6695
Crook60410
Baker5665
Tillamook3622
Curry3185
Lake2295
Grant2131
Harney1734
Wallowa963
Gilliam481
Sherman470
Wheeler201
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 2955323

Reported Deaths: 33342
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles100392313741
San Bernardino2482851560
Riverside2352352517
San Diego2098972065
Orange2093652320
Santa Clara914661060
Kern83547558
Sacramento802791080
Fresno79950932
Alameda65679757
Ventura59061412
San Joaquin56484748
Contra Costa50627430
Stanislaus41925739
Tulare40176501
Monterey34959249
San Mateo31291294
San Francisco28574254
Imperial24944463
Solano24654105
Santa Barbara23538228
Merced23492296
Sonoma23204234
Kings18661110
Placer16761173
San Luis Obispo15129128
Madera12883130
Santa Cruz11776113
Marin11345153
Yolo10240131
Shasta9594117
Butte9233121
El Dorado751544
Sutter748477
Napa723139
Lassen509413
San Benito485043
Yuba481827
Tehama397142
Tuolumne330438
Nevada309973
Mendocino307631
Amador295329
Lake243428
Humboldt226324
Glenn182419
Colusa16919
Calaveras153823
Siskiyou140813
Mono10834
Inyo92429
Del Norte8472
Plumas5735
Modoc3783
Mariposa3434
Trinity3024
Alpine730
Sierra700
Unassigned00
Medford
Cloudy
40° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 40°
Brookings
Partly Cloudy
60° wxIcon
Hi: 61° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 60°
Medford
Partly Cloudy
40° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 40°
Medford
Cloudy
40° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 40°
Klamath Falls
Clear
28° wxIcon
Hi: 44° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 28°
Clearing tonight, brighter tomorrow
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events

Latest Video

Image

Oregon State falls to No. 11 Arizona on the road, 67-51

Image

Weinermobile Story

Image

Car thief returns to scold mother

Image

MLK Day Virtual Event

Image

Jackson County reports 30 new cases

Image

Sunday, January 17th Evening Weather

Image

A block 12/24 part two

Image

Medford School District Plans for the Future of the COVID-19 Vaccine

Image

Astronomers discover "Super Earth"

Image

Super Planet discovered in Milkway Galaxy